If you find yourself walking in central London, think about this: not far beneath your feet there may well be human remains. On the edge of Charterhouse Square in the district of Farringdon, engineers were digging an access tunnel for the new Crossrail underground railway when they uncovered 12 skeletons.
“We suspected there might be bodies there,” says Crossrail’s chief archaeologist, Jay Carver. “When the excavation machine uncovered the first bones, we went in and excavated by hand.”
Historical documents suggest the then-lord mayor of London ordered an emergency burial ground to be prepared in Farringdon, in response to the Black Death sweeping Europe in the 14th century.
Relatively few people died in the early stages of the plague and so they were buried in an orderly, east-west orientation. In later years there were more dead, and in their graves bodies are essentially heaped on top of one another. The newly discovered Farringdon bodies, just 2.5 metres below the surface, are neatly oriented and were probably wrapped in shrouds and interred: the Crossrail team have found shroud pins but no fabric remains and no sign of coffins. Pottery found at the same depth as the bodies has been dated to before 1350.
The skeletons will now be removed to the Museum of London Archaeology, where radiocarbon dating will determine the approximate age of the bodies. Skeletons discovered in a plague pit in nearby Smithfield yielded DNA markers identifying the plague bacterium Yersinia pestis.
“Our evidence suggests these are burials associated with that period and therefore that these are people buried during the emergency black death period,” says Carver. “If we can find a signature of that bacterium it will provide some interesting new data about this important historical event.”
The Crossrail team have a licence from the Ministry of Justice allowing them to exhume the remains, and at some point the archaeologists will make a decision about curation. Will the skeletons be reburied?
“They may be placed in a charnel store in a crypt, in case future generations want to study them,” says Carver. “It’s an academic and legal decision.”