As the construction workers dug further and further through the mud, they probably didn’t expect to make such a horrific discovery. But that’s exactly what they did, 8 feet beneath London’s streets – where a mass grave had lain undisturbed for centuries.
The workers were digging as part of the Crossrail project in London, which will open new routes across the city for commuters. The $18 billion venture involves 37 different stations and is set to be completed in 2018.
In order to link existing stations with the new 73-mile line, tunnels have been dug across London’s underground network. And it was during one such dig that the workmen made a chilling discovery.
The find occurred 8 feet below Charterhouse Square, an area just outside the City of London, in 2013. Located between Farringdon and Barbican, the 18-foot wide pit contained 25 skeletons, arranged in neat rows. And it seemed likely that the unfortunate victims may have all been killed by the plague.
In later outbreaks of the Black Death, the fatality rate rose so significantly that bodies were eventually just dumped into mass graves. However, the skeletons in the Charterhouse Square pit were very neatly arranged. As a result, archaeologists hypothesized that they likely came from one of the earlier incidences of the disease.
Nevertheless, the death toll during the initial outbreaks of the disease was still high enough to necessitate emergency burial grounds. Indeed, with churchyards full, “plague pits” are thought to have been dug throughout London in the 14th century.
One such burial ground was said to have been located just outside the City of London’s walls. However, precisely where had always been unknown – until the Crossrail workers uncovered the grave beneath Charterhouse Square. If the sites were indeed one and the same, then a 660-year-old mystery was on the brink of being solved.
Charterhouse Square, once described as a “no man’s land” on the city limits, lies between the modern Farringdon and Barbican areas of London. By the 17th century it had become part of the capital, but no one was aware that the ground beneath the surface was filled with bodies.
However, further analysis was needed to determine whether the skeletons retrieved by the Crossrail workers really were plague victims. And in finding out, archaeologists hoped to discover more about the disease itself.
In 2014, Crossrail announced the results of its analysis. Forensic tests revealed that the skeletons’ teeth did indeed contain the bacterium Yersinia pestis, more commonly known as the plague. And these particular victims had all perished during the first outbreak of the disease, between 1348 and 1350.
Archaeologists believe that around 50,000 people may have been buried in the plague pits around Farringdon over a three-year period. They also managed to determine that the Farringdon burial site was used again in the early 15th century after a second outbreak.
However, it turned out this wasn’t the first time construction workers had discovered a burial site in the area. According to newspaper reports of the time, skeletons were dug up around Charterhouse Square in the mid 19th century. Of course, it was never confirmed back then that the bodies in them were plague victims.
In fact, the Farringdon site is one of the few confirmed plague pits to have been dug up in London. Yet despite that, it’s thought many remain undiscovered beneath the city’s streets. The first one was unearthed in the 1980s in East Smithfield, not far from the Farringdon burial ground.
Forensic tests of the skeletons found underneath Charterhouse Square have also shone a light on the lives of medieval Londoners. For instance, many of the corpses showed signs of damage to the spine. It’s likely, then, that they were involved in heavy manual labor.
Scientists have also determined that 40 percent of the people buried in the pit weren’t born in London. Indeed, some came from as far afield as Scotland. And at least two of the skeletons were children, with the majority of the corpses being male.
According to Crossrail’s lead archeologist, Jay Carver, Londoners didn’t have an easy time of it in the 14th century. “The combination of a poor diet and [life] generally [being] a struggle means they were very susceptible to the plague at that time,” he told the BBC. “That’s possibly one of the explanations for why the Black Death was so devastating.”
Indeed, the Black Death claimed as much as 60 percent of London’s population. With church graveyards overflowing, emergency plague pits were apparently dug out all around the capital. Indeed, in addition to those discovered in Farringdon and Smithfield, records indicate there are more pits in Soho and Aldgate.
It’s believed that the plague originally spread from Central Asia in the late 1340s, working its way westward through Europe. In total, at least 75 million people are thought to have died during the pandemic.
The disease is thought to have been carried across Eurasia by the fleas on black rats. Indeed, the rodents frequently stowed away on ships carrying supplies across the oceans. And while the worst of it came in the 14th century, recurring outbreaks persisted until at least the 19th century.
It’s chilling to think that below our feet lie mass burial sites, containing thousands upon thousands of skeletons. And since Crossrail workers’ discovery in Farringdon, archaeologists have been scanning the area using radar technology to determine just how far the burial site spreads. Indeed, more graves have already been picked up. And from those, we may be able to find out even more about how this deadly pandemic spread.