APR 07, 2014 12:00 AM PDT

Rail Project Unearths Victims of the Black Death

WRITTEN BY: Jen Ellis
Workers on the Crossrail transportation project in London made a gruesome discovery last March-25 skeletons in a shaft 5 ½ mile wide. Artifacts dating to the mid-1300's were found near the bodies, leading to the possibility that the workers had stumbled upon a mass grave dating back to the outbreak of bubonic plague, otherwise known as the Black Death.

Records showed that during the bubonic plague outbreak, thousands of plague victims were buried in a mass grave, but no one knew where that mass grave was located. The combination of multiple remains and artifacts led people to believe the Crossrail dig may be the beginning to the solution of a mystery well over 600 years old.

Samples from nearly half of the skeletal remains were removed for forensic analysis. In four of the ancient corpses, teeth were confirmed to contain trace amounts of DNA from Yersinia pestis (the bacterium of the plague), thus confirming that the victims had contact with the plague prior to their death.

Radio carbon dating was used to try to pinpoint which particular outbreak claimed the victims, know colloquially known as the "Charterhouse 25" for the area they were found in near Charterhouse Square. The results indicated that victims came from two separate outbreaks-one in the original wave of the Black Death in Britain from 1348-1350 and another outbreak in the 1430's.

On the assumptions that the uncovered bodies are part of a much larger mass gravesite, ground-penetrating radar was brought in to try to determine how far across Charterhouse Square the burial site might extend. The initial results did show some evidence of further burials, but more excavations will be necessary to verify the results.

Meanwhile, the discovery of the bodies gave scientists a treasure trove of well-preserved 660-year old information. Further analysis of the teeth and bones at the site yielded interesting, yet bleak, information about the victims and their lives.

Among the facts discovered: 16% of the skeletons were found to have rickets, and the vast majority showed signs of malnutrition. Significant back damage was found, indicating a large amount of heavy manual labor. The skeletons from the 1400s were engaged in some violent activities based on the prevalence of upper body injuries.

The lives of these victims were likely hard enough before the Black Death arrived-in fact, that hard life might have increased their susceptibility to the plague that would eventually kill them.

Why would we want to study this in greater detail? Because the plague exists today-some 2,000 people die from the plague every year, even though antibiotics can successfully treat the plague these days. (Unfortunately, lack of treatment makes the plague fatal after four days).

Through sequencing of the 660-year old bacterial DNA, researchers hope to discover more insights into the evolution and spread of the plague, and whether the plague as we know it today is truly descended from the ancient plague. Potentially, this could lead to better understanding of how the plague and similar bacteria affect humans and, in turn, perhaps head off future pandemics.
About the Author
You May Also Like
AUG 31, 2019
Immunology
AUG 31, 2019
AI Not Ready To Predict Acute Kidney Injury
An international group of scientists from the U.S. and U.K. published new research in Nature about the effectiveness of AI in predicting Acute Kidney Injur...
OCT 16, 2019
Health & Medicine
OCT 16, 2019
Study Links High Birth Weight to Risk of Allergies
Researchers from the University of Adelaide, Australia have linked the risk of developing childhood food allergies and eczema to heavier birth weight. The...
NOV 26, 2019
Immunology
NOV 26, 2019
The Immune System's Hand in Toxic Shock
While rare, toxic shock is a dangerous condition that acts fast and can be fatal. A new study identified a new target for treating toxic shock, a component...
NOV 27, 2019
Genetics & Genomics
NOV 27, 2019
Humans Are Continuing to Evolve, Along With Immune-Related Diseases
Humans have evolved in some ways to be less susceptible to pathogens, but those benefits can also carry risks of other diseases....
JAN 28, 2020
Immunology
JAN 28, 2020
Infectious Parasite Manipulates the Immune System to Survive
Toxoplasma gondii suppresses the immune system of the hosts it infects – human or otherwise – just enough to survive, thrive, and move on to mo...
FEB 06, 2020
Drug Discovery & Development
FEB 06, 2020
China Begins Trials for Antiviral Drug to Tackle Coronavirus
So far, coronavirus has infected over 31,493 people globally, and has killed 638. Although 1,563 people have reportedly recovered, due to its fast-spreadin...
Loading Comments...