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London skeletons reveal secrets of the Black Death



LONDON (AP) - You can learn a lot from a tooth.

Molars taken from skeletons unearthed by work on a new London railway line are revealing secrets of the medieval Black Death - and of its victims.

This week, Don Walker, an osteologist with the Museum of London, outlined the biography of one man whose ancient bones were found by construction workers under London's Charterhouse Square: He was breast-fed as a baby, moved to London from another part of England, had bad tooth decay in childhood, grew up to work as a laborer, and died in early adulthood from the bubonic plague that ravaged Europe in the 14th century.

London's Lost Black Death Mass Grave Discovered


The poor man's life was nasty, brutish and short, but his afterlife is long and illuminating.

"It's fantastic we can look in such detail at an individual who died 600 years ago," Walker said. "It's incredible, really."

The 25 skeletons were uncovered last year during work on Crossrail, a new rail line that's boring 13 miles (21 kilometers) of tunnels under the heart of the city. Archaeologists immediately suspected the bones came from a cemetery for plague victims. The location, outside the walls of the medieval city, chimes with historical accounts. The square, once home to a monastery, is one of the few spots in the city to stay undisturbed for centuries.

To test their theory, scientists took one tooth from each of 12 skeletons, then extracted DNA from the teeth. They announced Sunday that tests had found the presence of the plague bacterium, Yersinia pestis, in several of the teeth, meaning the individuals had been exposed to - and likely died from - the Black Death.

The findings didn't stop there. Archaeologists, historians, microbiologists and physicists worked together to apply techniques from several scientific disciplines to the discovery.

Radiocarbon dating and analysis of pottery shards helped determine when the burials took place. Forensic geophysics - more commonly used in murder and war-crimes investigations - helped locate more graves under the square. Studying oxygen and strontium isotopes in the bones revealed details of diet and health.

These were, by and large, poor people. Many of the skeletons showed signs of malnutrition consistent with the "Great Famine" that struck Europe 30 years before the Black Death. Many had back injuries suggesting lives of hard labor. One man became a vegetarian late in life, indicating he may have entered an order of monks.

Archaeologists were surprised to discover that the skeletons lay in layers and appeared to come from three different periods: the original Black Death epidemic in 1348-1350, and later outbreaks in 1361 and the early 15th century.

"It suggests that the burial ground was used again and again for the burial of plague victims," said Jay Carver, Crossrail's lead archaeologist.

The Black Death is thought to have killed at least 75 million people, including more than half of Britain's population, yet the burials suggest a surprisingly high degree of social order - at first. As the plague ravaged continental Europe - borne westward by fleas on rats - city fathers leased land for an emergency burial ground. The burials were simple but orderly, the bodies wrapped in shrouds and laid out in neat rows, sealed with a layer of clay.

The later skeletons, however, show more signs of upper-body injuries, consistent with a period of lawlessness and social breakdown.

Archaeologists are planning a new dig this summer to learn how many bodies lie under the square. Carver says the number appears to be in the "low thousands."

And the teeth may not have yielded all their secrets. Experts in ancient DNA at McMaster University in Canada are working to sequence the plague genome found in the teeth, in order to learn more about a disease that still infects several thousand people a year around the world. Most patients recover if treated early with antibiotics.

Scientists want to know if the 14th-century disease is the same as the modern version, or whether the disease has evolved. Study of DNA from the teeth of skeletons discovered in the 1980s at another London plague cemetery suggested the bug was largely unchanged, but the scientific jury is still out.

Brendan Wren, a professor of molecular biology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said the new information could help scientists "understand how the plague bacillus - and other nasty bugs - become so virulent to humans."

"It is useful information that could warn and avert potential epidemics and pandemics," he said.

Join the discussion

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nora7180 March 30 2014 at 7:04 PM

I AGREE WITH MONICA WHO SAID OVERUSE OF ANTIBIOTICS COULD CAUSE PROBLEMS WITH THE ELDERLY,VERY YOUNG AND THOSE WITH COMPROMISED IMMUNE SYSTEMS. HOPEFULLY WE WILL NEVER SEE THE NEED.......

