Unearthed skeletons in London shed light on Black Plague
DNA in bones could answer perplexing historical questions
Laid underneath busy London walkways for centuries, a group of recently unearthed skeletons may soon give researchers answers about life during the Great Plague. Concealed by thousands of tons of earth and rubble, the DNA within the nine sets of remains would unlock a mystery that has baffled and divided medical minds for generations: what caused the Black Death in 1348?
The human remains were more than eight feet below a road between Farringdon and Barbican Tube stations, leading some online humorists to suggest they probably died waiting for a Circle Line train.
The bodies, in fact are believed to have been among the 1.5 million Britons who died when the plague swept through Europe. During the time of the Great Pestilence, emergency mass graves were dug. Contrary to what was believed, the corpses were not simply thrown in, but men and women were placed side by side in uniform rows, often with hands folded across the torso.
A similar skeleton formation was found in the 1980s at nearby Smithfield, and as many as 50,000 might have been buried in the area over three years.
"This is a highly significant discovery and at the moment we are left with many questions that we hope to answer," Crossrail lead archaeologist Jay Carver said.
"We will be undertaking scientific tests on the skeletons to establish their cause of death, whether they were plague victims from the 14th century or later residents, how old they were and perhaps evidence of who they were.
"However, at this early stage all points towards this being part of the 14th-century emergency burial ground."
Around a third of the population of Britain died in the Black Death. Estimates of how many perished in Europe and elsewhere vary between 25 million and 200 million, making it the most destructive pandemic in human history.
DNA analysis of European victims has suggested that the Yersinia pestis bacterium was responsible, but many scientists believe the infection was a rapidly-spreading virus.
DNA experts are working with archaeologists at the Farringdon site to try to identify the exact cause from bone samples. The skeletons will be reburied on the site or at a cemetery after the analysis is complete.
© 2013, Distributed by NEWS CONSORTIUM.
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