Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down
March 17, 2013

Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down

If you are like me, you grew up playing “Ring Around the Rosie” and being told that it was about the Black Death. Well, we were wrong. The song is just a nursery rhyme meant to be fun; but the 13 skeletons discovered this week by archaeologists and builders working on a new London rail link probably do have a connection to that dark time in our past.

CNN reports that the shaft sunk for a new Crossrail link in Farringdon unearthed the 13 skeletons, lined up in two neat rows. Experts suspect that they are part of a “plague pit“, one of many mass graves used to dispose of the bodies of those who fell to the bubonic plague in the 14th century.

If you don’t know the story, it is horrifying. 25 million people are estimated to have died between 1347 and 1352 of this bacterial infection. The plague started in China but swiftly spread to Europe because of Italian merchant ships. Well, not the ships really; the rats on the ships are really the culprit. Rats carry the plague, and the fleas on those rats spread it to humans. In England, it became known as the Black Death because of the black spots it caused on a victim’s skin before they died. The plague isn’t gone yet. It lingered in Europe for centuries, breaking out in cities where overcrowding and dirty conditions make fantastic breeding grounds.

We weren’t even sure what was causing it until the latest global outbreak, which according to National Geographic started in China (again) in 1855 and didn’t truly end until 1959. The plague is still killing. In 2003, more than 2,100 cases of infection and 180 deaths were reported, almost all of them in Africa.

The United States isn’t immune, however. US News and World Report spoke to Kiersten Kugeler, an epidemiologist at the CDC, who said that there are an average five cases a year in the US over the last decade. The National Institutes for Health places the number between 10 and 20 people a year, mainly in the American Southwest where the disease spreads from infected prairie dogs. Today, about one in seven infected persons dies.

The skeletons in Farringdon have lain undisturbed just 8 feet under the ground’s surface in one of the few areas of the central London neighborhood to remain undeveloped. A “no-man’s land,” established in 1348, is mentioned in historical records of the area. This is where some 50,000 plague victims were buried, but the area has never been found.

The new Crossrail shaft is located on the edge of Charterhouse Square, which was formerly the site of a monastery.

The company intends to test the skeletons to establish cause of death, determine if they were plague victims from the 14th century pandemic or a later London outbreak; how old they might have been, and maybe even some idea of who they were.

Jay Carver, Crossrail’s lead archaeologist, says, “However, at this early stage, the depth of burials, the pottery found with the skeletons and the way the skeletons have been set out, all point towards this being part of the 14th century emergency burial ground.” The pottery found in the burial site pre-dates 1350. The skeletons and other artifacts will be taking to the Museum of London Archaeology for testing, including DNA analysis to study the evolution of the plague.

Even if this is part of that huge mass grave of plague victims, there is no risk to the public’s health as the plague virus – Yersinia pestis – cannot survive long in the soil. Certainly not 700 years, that’s for sure.

Before it is complete, the shaft will be sunk about 65 feet, which might turn up even more interesting historical finds. Crossrail is currently running England’s largest archeological program, with other railway excavations turning up bones from prehistoric animals, Bronze Age and Roman tools, and the largest piece of amber ever found in the British Isles.

Other cemeteries have been found as well, including one near Liverpool Street where 300 skeletons buried between 1500 and 1700 were buried.

Image Credit: Gilmanshin / Shutterstock

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