Black Death Skeletons Discovered In London Reveal That The Medieval Plague Was Nothing Like We Thought

Thanks to the accidental discovery of some skeletons long buried underneath London, some light has been shed on the infamous Black Death, the catastrophic plague which surged through medieval Europe in the 1300s. The remains were discovered in March 2013, during excavations for London's Crossrail project, and archaeologists believe they point to a trove of skeletal remnants from the plague era — a mass grave, referenced in records, but never before found.

This is all rather macabre stuff, but it's also deeply interesting. While digging for Crossrail, engineers discovered the 25 skeletons in a shaft, along with pottery which dated back to the mid-14th century. Samples from 12 of them were taken in for testing, and teeth from four of them showed traces of the DNA of Yersinia pestis, the so-called Black Death itself.

By pairing this with analysis from a range of fields — radio-carbon dating the nearby pottery, and using geophysics forensics to discover additional graves, for example — researchers have gained an interesting look into the lives of their ill-fated discoveries, and to the very nature of the plague itself.

For years it's been thought that transmission was the fault of fleas, which acquired the plague from rats, then transmitted it into the bodies of hapless humans. But by comparing the strains found in the teeth to that found in the most recently-recorded outbreak, which killed 60 people in Madagascar, researchers found the old pandemic version to be no more virulent than the modern one.

As such, the way scientists think about the spread of the worst health crisis in European history has changed in a big way, with the possibility of respiratory transmission now on the table. So says Dr. Tim Brooks, one of the scientists working on the remains, who told The Guardian: "As an explanation for the Black Death in its own right, [rat fleas] simply isn't good enough. It cannot spread fast enough from one household to the next to cause the huge number of cases that we saw during the Black Death epidemics."

Osteologist Don Walker, of the Museum of London Archaeology, was especially enthusiastic about the discovery, and the insights available even from such old, decayed bones. He told the BBC:

We can start to answer questions like: where did they come from and what were their lives like? I'm amazed how much you can learn about a person who died more than 600 years ago.

During the pandemic, the plague is thought to have killed between 35 and 60 percent of the English population. The remains paint an interesting and grim picture of the era: Placed in layers, the earlier skeletons, buried in an orderly fashion, are contrasted against later ones which show signs of upper-body injuries, suggesting a possible period of chaotic social breakdown as the pandemic worsened.

Archaeologists are planning another dig in the summertime, aimed at securing more such remains. And they'll probably succeed, at least according to Crossrail engineer Jay Carver, who says the number of bodies buried en masse beneath central London's Charterhouse Square seems to be "in the low thousands" — understandable, given the horrible decay of the period:

We can see from the people here that Londoners weren't living an easy life. The combination of a poor diet and generally a struggle means they were very susceptible to the plague at that time and that's possibly one of the explanations for why the Black Death was so devastating.