Archaeologists find 14th century Black Death 'plague pit' in England

"Once the skeletons return to the lab we start properly learning who these people really are," said researcher Diana Mahoney Swales.
By Brooks Hays  |  Dec. 1, 2016 at 11:45 AM
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NORTH LINCOLNSHIRE, England, Dec. 1 (UPI) -- Archaeologists have discovered a rare "plague pit" in Lincolnshire. The mass grave contains 48 skeletons, just a few dozen of the thousands of Europeans claimed by the outbreak of Black Death during the 14th century. The pit was found near the site of an ancient monastery hospital at Thornton Abbey.

"The only two previously identified 14th-century sites where Yersinia pestis -- the bacterium responsible for the plague -- has been identified are historically documented cemeteries in London, where the civic authorities were forced to open new emergency burial grounds to cope with the very large numbers of the urban dead," Hugh Willmott, an archaeologist at the University of Sheffield, said in a news release.

Though the nature of the burial site suggested the discovery of a rare plague pit, confirmation came from Canada. Scientsists at McMaster University were able to extract DNA from tooth pulp inside fossilized teeth samples. Genetic analysis revealed the presence of Yersinia pestis.

The grave offers a glimpse of the challenges faced by small towns and villages during the Black Death -- caring for and ultimately burying hundreds of people infected by the plague. Between 1346 and 1353, the disease killed between 75 million and 200 million people.

Scientists hope to look beyond the ultimate demise of the people buried in the Lincolnshire pit. Artifacts can offer insights into the lives of 14th century villagers. One of the artifacts recovered from the burial site is pendant.

"It is a Tau Cross and was found in the excavated hospital building," Willmott said. "This pendant was used by some people as a supposed cure against a condition called St. Antony's fire, which in modern day science is probably a variety of skin conditions."

Additional genetic testing may further illuminate the hardships faced by those seeking treatment at the Thornton Abbey hospital.

"Once the skeletons return to the lab we start properly learning who these people really are," explained Sheffield researcher Diana Mahoney Swales. "We do this by identifying whether they are male or female, children or adults. And then we start to investigate the diseases that they may have lived through, such as metabolic diseases like rickets and scurvy which are degenerative diseases for the skeleton."

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