Elizabeth Line: Plague pit graveyard discovered during Crossrail works | United Kingdom | News

Plague: an expert explains the reasons for pandemics

Excavators found a mass burial pit of around 2.3m², which contained 40 skeletons when they dug under Liverpool Street station for work on the Elizabeth line, which finally opens on Monday. Research found the individuals likely died of the plague in the 16th century and were buried in wooden coffins in the graveyard – believed to be London’s first graveyard not associated with a church or institution religious.

The plague is still around today, but the researchers stress that the discovery will not have posed a risk to modern society.

Crossrail – now named the Elizabeth Line – has already been significantly delayed by a number of setbacks, not least due to the system integration efforts being underestimated at the end of the project.

But, despite the discovery of the cemetery, it will open on Monday, after the Queen made an unscheduled appearance to mark its completion at Paddington station in London.

Speaking exclusively to Express.co.uk, Michael Henderson, senior human osteologist at the Museum of Archeology London (MOLA) who led the excavation work, said: “Health and safety is paramount, especially working with human remains.

“Once a body is dead and buried, the plague on a body doesn’t last very long, so it doesn’t survive well in the ground. It’s not a living bacteria, so it doesn’t have the potential to spread infections in The DNA that was identified on the tooth samples was not live bacteria.

“Throughout history millions of people have lived and died in London, so there was always potential to find the remains of one of these people. We have a good idea of ​​where were the burial sites through historical maps so if someone were to go to start the work they would have to go through a planning process, which involves archaeologists and we can work out if they are going to hit one so that we usually know what is going to happen.

Museum of London Archeology staff conduct excavations for the Crossrail project (Image: Archaeological Museum of London/Maggie Cox)

New photos published by Express.co.uk today show skeletons discovered during the excavations, which took place in 2015, and have been analyzed since.

Experts used DNA samples, left on the teeth for hundreds of years, to discover that some people had died of the plague. However, they are believed to have died sometime before the infamous 1665 outbreak, dubbed the Great Plague of London, and researchers say this is the “earliest such evidence in the country”.

Mr Henderson added: ‘We found a mass burial pit of about 2.3m² and it contained 40 individuals, quite tightly packed together and what was interesting is that the majority of them they had been placed in wooden coffins and these had been quite neatly arranged in rows.

“Some historical accounts from the period tell of how people were randomly thrown into burial pits during the plague, but our archaeological evidence did not support this. It appeared that the bodies were decently and appropriately buried , even at a time of a great and catastrophic event like the plague.

“So from this pit of 40 individuals, we were able to take samples from 20 teeth and we were looking for DNA. Teeth are like time capsules and preserve DNA, because DNA can be quite vulnerable once buried, so you’ll be lucky to find samples of it.”

Archaeological excavations of the Museum of London

Some, if not all, of the bodies are thought to have died of the plague (Image: Archaeological Museum of London/Maggie Cox)

The expert continued: “Five of these people had been exposed to the plague during their lifetime. It is most likely that they died of the plague in the 16th century and, before that, the 16th century plague had no been genetically identified in the UK this was a great achievement for us, this is the first evidence of its kind in the country, although we cannot determine the exact year.

“Everyone knows about the epidemic of 1665 which caused the death of around 100,000 Londoners, but what people may not know so well is that there were successive waves of plague over a period about 30. The Great Plague of 1665 is the one everyone knows about, they learn about it in school as it spreads across Europe and it caused thousands and thousands of deaths but there had others.

“The plague is still present today, but fortunately we can treat it with antibiotics. The discovery has helped us learn more about how the plague manifests today and how it can spread across the world. world. I think it has helped and will inform our understanding of the plague as a disease.”

Archaeological excavations of the Museum of London

‘Emergency overflow graveyard’ found by Liverpool Street station (Image: Archaeological Museum of London/Maggie Cox)

Michael Henderson

Michael Henderson, senior human osteologist, and his team have made fascinating discoveries (Image: Archaeological Museum of London / Andy Chopping)

The discovery came after concerns were raised in parliament. Traces of bubonic plague or anthrax could be found at a site on the route of the £16billion Crossrail project.

Lord James of Blackheath had warned that another nearby area in the City of London to be used for tunneling could be a missing 16th century anthrax graveyard.

The deadly anthrax spores can lie dormant for centuries, but if disturbed they can spread through the air and the bacteria cause bubonic plague.

But, although human remains were found in May 2009 near the site in question, they showed no signs of plague or anthrax.

Mr Henderson insisted that all archaeological excavations are carried out safely.

“There are many historical sources, such as maps and previous excavations, that tell us what we are likely to find and where the burial sites are,” he said.

“The new graveyard under Liverpool Street was fairly well recorded in the historical record so we always knew there would be a graveyard there. In fact some work done there on Liverpool Street station in the years 1980 discovered bones, so we were also informed of this.

“If we come across more recent burials in a sealed environment, like in more modern times, like sealed lead coffins, there’s a potential for something like Anthrax to survive. I don’t think it’s ever been In this case, archaeologists never deal with a sealed burial or anything like that, because that would be someone else’s job.

“Because of the time period of this particular burial site, we knew we weren’t going to come across sealed lead coffins or anything like that because they weren’t using them in the 16th or 17th centuries. There was traces of wooden coffins but they haven’t really survived very well so there was really no chance of anything like Anthrax surviving. If this was a later burial site, a cemetery modern for example where they might need to move people around, so they would do more scientific tests to check things like that initially.”

Queen Elizabeth II and the Earl of Wessex at Paddington Station

Queen Elizabeth II and the Earl of Wessex marked the completion of the Elizabeth Line (Picture: PA)

One of the platforms of the new Elizabeth line

New platforms had to be built at existing underground stations for Elizabeth Line (Picture: PA)

It is recorded that around 70,000 people died in London during the Great Plague.

However, historians say the true figure may well be closer to 100,000, which would have been around a fifth of the city’s population at the time.

Some 40,000 Londoners had died of the plague by 1625 – but the Great Plague was the last and worst of the epidemics.

“It was a period that was a bit underrepresented in archeology then. We studied a lot of 18th and 19th century artefacts in London just because of London’s growth,” Mr Henderson said.

“The population grew a lot in the 19th century, so there are a lot of graveyards, and the Victorians actually built on a lot of graveyards, so the graveyard was important to us because it was from a time that we don’t Hadn’t researched too much This is an important period in London’s history.

“We also found evidence of different diseases that people were suffering from, such as dental and Ricketts’ disease. Bones were deformed because children, in particular, were not getting enough vitamin D from the sun. We saw a lot of infections, such as tuberculosis, and evidence from ancient times.”

Now the long-awaited Elizabeth Line will stretch over 100km (62 miles) from Reading and Heathrow in the west, through central tunnels to Shenfield and Abbey Wood in the east of the capital.

The new railway built by Crossrail Ltd will stop at 41 accessible stations – including 10 new ones – and is expected to serve around 200 million people each year.

Maria D. Ervin