April 2, 2014
The Secrets Of London’s Dead
Deep under the streets of London, the city is giving up its ghosts. The remains of long dead victims of the Black Death have revealed tantalizing glimpses of the horrors of the plague epidemic that swept through Europe almost 700 years ago. Scientific studies of those remains may change the way we understand that terrible period in history.
A year ago, excavations took place under Charterhouse Square near present day Smithfield Market in the Clerkenwell area of east London during construction of 26 miles of new tunnels for the Crossrail train link. When diggers unearthed human remains, work was held up and archaeologists were called in to supervise the removal of the 25 bodies. The corpses had been laid out in two neat rows, each sealed in a layer of clay. Thirteen were male. Three were female and two were children. The gender of the others could not be determined. This particular burial site was mainly for the poor. Some of the bodies showed clear signs of manual labor and others of violent injuries. Do they indicate a society breaking down as the terrifying illness was creating havoc?
Archaeological and forensic examination, along with analysis of wills from the period, have helped paint a picture of what happened. That picture is very different from the one accepted in all conventional histories of the period which assumed that the epidemic was caused by the bubonic strain of plague, transmitted to humans by fleas that had picked up the disease from infected rats. The scientists working on the Clerkenwell remains found and extracted DNA of the plague bacterium Yersinia pestis from the largest teeth in the skulls they examined. They then compared this to DNA from the current plague outbreak which has swept Madagascar. The DNA was almost a perfect match. The Madagascar plague is known to be the highly virulent pneumonic variety, passing from human to human as an airborne infection – see my previous article on the Madagascan problem.
The accepted wisdom that London’s devastating 14th Century plague was the bubonic strain is now highly questionable. The scientists in this study now believe that the killer epidemic could only have traveled so quickly if it was the pneumonic strain. The disease began in Asia and first hit London in the autumn of 1348. By the spring of 1349 it had taken the lives of six out of 10 Londoners. A similar occurrence today would result in the deaths of six million Londoners within a few short months. Plague experts at the Porton Down research establishment, notorious in the past as a place where deadly biological weapons were developed, think that such a rapid spread indicates that the infection was spread by coughs and sneezes and entered the lungs of people whose resistance was already lowered by malnutrition. Indeed, the skeletons unearthed at Clerkenwell confirm this theory. Those who died were in generally poor health before they were ravaged by plague. The bones show clear evidence of rickets, anaemia, rotten teeth, and infant malnutrition. The story they tell us is one in which the life of the fourteenth century citizen of London was a hard struggle against poor and inadequate diet coupled with recurrent illness.
How many more stories are waiting to be told by the bodies lost beneath the streets? Some have estimated that as many as 50,000 were buried at the same site and that corpses were carried in every five minutes or so. We can only imagine the terror of those who lived through that period. More excavations are to take place later this year. London’s ghosts have more secrets to give up yet.
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