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tax107 March 30 2014 at 2:07 PM

Remember that the plague epidemics came after the population was already under stress from the "climate change" of the little Ice Age. Crops failed, and people were forced indoors to escape the cold. With the rats. Of course

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SKCRCPUSCG March 31 2014 at 1:19 AM

I suppose one could write a poem to express the emotion and suffering of that age and time, every skeleton had a mother, a father, a family.... Still , the more things change the more they stay the same... with wars and man's inhumanity to man, accidental deaths in ariline crashes and floods,mud slides and a thousand other ways we shed this mortal coil...... Also there's the sunshine, the good air, the good earth and love for all things... and one another..... The beat of life goes on, and I'm privileged to have lived it for more than seventy five years with family, dogs , cats and creatures of all sorts, inluding the human kind.... These old skeletons from the past help put our own lives in perspective, and not just from a scientific point of view either.

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4 replies
morethanfamous March 30 2014 at 1:46 PM

Make no bones about it, a very interesting study of how people lived and died centuries ago.

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Hi! AUDREY March 30 2014 at 3:02 PM

Science rules!! This was not the devil's work

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Donna March 30 2014 at 1:28 PM

If you know your history, you know that the black death was caused by rats, people of that time period had killed off all of the cats that kept the rat population down, due to their fear of witchcraft. Also they dumped their garbage and human waste out into the streets and onto sidewalks. They took a bath only when it was necessary. As far as the bacteria goes, well anything is possible.

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2 replies
potmind Donna March 30 2014 at 1:56 PM

The aristocracy of the time had the same habits, but they used perfumes to cover up the stench. Btween cats and rats as a choice, I'm certain the result is positive. One gnaws on our foods and rubbish. The other kills and eats the scavengers. However, both carry fleas.

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tugsboat Donna March 30 2014 at 2:00 PM

It was not the rats but the Flea which lived on the rats! Rats were the vector.

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1 reply
Claggitt tugsboat March 30 2014 at 6:34 PM

Fleas were the vector, they carried the bacteria in their guts. Rats were what the fleas used for food, and transport from place to place. Today, in the western U.S. the fleas use squirrels.

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Marni March 30 2014 at 1:20 PM

Question - was there another way to feed babies other than breast-feeding 600 years ago....?

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1 reply
aljoramaggio Marni March 30 2014 at 1:56 PM

The Syrians are credited with inventing the glassblowing pipe about 300 BC.
An infant unable to breastfeed, could take cow, sheep or goat's milk, dipped on a piece of clean cheesecloth or natural sponge, and suck with much less effort on that, or the milk could be dribbled slowly into the corner of the infant's mouth, by means of a glass pipette or a small hollow reed.

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bdgrizcp March 31 2014 at 8:11 AM

Many of us have plague survivors as ancestors. The black death led to many of the improvements in life that came with the Renaissance (SP) because in the aftermath of the plague human labor became valuable due to the population crashes. The repopulation of Europe led to the exodus from Europe to the new world. One researcher likened the effect to a person who has been dealthly ill suddenly becoming well again--and realizing how short life really is, decides to make the most of it. The land bound lower orders of Europe became mobile and moved--wherever they chose to, much to the chagrin of the landlords, whose land was only as valuable as the people who worked it. The plague survivors evolved into the middle class we have today. And we, their descenannts, have created the greatest country the world has ever known. All because of a little bug.

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1 reply
Hi Stella bdgrizcp March 31 2014 at 3:06 PM

excellent!!

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Trish March 30 2014 at 12:36 PM

OMG they can distroy that bug I hope, that is ONE bug I wouldn't want to get out of that lab by mistake.

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Ben March 30 2014 at 12:27 PM

Pandora's box?????watch out.....plague may just be dormant.....

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