Black Death skeletons unearthed by Crossrail project


Skeletons unearthed in London Crossrail excavations are Black Death victims from the great pandemic of the 14th Century, forensic tests indicate.

Their teeth contain DNA from the plague bacterium Yersinia pestis and their graves have been dated to 1348-50.

Records say thousands of Londoners perished and their corpses were dumped in a mass grave outside the City, but its exact location was a mystery.

Archaeologists now believe it is under Charterhouse Square near the Barbican.

They plan to expand their search for victims across the square – guided by underground radar scans, which have picked up signs of many more graves.

Crossrail's lead archaeologist Jay Carver says the find "solves a 660-year-old mystery".

"This discovery is a hugely important step forward in documenting and understanding Europe's most devastating pandemic," he said.

"Further excavations will follow to see if – as we expect – we are coming across a much bigger mass burial trench."Between 1347 and 1351 the "Great Pestilence" swept westward across Europe killing millions of people. It later became known as the Black Death.

It arrived on Britain's shores in 1348 and is believed to have wiped out up to 60% of the population at the time.

In London, two emergency burial grounds were dug outside the walls of the City. One has been found at East Smithfield, while the other is known to lie somewhere in Farringdon.

In March 2013, Crossrail engineers uncovered 25 skeletons in a 5.5m-wide shaft – alongside pottery dated to the mid-14th Century.

Samples from 12 of the corpses were taken for forensic analysis. In at least four cases, scientists found traces of the DNA of theYersinia pestis, confirming they had contact with the plague prior to their death.

To pinpoint which historical plague outbreak the "Charterhouse 25" could have fallen victim to, the researchers used radio carbon dating.

They determined the burial ground was used in at least two distinct periods – the earliest within the Black Death in 1348-50, followed by a later outbreak in the 1430s.

In a bid to understand just how far the grave extends across the square, Crossrail approached the University of Keele to undertake a forensic geophysics survey – using ground-penetrating radar.

The initial scan detected signs of further burials across Charterhouse Square and also the foundations of a building – possibly a chapel.

"We will undertake further excavations in Charterhouse Square later this year to confirm some of the results," said Mr Carver.

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

Written By: James Morgan
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  1. Absolutely astounding work.

    And the burial date has been pin pointed to within twenty four months after 660 years!

    Let’s hope the London Crossrail trains run with that degree of accuracy.

  2. “..we apologise for the late running of this train which is due in varying degrees to a points failure at Clapham Common, the wrong kind of snow, leaves on the line, and a healthy dose of seasonal industrial action. Southern Rail will be running a skeleton service…”

  3. Who can begin to imagine the horror and despair felt by our ancestors? How did Europe ever recover, and yet they did – the Hundred Years war continued as if nothing had happened, there was war with Scotland and Castile, show tournaments, legal enactments, trade….and that was just in England. Could it happen again? Who knows, but if it does, let’s hope that we can be as resilient as our ancestors.

  4. I google imaged the area called Charterhouse Square but could someone clarify something for me? Is the area where the skeletons lie under the grassed section I can see on the pictures? Or does Charterhouse Square include a larger area than that like for example the whole larger neighborhood around that green park/common/yard or whatever it’s called on your side of the pond. I’m just wondering how they will handle it if the skeletons extend under some of those very imposing buildings that surround the green space. If mass graves were found under a neighborhood here in the States I would expect a mass exodus and the bottom would fall out of that real estate market.

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