London Crossrail Project Unearths History Of Black Death
March 31, 2014

London Crossrail Project Unearths History Of Black Death

Lawrence LeBlond for - Your Universe Online

A forensic analysis of teeth taken from 660-year-old skeletons recently dug up during London’s Crossrail project excavations reveal that the corpses were the victims from the great Black Death pandemic of the 14th century.

The skeletal teeth contain DNA from the plague bacterium Yersinia pestis and were dated to 1348-50. According to historical records, thousands of Londoners perished during these years and were dumped in a mass grave outside the city, but the exact location had remained a mystery. The new findings suggest that grave is located under Charterhouse Square near the Barbican.

Jay Carver, an archaeologist working for Crossrail, says these skeletons solve a centuries’ old mystery.

"This discovery is a hugely important step forward in documenting and understanding Europe's most devastating pandemic," he told the BBC’s James Morgan. "Further excavations will follow to see if - as we expect - we are coming across a much bigger mass burial trench."

Often referred to as the “Great Pestilence” or “Black Death,” the bubonic plague swept westward across Europe killing millions of people between 1347 and 1351. After arriving in Britain in 1348, it was believed to have wiped out about 60 percent of the population there.

"Historical sources told us that thousands of burials of Black Death victims were made in the 14th Century in the area that is now modern day Farringdon, but until Crossrail’s discovery, archaeologists had been unable to confirm the story. Ancient DNA work is complex and still in development but the results do confirm the presence of the deadly plague bacterium preserved in the teeth," said Carver in a Crossrail report by Krista Eleftheriou.

“What’s really exciting is the bringing together many different lines of evidence to create a picture of such a devastating world event as the Black Death. Historians, archaeologists, micro-biologists, and physicists are all working together to chart the origins and development of one of the world’s worst endemic diseases and help today’s researchers in ancient and modern diseases better understand the evolution of these bacteria," he added.

A grave containing 25 skeletons was uncovered in March 2013 over a 5.5-mile-wide shaft alongside pottery dated to the mid-14th century. Samples from 12 of the skeletons were taken for forensic testing. In four of the cases, the scientists found traces of the Y. pestis DNA, confirming contact with plague prior to death.

Then, to pinpoint the exact plague the victims were subject to, the team conducted radio carbon dating. The dating revealed two distinct periods – the earliest within the Black Death of 1348-50, followed by a later outbreak in the 1430s.

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

Along with the findings, Walker took time to outline the biography of one of the male victims whose skeletal remains were found under London’s Charterhouse Square.

“He was breast-fed as a baby, moved to London from another part of England, had bad tooth decay in childhood, grew up to work as a laborer, and died in early adulthood from the bubonic plague that ravaged Europe in the 14th century,” Walker explained, as cited by Huffington Post’s Jill Lawless.

“The poor man's life was nasty, brutish and short, but his afterlife is long and illuminating.”

"It's fantastic we can look in such detail at an individual who died 600 years ago," Walker said. "It's incredible, really."

A deeper analysis of the skeletons’ bones and teeth revealed that many appeared to suffer from malnutrition and some had rickets. The analyses also uncovered signs of back damage, indicating heavy manual labor. The skeletons from the later period had a high rate of upper body damage consistent with violent altercations. 13 of the skeletons were male, three were female and two were children; gender could not be determined in seven of the victims.

The researchers also determined that 40 percent of the victims grew up outside of London, possibly as far away as Scotland – suggesting that London was a popular destination for people all across Britain just as it is today.

"We can see from the people here that Londoners weren't living an easy life,” noted Carver. "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."

The researchers hope that by sequencing the ancient bacterial DNA, they can better understand how the plague evolved and spread over the centuries and possibly determine if the 14th century strain was the common ancestor of all plague that exists now.

Today, the plague still kills about 2,000 people annually around the world. Antibiotics are available, but if left untreated it kills its victims within four days.

The new information could help scientists “understand how the plague bacillus — and other nasty bugs — become so virulent to humans,” Brendan Wren, a professor of molecular biology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said in an interview with HuffPost. "It is useful information that could warn and avert potential epidemics and pandemics."

Archaeologists are planning a new dig this summer to see just how many bodies lie under the square. The current estimate is on the order of “low thousands,” noted Carver.

Image Below: One of the Crossrail "Black Death" skeletons unearthed at Charterhouse Square. Credit: Crossrail/Robby Whitfield