'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 295.

    You guys don't know as much about the Black Death as you think. There has been new research on what happened, and there are more questions than answers. Grade school field trips of these sites must be interesting but grade school science does not fully explain what we DO NOT know about all of the diseases that were operating at this time. A medical specialist would urge better infection control.

  • rate this

    Comment number 294.

    If only those old bones could talk, it'd be amazing what they'd tell us about medieval Britain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 249.

    There's so much uninformed panic in this comment thread. Finding a plague burial ground won't release the Plague into the atmosphere and kill us all - anyone who thinks it will has been watching too much TV.

    This is a valuable find that can inform us about how people lived and died in the past, and if traces of the plague can be found it can be used to make medical advances.

  • 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 105.

    Such developments will always unearth things such as this. We can't shelve progress as a result. However, we should treat human remains with respect and re bury them properly. In addition, we should give time to recovering artefacts and properly mapping finds for future generations.

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    Does anyone else think re-creating the DNA of the Black Death organism might not be such a clever idea?

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    It's an amazing opportunity to delve into London's history and top marks to all concerned for taking advantage of it.

    The Black Death is a particularly fascinating period and the opportunity to chart its epidemology is one not to be missed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Amazing that they have found so much along the Crossrail route, which is really just a small section of subterranean London. What else is down there...?


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