Workers on site at Charterhouse Square in London preparing diggings for the Crossrail project have made a surprising discovery: 13 neatly-buried skeletons that appear be about 650 years old, placing them square in the era of the Black Death, which once held Europe in a terrifying grip. Such ghoulish discoveries aren’t uncommon in urban areas where emergency graveyards were established to handle epidemics and pandemics, and cities later built right over their dead, but they’re still exciting for archaeologists, because each one represents a tremendous learning possibility.
It’s likely there are more skeletons at the site, which is known to have housed a graveyard during the Black Death era. Although cause of death hasn’t been definitively determined for the skeletons and won’t be until they’ve been removed for off-site examination, it seems likely they represent some of the many plague victims buried under Charterhouse Square. It wouldn’t be the first time a Crossrail dig has disturbed the dead in London; roughly 300 graves were found near Bedlam Hospital, notorious for the gruesome conditions its mentally ill inmates once endured.
Archaeologists note that far from being thrown in pits, these dead were laid out in careful rows, often with their arms crossed over their chests, indicating some time was taken with their burial. This is impressive, considering the chaotic and disordered times of the era, when Londoners were struggling to survive in a city gripped by a deadly pandemic that took out huge numbers of people across Europe in the 1300s.
It’s this that makes the bodies particularly interesting, as researchers hope to examine them to learn more about the bacteria that caused the plague in order to understand how it was so fatal, and why it steamrollered through Europe as effectively as it did. These graves effectively represent time capsules with a wealth of buried information that will be helpful not just to those studying the past, but also to modern epidemiologists and medical researchers. Unsurprisingly, many eyes are turning toward London as people wait for confirmation on the nature of the find and prepare for the substantial research opportunities it’s likely to generate.
Uncovering human remains and other archaeological finds during public works projects is not unusual. A dig in Thessaloniki for a modernized subway, for example, has created an awful dilemma for archaeologists and city planners: expecting to prepare for rail construction, workers instead found what some are calling “a Byzantine Pompeii,” representing a major and remarkably well-preserved archaeological find. Studying the site would require displacing or radically redesigning the rail project, something many oppose, yet forging ahead with construction would damage some of Greece’s precious cultural heritage.
In London, construction over the graves will continue, with the cooperation of archaeologists working to preserve and protect the bodies. Most of them will be left undisturbed, and after bodies removed from the site have been studied, they will be reinterred either at the Crosslink site or another appropriate location, as was done with the majority of the Bedlam remains uncovered during digs there. Lest visitors to London shudder at the site of riding subway trains over the bodies of the dead, the fact remains that in most cities with a long-established history, the bulk of the city covers not just interesting archaeological sites, but also abandoned cemeteries and other relics of the past.
Human history builds up in layers over the centuries, and only during projects like this do we have an opportunity to get a glimpse of what lies beneath.
Photo credit: André Zehetbauer