Deep beneath the streets of London, a new railway is being built. As heavy equipment shifts earth that’s lain untouched for centuries, a team of archaeologists slowly sifts through the debris. Then, suddenly, they come across something incredible. In a pit filled with the remains of plague victims, two skeletons have an eerie bond.
In May 2009 developers in London, England, began work on a new underground train line. Dubbed Crossrail – and later the Elizabeth Line – its goal is to relieve pressure on the city’s busy existing network. But as work continues on the groundbreaking line, some rather unexpected discoveries have begun to surface.
Throughout the course of construction, all sorts of relics have cropped up on the Crossrail site. From Roman horseshoes to medieval animal bones, all manner of surprises have been turned up in the earth beneath the capital . In fact, there have been so many that a team of archaeologists has been assigned to document them.
In 2013 Crossrail workers sank a shaft into the ground near Charterhouse Square in central London. Afterwards, archaeologists from the Museum of London Archaeology were called in to excavate the site. And, amazingly, they discovered the skeletons of 25 individuals that had been buried for centuries beneath the streets of London.
The archaeologists immediately suspected that the skeletons belonged to victims of the plague, and they were subsequently able to extract DNA from the bones in order to test their theory. Sure enough, the skeletons were revealed to have been exposed to Yersinia pestis – the organism that creates the plague.
Back in 1348, London was in the grip of a terrible disease. In June, a sailor had arrived at Dorset, on the south coast of England, carrying the bubonic plague. And by autumn of that year, the disease had spread to the capital and was wreaking havoc throughout the population.
The disease, which became known as the Black Death, was lethal. First, sufferers would break out in swellings known as buboes, caused by bacteria multiplying in their lymph nodes. Then, the disease would spread to major organs like the lung and spleen.
Normally, patients would die soon after becoming infected. And although some physicians attempted to cure the disease with practices such as blood letting, tens of thousands of Londoners lost their lives. In fact, estimates put the figure at anywhere between 25 and 60 percent of the city’s total population.
Of course, that left the survivors with a lot of burials to deal with – and because the plague was known to be highly contagious, they needed to be conducted quickly. In London, this resulted in scores of mass graves being hastily constructed throughout the city. And while these were initially on sacred ground, the rapidly mounting body count soon meant that just about any location was used.
One such location was Smithfield, now part of central London. Eventually, this makeshift cemetery would go on to house a staggering 50,000 corpses. In fact, it was such a significant burial ground that the Charterhouse monastery was built nearby to cater for the spiritual needs of the dead.
When the Crossrail workers dug their shaft beneath London, they had inadvertently revealed part of this vast plague pit. And among the skeletons they recovered were two that had a particularly fascinating story to tell. Buried in the third, most recent layer of graves were two men who are thought to have died in the 15th century.
What was particularly striking about these two skeletons, however, was the way in which they were arranged. Specifically, the remains of the two men had been laid out with their hands entwined. But what could the explanation for such a bizarre burial be?
According to archaeologists, the two men were approximately 40 years old when they died. They were laid to rest in a double grave, with their heads aligned towards the right. What’s more, the right hand of one of the men was arranged so that it clasped the left hand of the other.
Apparently, such double graves were a common feature of the period. “It wasn’t unusual in medieval times for two or more people to be buried together side by side,” archaeologist Don Walker told the Daily Mail in February 2017. “And we usually interpret this as a familial connection.
Because the plague was very contagious, it often tore quickly through families, killing multiple members at the same time. According to Walker, this makes it highly likely that the two men found in the same grave were related. However, he stressed that DNA tests would be needed in order to know for sure.
“If they aren’t related, then it’s possible that there could be another explanation for them being buried together,” Walker added. “Including a romantic connection.” He went on to claim that the skeletons had been arranged in such a manner deliberately after their death – although not all the experts agree.
In a February 2017 interview with the Guardian, lead archaeologist Sam Pfizenmaier stated that the positioning of the skeletons’ hands could have been accidental. However, he did agree with Walker that the two men might have been related in some way.
The clasped hands were not the only possible clue to the lives these men had led. Researchers also discovered that the arm of the older man bore a healed fracture. This could mean that he had defended himself against a brutal assault.
As well as the two entwined skeletons, archaeologists discovered many more fascinating artifacts buried at the site. These included 22 leather shoes dating back to the Tudor period and rare fabrics thought to have been imported from continental Europe. Surprisingly, there was even evidence that the diets of some residents in the area had included West African black pepper.
In life, these men were just another two victims of a deadly disease that would return again and again to devastate London over the years. But now they are able to provide archaeologists with intriguing clues as to how 15th century Londoners might have treated their dead. In fact, one of the skeletons is now on display at the city’s Museum of London Docklands – ready to be inspected by the prying eyes of an entirely different civilization.