A rail building project in the City of London has unearthed 12 skeletons in what is thought to be a 14th century mass burial pit for victims of the Black Death.
The skeletons, arranged in careful rows, were discovered 8 feet below the ground in Charterhouse Square during the construction of a Crossrail tunnel shaft at Farringdon tube station.
Crossrail’s lead archaeologist, Jay Carver, said: “This is a highly significant discovery and at the moment we are left with many questions we hope to answer. However, at this stage, the depth of burials, the pottery found with the skeletons and the way the skeletons have been set out, all point towards this being part of the 14th-century emergency burial ground.”
Osteologist Don Walker from the Museum of London examined one of the skeletons and found that it belonged to a man under the age of 35 with a remarkably good set of teeth; for a plague victim, he was in otherwise good shape. The Black Death killed its victims so swiftly that it rarely left any visible traces on the bones, although bacterial DNA from the disease could still be present in the remains (Crossrail was, however, quick to reassure that there was no risk to modern Londoners).
The neat arrangement of the skeletons suggests that they died in an early wave of the epidemic, which swept in from Asia and Europe in 1348 and wiped out almost two-thirds of London’s population within months. As hundreds of people succumbed to the disease every week, observing traditional funerary rites was impossible and parish authorities were forced to dispose of bodies in mass graves known as plague pits.
The area around Charterhouse Square was known to be a ‘no man’s land’ in the aftermath of the Black Death. In 1371, the courtier Sir Walter de Manny founded a monastery near the site to offer prayers for the souls of the victims of the disease. In 1598, John Stow‘s Survey of London suggested that the plague pit could contain as many as 50,000 bodies. While historians think this figure could be exaggerated, there could be hundreds more bodies buried under the gardens in Charterhouse Square.
While very few witness accounts still exist of the Black Death in London, the Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio described the effects of the plague on the city of Florence in 1348, in graphic scenes which would have been familiar throughout the cities of Europe:
“The plight of the lower and most of the middle classes was even more pitiful to behold. Most of them remained in their houses, either through poverty or in hopes of safety, and fell sick by thousands. Since they received no care and attention, almost all of them died. Many ended their lives in the streets both at night and during the day; and many others who died in their houses were only known to be dead because the neighbours smelled their decaying bodies.
Dead bodies filled every corner. Most of them were treated in the same manner by the survivors, who were more concerned to get rid of their rotting bodies than moved by charity towards the dead. With the aid of porters, if they could get them, they carried the bodies out of the houses and laid them at the door; where every morning quantities of the dead might be seen. They then were laid on biers or, as these were often lacking, on tables.
Such was the multitude of corpses brought to the churches every day and almost every hour that there was not enough consecrated ground to give them burial, especially since they wanted to bury each person in the family grave, according to the old custom. Although the cemeteries were full they were forced to dig huge trenches, where they buried the bodies by hundreds. Here they stowed them away like bales in the hold of a ship and covered them with a little earth, until the whole trench was full.”