Archaeologists find cow skull from plague, human burials and children's cups beneath London mosque site

By Ben Miller Published: 15 April 2015

Cow skull burial could have come during troubled times for livestock and farmers in 18th century capital

A photo of a woman looking at a cow's skull against darkness
The skull of an 18th century female longhorn cow has gone on show at the Museum of London© Museum of London
The skull of a female longhorn could have been one of three cow burials symbolising a government battle against cattle plague in 18th century London, say archaeologists who have put the huge artefact on display alongside pots found with the remains of two Roman residents and cups belonging to children in the city more than 150 years ago.

Known as Rinderpest, the plague stalked the dairies and livestock markets of 18th century London. Excavators from the Museum of London found the skull in Dickens Square during work to improve the Baitul Aziz Mosque.

“It was a nasty disease, spread from cow to cow,” says Caroline McDonald, the Senior Curator of Prehistory and Roman at the museum.

“90% would die within 12 days of catching it. The government tried to beat it.

A photo of a woman in white gloves taking a careful look at a large dark pot
A pot suggests a further burial at Dickens Square© Museum of London
“They restricted the movement of cattle and paid owners to kill infected animals but it barely covered half their cost. At Smithfield Market, livestock sales plummeted.

“Rinderpest broke out many times in 18th century England. It was a virus passed between cows through their breath.

“The disease remained active across the globe until June 2011, when the United Nations confirmed that it had been beaten.

This makes it only the second disease in history, after smallpox, to be fully wiped out.”

The remains of a five-year-old and a young man who had been carried to his cemetery in a coffin made from recycled river barge oak were also discovered.

“It is only the third wooden Roman coffin found in London,” observes McDonald.

“1,800 years ago a community of Roman Londoners buried and remembered their loved ones in the earth beneath Dickens Square.

A photo of a woman wearing white gloves looking at a small cracked white cup
A trifle for Richard© Museum of London
“Nearby, the cremated remains of others were laid safely in the ground. And a pot that suggests there had been another burial here.”

Previously known as 21 Union Square, the grounds revealed a set of four children’s cups in an old well, buried as part of a hoard of family memories.

“One says ‘A trifle for Richard’,” says McDonald, who believes the cup belonged to Richard Greenfield, the fourth child of a grocer’s wife, born in 1847.

“His mother died when he was five years old and he was nine when the family left number 21 Union Square, owing rent.

“The cup was left behind to be smashed along with other family memories. It offers a small glimpse into the early life of Richard and his brother and sisters.”

The objects are among the first to go on show in a new display space, Looking for Londoners, made for a revolving display of exhibits telling stories about the evolution of London and its people.

  • You can see the exhibits at the Museum of London's Looking for Londoners space.

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A photo of a woman in white gloves taking a careful look at cracked bits of pottery
© Museum of London
A photo of cracked bits of pottery spread across a table in different colours
© Museum of London
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