'Black Death pit' unearthed by Crossrail project

Black death pit detail and map

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Excavations for London's Crossrail project have unearthed bodies believed to date from the time of the Black Death.

A burial ground was known to be in an area outside the City of London, but its exact location remained a mystery.

Thirteen bodies have been found so far in the 5.5m-wide shaft at the edge of Charterhouse Square, alongside pottery dated to the mid-14th Century.

Analysis will shed light on the plague and the Londoners of the day.

DNA taken from the skeletons may also help chart the development and spread of the bacterium that caused the plague that became known as the Black Death.

Charterhouse Square lies in an area that was once outside the walls of London, referred to at the time as "No-man's Land".

1658 map of London By 1658, the area around Charterhouse Square (centre) had escaped its status as "no-man's land"

The skeletons' arrangement in two neat rows suggests they date from the earliest era of the Black Death, before it fully developed into the pandemic that in later years saw bodies dumped haphazardly into mass graves.

Archaeologists working for Crossrail and the Museum of London will continue to dig in a bid to discover further remains, or any finds from earlier eras.

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

Because of the project's underground scope, significant research was undertaken into the archaeology likely to be found during the course of the construction.

Footage shows osteologists lowered into the pit, and some of its finds

Taken together, the project's 40 sites comprise one of the UK's largest archaeological ventures.

Teams have already discovered skeletons near Liverpool Street, a Bronze-Age transport route, and an array of other finds, including the largest piece of amber ever found in the UK.

"We've found archaeology from pretty much all periods - from the very ancient prehistoric right up to a 20th-Century industrial site, but this site is probably the most important medieval site we've got," said Jay Carver, project archaeologist for Crossrail.

"This is one of the most significant discoveries - quite small in extent but highly significant because of its data and what is represented in the shaft," he told BBC News.

The find is providing more than just a precise location for the long-lost burial ground, said Nick Elsden, project manager from the Museum of London Archaeology, which is working with Crossrail on its sites.

"We've got a snapshot of the population from the 14th Century - we'll look for signs that they'd done a lot of heavy, hard work, which will show on the bones, and general things about their health and their physique," he added.

Body found in Charterhouse St excavations DNA can be extracted from the teeth, which tend to better preserve it

"That tells us something about the population at the time - about them as individual people, as well as being victims of the Black Death."

In addition, the bodies may contain DNA from the bacteria responsible for the plague - from an early stage in the pandemic - helping modern epidemiologists track the development and spread of differing strains of a pathogen that still exists today.

"It's fantastic. Personally, as an archaeologist, finding good-quality archaeological data which is intact that hasn't been messed around by previous construction is always a great opportunity for new research information - that's why we do the job," said Mr Carver.

"Every hole we're digging is contributing info to London archaeologists, who are constantly piecing together and synthesising the information we've got for London as a whole - it's providing information to slot into that study of London and its history."

Crossrail map

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  • rate this

    Comment number 180.

    177.Steve M - I have worked on such a site, and here I am, alive and kicking! The disease is long dead. However, if the pit contained anthrax or smallpox, it would be a different story.

  • rate this

    Comment number 179.

    # 105's comments are on the money but there is a caveat. Places of sepulcher are in need of protections beyond what is currently on the law books. Sometimes progress has to take a back seat to the past so you can remain who you are in the present. Otherwise, you start to regress in your thinking and become worse (morals, mores', disregarding and cease to venerate your heritage) all for profit.

  • rate this

    Comment number 178.

    Amazing to think how centuries of building have raised the ground level since Roman times. The remnants of all these lives are layered beneath our feet.

    I find it poignant when fragments of what is long gone are brought to our attention. I like to grumble (often on here), but what must there lives have been like?

  • rate this

    Comment number 177.

    Is there absolutely no chance that germs / enzymes from the Black Death era still exist around the bodies? Would you, dear reader, be willing to work on an excavation of this grave site? I don't think I would.

  • rate this

    Comment number 176.

    . . . What else is down there...? . . .

    Quatermass and the Pit? . . . . .

  • rate this

    Comment number 175.

    @152 Not true, construction doesn't necessarily mean modern construction. When you've got medieval houses built over a Roman cemetery, which in turn is across a bronze age boundary and all that has been build on in Georgian times for a town house, then construction has indeed messed things up long before the "archaeologists" of the 18th and 19th centuries decided to have a rummage.

  • rate this

    Comment number 174.

    I remember being wonderfully terrified as a young boy by Quatermass and the Pit on the BBC. Be very careful down there.... very careful indeed......

  • rate this

    Comment number 173.

    LOL the last of the indigenous Landan folk

  • rate this

    Comment number 172.

    I hear they are bringing in Casey Bones as an adviser.

  • rate this

    Comment number 171.

    Remember that Moses took a disease that had become rare in Egypt, so much that their own best thinkers had forgotten what it was and how to stop it, and used that to demand freedom for the Jews. He encountered this as he tended cattle after he fled the city. It was anthrax. We don't want the same again. We have to understand the old diseases to understand their current forms and how they mutate.

  • rate this

    Comment number 170.

    #169 Maybe they will now. The fact I didn't apparently get your double meaning is probably a compliment to my character.

    167. Bruxical
    We could do with a new plague. I might be able to get a job then.
    Yup... digging big holes in the ground.

  • rate this

    Comment number 169.


    #163 Bubonic plague is still endemic in asia. The fact it kills so few even in third world nations with little medicine is an argument for it either not being the cause of plague at all, or that the 1400s strain was nastier than current version, or that modern man has evolved resistance.


    Obviously neither you or the moderators got the meaning of my post. LOL

  • rate this

    Comment number 168.

    James Wakefield
    "We might moan about the NHS, but the 14th century kind of puts it into perspective."

    When the NHS is finally leeched to the private sector the majority will have first-hand experience of 14th C. conditions.

  • rate this

    Comment number 167.

    We could do with a new plague. I might be able to get a job then.

  • rate this

    Comment number 166.

    #151 the bottom layer of dead were 2.5M down. The top layer could be 30cm deep. Pretty horrible.

    #163 Bubonic plague is still endemic in asia. The fact it kills so few even in third world nations with little medicine is an argument for it either not being the cause of plague at all, or that the 1400s strain was nastier than current version, or that modern man has evolved resistance (see #159)

  • rate this

    Comment number 165.

    And you wonder why those of us clever enough not to vote labour laugh at you.
    So how is voting for labour working out for you?

  • rate this

    Comment number 164.

    @161 scirop

    What on Earth are you on about? This is about the excavation of the Black Death victims in a pit and the info they can provide from that period, which is cool, and could have interesting medical research benefits! Are you serious about bring the partisan political nonsense here or are you just doing a satirical typical HYS post? I can't tell these days.

  • rate this

    Comment number 163.

    The Black Death? Surely it's still around!

  • rate this

    Comment number 162.

    To Cloud-Cuckoo (#72): Don't worry, the bubonic plague is still present today, and still claims a few dozen lives around the world each year. (True!) So when scientists say they want to study the DNA of the plague bacillus from the 14th century, they just want to compare it to the plague DNA as it exists today. But they won't be reintroducing anything that isn't already around!

  • rate this

    Comment number 161.

    Labourites - not having any real basis for debate have reverted to blaming Tories for this.

    If you don't believe me.... read the posts below.

    And you wonder why those of us clever enough not to vote labour laugh at you.


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