Sunday 4 December 2016

Skeletons of 27 children found in 'extremely rare' Black Death burial pit

Published 30/11/2016 | 07:05

Undated handout photo of a mass burial, where more than half of the skeletons are children, uncovered at the site of a 14th-century monastery hospital at Thornton Abbey
Undated handout photo of a mass burial, where more than half of the skeletons are children, uncovered at the site of a 14th-century monastery hospital at Thornton Abbey
Undated handout photo of a mass burial, where more than half of the skeletons are children, uncovered at the site of a 14th-century monastery hospital at Thornton Abbey

More than half of 48 skeletons found in an "extremely rare" 14th-century Black Death burial pit were those of children, archaeologists said.

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The mass burial has been uncovered at the site of a 14th-century monastery hospital at Thornton Abbey, near Immingham, in North Lincolnshire, by a team from Sheffield University.

The presence of such a large burial site - which included both male and female adults as well as 27 children - suggests the community was overwhelmed by Black Death and left unable to cope with the number of people who died, they said.

The Black Death was one of the worst pandemics in human history. It devastated European populations from 1346 to 1353 and resulted in the deaths of an estimated 75 to 200 million people.

The disease is documented to have reached Lincolnshire in the spring of 1349.

The team said they sent teeth samples from the skeletons found at the Thornton Abbey site to McMaster University in Canada, where ancient DNA was successfully extracted from the tooth pulp. DNA test revealed the presence of Yersinia pestis, the bacterium responsible for the plague.

Undated handout photo of a mass burial, where more than half of the skeletons are children, uncovered at the site of a 14th-century monastery hospital at Thornton Abbey
Undated handout photo of a mass burial, where more than half of the skeletons are children, uncovered at the site of a 14th-century monastery hospital at Thornton Abbey

Dr Hugh Willmott, Sheffield University's Department of Archaeology, said: "Despite the fact it is now estimated that up to half the population of England perished during the Black Death, multiple graves associated with the event are extremely rare in this country, and it seems local communities continued to dispose of their loved ones in as ordinary a way as possible."

Dr Willmott said the only two previously identified 14th-century sites where Yersinia pestis 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.

He said: "The finding of a previously unknown and completely unexpected mass burial dating to this period in a quiet corner of rural Lincolnshire is thus far unique, and sheds light into the real difficulties faced by a small community ill-prepared to face such a devastating threat."

The archaeologist, who has been working at the site since 2011, said items found at the abbey have also shed light on the lives of those who lived there.

He said one artefact found in the excavated hospital building was a small Tau Cross pendant, which some people thought was a cure for St Anthony's fire, a term used to describe a variety of skin conditions.

He said: "While skeletons are interesting, they just represent the end of somebody's life and actually what we are interested in as archaeologists is the life they led before they died.

"One of the ways we can connect with that is through the everyday objects they left behind.

"Before we began the dig, the site was just an ordinary green field grazed by sheep for hundreds of years, but like many fields across England, as soon as you take away the turf, layers of history can be revealed by archaeology."

Dr Diana Mahoney Swales, of the University of Sheffield's Department for Lifelong Learning, who is leading the study of the bodies, said: "Once the skeletons return to the lab, we start properly learning who these people really are.

"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.

"However, for diseases such as plague, which are lethal, we have to use ancient DNA analysis to investigate that further."

:: The project will feature on the BBC's Digging For Britain programme on December 13.

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