It has long been thought the Black Death, a plague that killed an estimated 75 to 200 million people, including half of Britain’s population, was spread by fleas carried on rats.
But then, during excavation work for the Crossrail project in Clerkenwell, London, skeletons of 13 men, three women, two children and seven other unidentifiable remains were unearthed. They are believed to belong to the 14th century plague victims.
The DNA of the remains was compared to samples from a recent plague outbreak in Madagascar, in 2012, which killed 60 people.
The results of the tests have cast doubt on the prevalent theory of rat fleas as a “transport” of a plague pandemic. The scientists discovered that the two samples — from London and Madagascar — matched nearly perfectly, meaning the 14th century plague was no more virulent than it is today.
‘As an explanation [rat fleas] for the Black Death in its own right, it simply isn’t good enough.
‘It cannot spread fast enough from one household to the next to cause the huge number of cases that we saw during the Black Death epidemics.’ (Dr Tim Brooks from Public Health England in Porton Down where the research was carried out, told the Guardian)
In other words, for plague to have spread so quickly and cause so much damage it must have been spread by coughs and sneezes, getting into the lungs of its already weak and malnourished victims.
It means that rather than being a bubonic plague it was in fact pneumonic meaning it was spread from human to human, rather than by flea bites.
Research shows that as many as four out of every 10 Londoners perished in the epidemic, migrated to the capital from other parts of Britain, which makes the medieval London just as cosmopolitan as it is today.
It is now believed that thousands more bones could be found in a mass grave in the area in the future.
Don Walker, an osteologist with the Museum of London, outlined the biography of one man whose ancient bones were found by construction workers under London’s Charterhouse Square.
He was breast-fed as a baby, moved to London from another part of England, had bad tooth decay in childhood, grew up to work as a laborer, and died in early adulthood from the bubonic plague that ravaged Europe in the 14th century.
The poor man’s life was nasty, brutish and short, but his afterlife is long and illuminating.
‘It’s fantastic we can look in such detail at an individual who died 600 years ago,’ Walker said. ‘It’s incredible, really.’
Radiocarbon dating and analysis of pottery shards helped determine when the burials took place. Forensic geophysics — same methods used in murder and war-crimes investigations — helped locate more graves under the square. Analysis of oxygen and strontium isotopes in the bones is used to describe the state of health and diet…
Archaeologists discovered that the skeletons lay in layers, layer upon layer, and came from the time of three different outbreaks: the Black Death epidemic in 1348-1350, and two more outbreaks in 1361 and the early years of 15th century.
‘It suggests that the burial ground was used again and again for the burial of plague victims,’ said Jay Carver, Crossrail’s lead archaeologist.
As the plague ravaged continental Europe, city fathers leased land for an emergency burial ground. The burials were simple but orderly, the bodies wrapped in shrouds and laid out in neat rows, sealed with a layer of clay.
‘This is probably the first time in modern archaeological investigation that we have finally found evidence for a burial ground in this area which potentially contains thousands of victims from the Black Death and potentially later plague events as well. (Jay Carver)
According to Mr. Carver, this archaeological find is the first in modern archaeological investigation that is a concrete evidence for a burial ground in this area, potentially containing thousands of victims from the Black Death as well as later plague outbreaks.