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Crisis and the Black Death

Many devastating plague events occurred in London between the mid-14th century and the 17th century. The 14th century Black Death was one of the most devastating epidemics in human history, resulting in the deaths of an estimated 75 to 200 million people. It is thought to be spread to humans from fleas carried by rats. The name derives from the terrible black coloured swellings that erupted over the body and resulted in death within days.

Plague outbreaks continued in London at regular intervals right up to 1665. Scientists believe that outbreaks were associated with particularly cold climate episodes and famine events resulting in the rat flea population transferring to human hosts. From c. 1300 to the 1800s England experienced a dramatic climate shift, known as the Little Ice Age. Numerous severe winters were recorded.

One particularly relevant site was Crossrail’s Farringdon Station, adjacent to Charterhouse Square. Historic documents tell us that a burial ground for the Black Death was established here in AD 1348.

Despite decades of previous archaeological research in the area, no certain evidence for the burial ground had ever come to light. However, skeletons had been found during 19th century construction work.

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Historic newspaper reports tell us that construction workers had probably encountered the burial ground in the
19th century:

  • 1861– sewer workers come across a human skeleton in Charterhouse Square
  • 1865 – a newspaper reports human remains are found during construction of a railway at West Smithfield
  • 1885– a large number of skeletons are discovered during building works on the west side of Charterhouse Square

NEW RESEARCH SHOWS CROSSRAIL’S CHARTERHOUSE SKELETONS WERE BLACK DEATH VICTIMS

Crossrail has recently uncovered firm evidence for a burial ground at this location. Two distinct layers of burials were found including the graves of 25 individuals. Pottery found within the graves indicates that the burials were indeed made in the mid-14th century or later.

The Charterhouse site is only the second Black Death burial ground discovered in London. Scientific analysis is underway involving a global team of researchers. We hope to discover more about the people buried there. Were they actually plague victims and if so can we identify ancient plague bacteria from DNA samples?

In March 2014, Crossrail unveiled new research that showed skeletons found during construction of Europe’s largest construction project in London reveals many died of plague during the 14th Century Black Death pandemic, while others died during later plague outbreaks.

Twenty-five skeletons were uncovered in London’s Charterhouse Square in Farringdon during Crossrail construction works in March 2013. It provided the first evidence of the location of London’s second Black Death emergency burial ground established in 1348 and referenced in historical records as being in what is now modern day Farringdon.

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