Black Death Skeletons Solve ‘660-Year-Old Mystery’

It’s confirmed: Black Death skeletons have been found in a mass grave in Central London.

The announcement came Sunday that Yersinia pestis DNA has been found on the teeth of skeletons unearthed last year by Crossrail workers digging for the new rail system under Charterhouse Square. The square was once a monastery and has gone undisturbed for centuries. Jay Carver, Crossrail’s lead archaeologist, told BBC that the find “solves a 660-year-old mystery” of the grave’s location.

Historians knew the grave existed from references in literature, but the location was unknown until the Black Death skeletons were found. Now the skeletons reside at the Museum of London, where archaeologists, microbiologists, and physicists have been unlocking the secrets of history and the Black Plague.

This week, osteologist Dan Walker outlined the life of one of the skeletons found at the site, as reported by ABC. Scientists used oxygen and strontium isotopes in the bones to puzzle together details of the skeletons’ diets and health. So far a surprising number of the skeletons are lower class laborers, suggesting that the plague hit the poor the hardest, at least at first. Many of the skeletons suffered from malnutrition, with 16% suffering from rickets. Many of the skeletons had back damage, indicating a life of labor.

Mr Carver told BBC: “We can see from the people here that Londoners weren’t living an easy life.

“The combination of a poor diet and generally a struggle means they were very susceptible to the plague at that time and that’s possibly one of the explanations for why the Black Death was so devastating.”

The Black Death came to London in 1348 and killed an estimated 60% of the population. Radiocarbon dating of pottery shards helped determine that the London grave was used not only for this first wave of deaths, but also during a later outbreak in the 1430s.

Even now, people still contract the Black Death — 2000 people die of the Black Death globally each year. Although the disease can be treated with antibiotics, without treatment the Black Death can kill its victims in four days. Scientists are hoping to discover if the strain of Yersinia pestis found on the London skeletons is the grandmother of the plague infecting people today.

Underground radar has picked up many more graves and the foundation 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.

BBC will run a documentary of the discovery, Return of the Black Death: Secret History, on April 6th.

photo credit: Annie Mole