Excavators for London’s new Crossrail line have stumbled upon what appears to be a mass grave for victims of the Great Plague.
30 skeletons were found on the Bedlam burial ground near a headstone marked 1665—the year the last plague struck London. The bodies appear to have been buried on the same day, lending weight to the notion that something killed them all at once—but oddly the bodies were placed in thin wooden coffins, unlike most mass burials.
“They were stacked up, some even on their side, some orientated north-south to try and squeeze as many as possible in,” said Jay Carver, lead archeologist for the Crossrail project. (West-to-east was the customary orientation at the time.)
This unusual find has many scientists are excited, especially because it might yield answers they long have searched for.
“This mass burial, so different to the other individual burials found in the Bedlam cemetery, is very likely a reaction to a catastrophic event,” said Carver. “Only closer analysis will tell if this is a plague pit from the Great Plague in 1665, but we hope this gruesome but exciting find will tell us more about one of London’s most notorious killers.”
This find is of special importance as genetic identity of the plague bacterium itself is a major mystery.
“The particular question is, what was responsible? Actually what pathogen, what bacteria formed the Great Plague outbreak in the 17th century?” asked Carver.
“It doesn’t seem to come back, so something changed in the way people were living. People say the Great Fire of London in 1666 had something to do with the ending of Great Plague events, but through the scientific studies we can do these days on DNA from samples of these skeletons, we might be able to tell what pathogen is responsible for that outbreak and perhaps why it stopped.”
Pictured is some of the crew working on the Crossrail Line who discovered the grave. (Credit:BBC)