The Crossrail project is aimed at creating a 73 mile railway in southeast London. Concerns raised about the new fast and efficient railway was that it could destroy archaeological resources but also that the dig may reveal some ancient diseases. During the debate over passing the bill to begin construction, it was raised that various plague pits including one with 682 victims of anthrax, would be uncovered and could contaminate railworkers. It was recorded that in Smithfield, Farringdon contaminated meat and individuals were buried there in the early 16th cenutry. When burials were revealed in this area in 2009, questionable remains were recovered during construction, but analysis revealed no signs of disease. A representative of the project stated that they had great maps of where the plague pits were and would proceed carefully. Since then they’ve found 55 million year old amber amber, 68,000 year old bison and mammoth bones , the remains of a large manor house and its surrounding moat from the 16th century, and remains dating to the Roman period. Now they’ve found their first real plague pit.
Construction workers from the Crossrail project discovered the remains of 13 individuals lying in two rows. The site is located on the edge of the historic Charterhouse Square. Historic records had suggested that there was a burial ground in the area. The skeletons were found laid out in two rows suggesting more order than most plague sites. When the plague first hit, burials were still in ordered rows, but as it spread mass graves were employed in order to deal with the high mortality. The fact that this site maintains order helps date the site and understand the assemblage as a whole. While the project doesn’t give details about why this cemetery was determined to be related to the Black Plague, it does state that artifacts date to this period and that the layout is similar to another plague cemetery (though the cemetery is not listed). Currently the remains are with the Museum of London, so in the next few months hopefully we’ll find out more about these remains.
How do we determine whether a burial is related to the plague? One great way is to compare sites. Another plague site in London is the site of East Smithfield, which provides us with an opportunity to better interpret the Crossrails site. This site used a number of methods in interpreting their mass burials dating to the mid-14th century. They used analysis of the DNA, which will be done on the Crossrail individuals, analysis of the historical context and analysis of the demographics of the buried population.Schuenemann et al. (2011) analyzed 100 skeletons from the East Smithfield mass burial site in London England, which dates from 1348–1350. Comparisons of the DNA of the victims and discovered the presence of Yersinia pestis. They found that the pathogen can be reliably found, and that the historic version does not match the one found today but is a variant that is thought to have died out.
Historic records can also be very revealing about determining what the plague burials were like and where they are found. The site of East Smithfield was determined to be a black plague site based on presence of mass burials and historic records from the site. Written evidence confirmed that it was one of the first emergency burial grounds created to cope with the epidemic (Antoine 2008). To learn more about how they did this and the results, see this great summary by Contagions: Black Death Genome Fished Out of East Smithfield.
Further, the way the burials are treated and who they were can aid in interpreting the site. While the Crossrail project consists of burials placed in simply graves lined up into two rows, many of the deceased were placed in mass graves during the plague. At East Smithfield the burials were found stacked within a mass grave, five individuals deep. This manner of grave is clearly reactionary to an epidemic rather than a normal style of burial. The PhD thesis of DeWitte (2006) assessed the demographic structure of individuals from this cemetery, and found that the mortality profile of individuals at the plague site was very different from that of the normal cemetery. Usually, there is a high number of sub-adults and older adults buried in cemeteries because they have the highest mortality. The Black Death increased mortality for everyone, although it did affect the frail more. This means that women and adults were more susceptible than normal deceased populations.
So is the Crossrails site a plague burial- perhaps. But more information is needed. Sadly, we won’t learn about the details until a formal publication is released. Then we can really get into it and figure out why this site is here, and who is buried there.
Antoine D (2008). The archaeology of “plague”. Medical history. Supplement (27), 101-14 PMID: 18575084
Schuenemann VJ, Bos K, DeWitte S, Schmedes S, Jamieson J, Mittnik A, Forrest S, Coombes BK, Wood JW, Earn DJ, White W, Krause J, & Poinar HN (2011). Targeted enrichment of ancient pathogens yielding the pPCP1 plasmid of Yersinia pestis from victims of the Black Death. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 108 (38) PMID: 21876176
DeWitte 2006. Paleodemography of the Black Death 1347-1351. PhD Thesis. Pennsylvania State University
Kirka 2013. London rail workers find likely plague burial pit. PhysOrg. http://phys.org/news/2013-03-scientists-skeletons-black-death-bacteria.html