Black Death skeletons unearthed by Crossrail project

Skeleton The plague victims' bones reveal clues to their harsh lives in medieval London

Related Stories

Skeletons unearthed in London Crossrail excavations are Black Death victims from the great pandemic of the 14th Century, forensic tests indicate.

Their teeth contain DNA from the plague bacterium Yersinia pestis and their graves have been dated to 1348-50.

Records say thousands of Londoners perished and their corpses were dumped in a mass grave outside the City, but its exact location was a mystery.

Start Quote

This discovery solves a 660-year-old mystery. It's a hugely important step forward”

End Quote Jay Carver Lead archaeologist, Crossrail

Archaeologists now believe it is under Charterhouse Square near the Barbican.

They plan to expand their search for victims across the square - guided by underground radar scans, which have picked up signs of many more graves.

Crossrail's lead archaeologist Jay Carver says the find "solves a 660-year-old mystery".

"This discovery is a hugely important step forward in documenting and understanding Europe's most devastating pandemic," he said.

"Further excavations will follow to see if - as we expect - we are coming across a much bigger mass burial trench."

The teeth of the skeletons contain plague bacterial DNA

Between 1347 and 1351 the "Great Pestilence" swept westward across Europe killing millions of people. It later became known as the Black Death.

The plague

  • The plague is one of the oldest identifiable diseases known to man
  • Plague is spread from one rodent to another by fleas, and to humans either by the bite of infected fleas or when handling infected hosts
  • Recent outbreaks have shown that plague may reappear in areas that have long been free of the disease
  • Plague can be treated with antibiotics such as streptomycin and tetracycline
  • Source: World Health Organization

It arrived on Britain's shores in 1348 and is believed to have wiped out up to 60% of the population at the time.

In London, two emergency burial grounds were dug outside the walls of the City. One has been found at East Smithfield, while the other is known to lie somewhere in Farringdon.

In March 2013, Crossrail engineers uncovered 25 skeletons in a 5.5m-wide shaft - alongside pottery dated to the mid-14th Century.

Samples from 12 of the corpses were taken for forensic analysis. In at least four cases, scientists found traces of the DNA of the Yersinia pestis, confirming they had contact with the plague prior to their death.

To pinpoint which historical plague outbreak the "Charterhouse 25" could have fallen victim to, the researchers used radio carbon dating.

They determined the burial ground was used in at least two distinct periods - the earliest within the Black Death in 1348-50, followed by a later outbreak in the 1430s.

Crossrail excavations at Charterhouse Square The bodies were found in a Crossrail shaft

In a bid to understand just how far the grave extends across the square, Crossrail approached the University of Keele to undertake a forensic geophysics survey - using ground-penetrating radar.

The initial scan detected signs of further burials across Charterhouse Square and also the foundations of a building - possibly a chapel.

Teeth Traces of plague bacteria were found in the teeth of the skeletons

"We will undertake further excavations in Charterhouse Square later this year to confirm some of the results," said Mr Carver.

The skeletons provide a rare opportunity to study the medieval population of London, according to osteologist Don Walker, of the Museum of London Archaeology.

He said: "We can start to answer questions like: where did they come from and what were their lives like?

"I'm amazed how much you can learn about a person who died more than 600 years ago."

Analysis of the skeletons' bones and teeth indicates that:

  • Many of the skeletons appear to suffer signs of malnutrition and 16% had rickets.
  • There is a high rate of back damage and strain indicating heavy manual labour.
  • The later skeletons from the 1400s had a high rate of upper body injury consistent with being involved in violent altercations.
  • 13 of the skeletons were male, three female, two children, the gender was undetermined in the other seven skeletons.
  • 40% grew up outside London, possibly as far north as Scotland - showing that 14th Century London attracted people from across Britain just as it does today.

Mr Carver said: "We can see from the people here that Londoners weren't living an easy life.

"The combination of a poor diet and generally a struggle means they were very susceptible to the plague at that time and that's possibly one of the explanations for why the Black Death was so devastating."

Jay Carver Archaeologist Jay Carver hopes to explore more of the burial site

By sequencing the ancient bacterial DNA, researchers hope to understand how the plague has evolved and spread over the centuries.

Globally the infection still kills 2,000 people a year, including countries like Madagascar. Antibiotics are available, but if untreated the disease kills within four days.

Scientists hope to confirm whether the 14th Century strain was the grandmother of all plague that exists today.

The £14.8bn Crossrail project aims to establish a 118km-long (73-mile) rail link with 37 stations across London, and is due to open in 2018.

The excavations have already unearthed Roman skulls washed down a lost river, a Bronze-Age transport route, and the largest piece of amber ever found in the UK.

The latest announcement comes ahead of a Channel 4 documentary, Return of the Black Death: Secret History, on 6 April, which follows the Charterhouse Square discovery.

Crossrail map

More on This Story

Related Stories

More Science & Environment stories

RSS

Features & Analysis

BBC Future

Manmade islands require redrawn maps (Getty Images)

The last unmapped places

Uncharted regions closer than you think Read more...

Programmes

  • All-inclusive holidaysThe Travel Show Watch

    With all-inclusive holidays seeing a resurgence are local trades missing out to big resorts?

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.