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New research shows Crossrail’s Charterhouse skeletons were Black Death victims

By Krista Eleftheriou

New research shows Crossrail’s Charterhouse skeletons were Black Death victims
  • Radio carbon dating and ancient DNA evidence shows London burial ground used for plague victims for at least 100 years
  • New geophysics techniques have located evidence of more Charterhouse burials
  • Channel 4’s Secret History strand to explore London’s Black Death plague

New research on 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.

Due to the burial ground’s historical importance to London, exceptional levels of research analysis has taken place on the skeletons to understand the life and death of Londoners affected by the Black Death.

From the skeletons’ teeth, scientists have found traces of the DNA of the Yersinia pestis bacterium which was responsible for both pneumonic and bubonic plague, confirming the individuals had contact with the deadly disease prior to their death.

Key radio carbon-14 dating has revealed at least two distinct periods of burials, the earliest is within the period of the Black Death in 1348-50, followed by a later period dating from the early to mid 1400s. Archaeologists observed the different layers of burials during excavation. Together with the presence of the plague-causing Yersinia pestis bacterium in skeletons across both layers of burials, it shows the cemetery was used for two separate plague events between 1348 and the 1430s.

Historical records suggest tens of thousands of people were buried in this emergency cemetery. In a bid to understand just how many people are buried there, Crossrail approached the University of Keele to undertake a forensic geophysics survey, a science usually used to locate mass graves and murder victims. Initial results suggest possible burials extend across Charterhouse Square and a possible building foundation, a likely chapel, in the middle of the square. This is a new application for this type of science and a further Charterhouse Square dig in July of this year will seek to confirm the geophysics results.



Crossrail Lead Archaeologist Jay Carver who is heading up the research, said: “Analysis of the Crossrail find has revealed an extraordinary amount of information allowing us to solve a 660 year mystery. This discovery is a hugely important step forward in documenting and understanding Europe’s most devastating pandemic. Historical sources told us that thousands of burials of Black Death victims were made in the 14th Century in the area that is now modern day Farringdon, but until Crossrail’s discovery, archaeologists had been unable to confirm the story. Ancient DNA work is complex and still in development but the results do confirm the presence of the deadly plague bacterium preserved in the teeth.

“What’s really exciting is the bringing together many different lines of evidence to create a picture of such a devastating world event as the Black Death. Historians, archaeologists, micro-biologists, and physicists are all working together to chart the origins and development of one of the world’s worst endemic diseases and help today’s researchers in ancient and modern diseases better understand the evolution of these bacteria.

“The forensic geophysics results are really intriguing and potentially an important breakthrough in burial ground research. We will undertake further excavations in Charterhouse Square later this year to confirm some of the results.”

Osteologist Don Walker, from Crossrail’s archaeology contractor MOLA said:

“The skeletons discovered at Crossrail’s Farringdon site provide a rare opportunity for us to study the medieval population of London that experienced the Black Death. We can start to answer questions like: where did they come from and what were their lives like? What's more, it allows for detailed analysis of the pathogen, helping to characterise the history and evolution of this devastating pandemic.”

Scientists have analysed the bones and the Isotope levels in the skeletons’ bones and teeth to gain an insight into the birth, life and diet of Londoners during the 14th and 15th Centuries. The results showed that:

  • Many of the skeletons appear to suffer signs of malnutrition and 16% had rickets.
  • 40% of the those tested grew up outside of London possibly as far north as Scotland – showing that 14th Century London attracted people from across Britain just as it does today.
  • The later skeletons from the 1400s had a high rate of upper body injury consistent with being involved in violent altercations.
  • One individual had become a vegetarian later in life which is something a Carthusian monk would have done during the 14th Century.
  • 13 of the skeletons were male, three female, two children, the gender was undetermined in the other seven skeletons.
  • Research is consistent with the burial ground being used by poorer Londoners.
  • High rate of back damage and strain indicating heavy manual labour.

The Black Death was the largest pandemic in history, killing millions of people as it swept across Europe in the early 14th Century. It reached England in 1348 and claimed the lives of up to 60% of the population at the time. The disease’s devastation across Europe provided Britain with warning of the impending disaster and London’s leaders purchased additional ground outside the city walls for a burial ground in preparation for the Black Death’s arrival. This orderly planning may be evident in the burials themselves, with the skeletons neatly laid out in Christian burials rather than being placed in mass graves. London’s first Black Death plague cemetery was found in the 1980s in east Smithfield.

The latest announcement comes ahead of Channel 4 airing the documentary Return of the Black Death: Secret History on 6 April, 8pm which follows the Charterhouse Square discovery and looks and the history of the plague in Britain.

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For further information contact the Crossrail Press Office on 020 3229 9552 or email [email protected]

Channel 4 Press contact: Yad Luthra Publicity Ltd, 01273 472 196, 07932 682780, [email protected]

Notes to editors

Return of The Black Death: Secret Historyis a True North production for Channel 4. Transmission: 8pm on 6 April on Channel 4. Channel 4’s Secret History strand showcases the best in historical journalism.

The construction of Crossrail through the heart of London is resulting in one of the most extensive archaeological programmes ever undertaken in the UK.  Since Crossrail construction began in 2009, more than 10,000 archaeology items, spanning more than 55 million years of London’s history, have been found across over 40 construction sites.

Radio carbon-14 dating was undertaken at Queens University Belfast; DNA analysis took place at McMaster University, Canada; Durham University completed the isotope analysis; and MOLA completed the skeletal analysis.

About Crossrail

The total funding available to deliver Crossrail is £14.8bn. The Crossrail route will pass through 40 stations and run more than 100 km (62 miles) from Reading and Heathrow in the west, through new twin-bore 21 km (13 miles) tunnels to Shenfield and Abbey Wood in the east.

When Crossrail opens it will increase London's rail-based transport network capacity by 10%, supporting regeneration and cutting journey times across the city. Crossrail services are due to commence through central London in 2018.

Crossrail is being delivered by Crossrail Limited (CRL). CRL is a wholly owned subsidiary of Transport for London. Crossrail is jointly sponsored by the Department for Transport and Transport for London.