New research reveals secrets of Crossrail's Black Death skeletons

New research reveals secrets of Crossrail's Black Death skeletons

MOLA team
30.03.2014

Extensive scientific testing carried out on Crossrail skeletons reveal new insight into London’s Black Death victims and offer new potential for the study of deadly diseases. Discovered at Charterhouse Square in London, the burials were revealed in March 2013 by MOLA archaeologists during archaeological investigation for Crossrail, the largest construction programme in Europe.

The Black Death spread across Europe, devastating populations and eventually reaching London in the winter of 1348. Historical documents and initial dating evidence from pottery suggested the 25 individuals were buried in a known but never before exposed Black Death emergency burial ground, set up to inter the vast numbers of people wiped out by the highly contagious disease.

Since the initial discovery, tooth samples extracted from the skeletons have been sent to specialist laboratories to examine the ancient DNA, undertake isotopic analysis and determine their age through radiocarbon dating.

Ancient DNA testing revealed the individuals were exposed to the plague-causing bacteria, Yersinia pestis. This is only the second time the Yersinia pestis pathogen has been identified archaeologically and allows microbiologists to better understand the Black Death by sequencing the genome. This will not only help us to understand the history and evolution of the disease, it will aid in the fight against emerging and re-emerging pathogens.

Radiocarbon dating confirmed that a large number of the people laid to rest were buried at the time of the Black Death. Interestingly, it also revealed that some of the dead were buried as late as the 15th century, demonstrating that the devastation of the Black Death was not confined to the initial event. In fact the disease repeatedly struck the population of London.

Analysis of the skeletons by MOLA osteologists has revealed more about the demographic of the people buried and the diseases and injuries they suffered in their lifetimes.

The Crossrail Charterhouse burials feature in a Channel 4 documentary, Return of the Black Death, 8pm Sunday 6 April, as part of their Secret History series. MOLA Senior Human Osteologist, Don Walker, presents MOLA’s findings in the documentary.

For more information about the Crossrail excavation please contact pressoffice@crossrail.co.uk.

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