Mystery over male Black Death victims found buried hand in hand
Archaeologists say pair unearthed in London plague burial ground may have been related by blood or marriage
A skeleton unearthed during the Crossrail excavations at Liverpool Street on display at the Museum of London Docklands.
A skeleton unearthed during the Crossrail excavations at Liverpool Street on display at the Museum of London Docklands. Photograph: AFP/Getty
Tuesday 21 February 2017 19.01 EST
Last modified on Wednesday 22 February 2017 12.36 EST
The skeletons of two men who were buried apparently hand in hand during an outbreak of the Black Death have been excavated from a plague burial ground in London.
The men, believed to have been in their 40s, were buried in the early 15th century in a carefully dug double grave, in identical positions, with heads turned towards the right and the left hand of one man apparently clasping the right hand of the other.
Both are assumed to have died in one of the bubonic plague epidemics that swept the capital in the years after the most famous outbreak in 1348, which is estimated to have killed more than half London’s population.
They were buried in the cemetery that opened at Smithfield on the edge of the City in 1348, which eventually held more than 50,000 corpses, and was partly preserved by remaining open ground for more than 500 years. The Charterhouse monastery, which became a charitable foundation and is still in operation, was founded to pray for the souls of the dead.
The skeletons were found when archaeologists from the Museum of London Archaeology excavated a small circular pit where a shaft was sunk for the Crossrail tunnel, on the edge of Charterhouse Square.
Research continues on the bones of 25 individuals, but the DNA extracted from several of the skeletons revealed exposure to the pathogen that caused the plague, Yersinia pestis, and the archaeologists assume all the dead were victims of the outbreak.
The two men were buried in the third and final layer of graves dating to the early 15th century. A skull from one of the older graves, presumably disturbed by the gravediggers, was reburied beside them.
Archaeologist Sam Pfizenmaier, who led the excavation and wrote a newly published book on Charterhouse Square finds, said: “One possible interpretation is that they were related in some way, for example by blood or marriage.”
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He added that since no trace of coffins or shrouds was found, the position of their arms could have been accidental.
The older man had a healed fracture in his arm, possible evidence of a defensive injury from an assault.
The site also yielded a mass of well-preserved Tudor material, including leather and textile fragments, originally rubbish thrown into a stream running behind the houses.
Most of the course of Faggeswell brook was destroyed when the Metropolitan Line underground network was dug in the 19th century. However one small stretch survived, its contents preserved because they were buried in damp soil when the stream was filled in the 17th century, presumably because by then it had become a noisome open drain.
The items included 22 leather shoes – one made for a child – an ornate strap and buckle from a horse harness, scraps of a slashed silk doublet, woven silk decorative bands that were luxury imports from Spain and Italy, and evidence of an extravagant diet including Grains of Paradise – a name invented as a marketing ploy for black pepper imported from west Africa.
Some of the finds, including one of the skeletons, will be on display in the Museum of London Docklands until September.https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/feb/22/mystery-male-black-death-victims-found-buried-hand-in-hand