Willmott et al. 2020
Archaeologists have recently unearthed a mass burial of at least 48 men, women and children on the site of a medieval monastery in Lincolnshire, UK. A person's teeth contained traces of bubonic plague DNA, and radiocarbon dating suggests that these people were victims of an outbreak in the 14th century. It is the first time that archaeologists have found a mass grave for plague victims outside a city like London or Hereford, and it shows that even small rural villages have had difficulty burying the masses of plague victims.
A macabre surprise
Archaeologist Hugh Willmott of the University of Sheffield and his colleagues hadn't expected to find skeletons when they dug a trench at Thornton Abbey. They thought the geophysical anomaly they were trying to dig up was part of a manor house built nearby in 1607. Instead, they wrote: "The excavation immediately revealed articulated human skeletal remains." The dead lay in rows, so tightly packed that they would have touched, the feet of one row lying between the heads of the next.
It was even more surprising that the skeletons included at least six women and 21 children, so that definitely not all of the monks came from the abbey. The 48 bodies in the wide, shallow grave probably included people from the surrounding countryside who died in the St. James Hospital next to the monastery. In fact, the tomb could have been home to almost half of the 14th-century population of the surrounding community, who were all buried together.
Thornton was not the only one who saw his population disappear. Eighteen kilometers away in Meaux Abbey, 40 of the 50 monks and lay people of the abbey died at the end of 1349. The abbot's records show that "the majority of our tenants died in different places". The Thornton find is grim evidence of a medieval farming community overwhelmed by the plague.
Historians typically assume that while the plague devastated rural villages, the smaller number made it easier to deal with the bodies of the dead than the losses in crowded cities like London. But the mass grave shows that people around Thornton Abbey struggled to keep up with the tide of death around them. "The hospital operated by the canons of Thornton Abbey was the last and only functioning facility where residents could bring the dead and the dying to receive an adequate burial and hope for redemption in the afterlife," wrote Willmott and his colleagues .
Bring the dead to life
The mass grave shows despair in the midst of a catastrophe. It is "a catastrophic failure of the established system to deal with the dead," wrote Willmott and his colleagues, "probably because of the overwhelming number that must be buried and the scarcity of the living to accomplish these tasks." The grave also proves that the Thornton monks treated the dead with care, even though they buried almost 50 people within a few days or weeks.
Enlarge /. The bodies in the mass grave were carefully arranged by the surviving population of the area.
Willmott et al. 2020
When we think of mass graves, we think of bodies that have hastily stacked on top of each other, but in Thornton someone tried to put the dead in orderly rows in the same direction. This care seemed to be deeply rooted in culture; Even at the London plague cemetery in Smithfield East, people were housed side by side in long trenches that weren't piled up like dirty laundry.
The shoulders of everyone except the youngest skeletons seemed to have been pressed in as if a shroud had been wrapped tightly around their bodies. No fabric survived after centuries in the ground, but Willmott and his colleagues say that "the dead were carefully prepared and deposited throughout the grave."
The progress of black death
Radiocarbon data from two skeletons indicate that they died sometime between 1295 and 1404. Two silver pennies further narrow the date; Both coins were issued during the reign of King Edward III. minted between 1327 and 1377. The most obvious conclusion is that the people of Thornton died during the first devastating plague wave that swept through England in 1348 and 1349, wiping out between a third and half of the English population in a single fall event.
However, the radiocarbon dates and the evidence from the coins do not preclude later eruptions, such as occurred in 1361 and 1362. Historical records indicate that children and adolescent boys appeared to die in unusually large numbers during this outbreak, fairly more than half of the people buried in Thornton were 17 years or younger when they died.
Willmott and his colleagues found DNA sequences in the tooth pulp of a molar that matched those of Yersina pestis, the bacterium that causes bubonic plague (your loyal correspondent would like to point out that some scientists still do not agree whether The bubonic plague was the only disease involved in the historic event, we now call the Black Death, and the victims of the plague would have had huge populations of Y. pestis in their bloodstream upon death, and this bacterial-laden blood would have contained some of these bacteria transported to the soft tissue in the teeth, where parts of their DNA survived centuries of decay and burial.
Willmott and his colleagues speculate that the people who died at Thornton Abbey may have the same type of Y. pestis as those who died in London, 290 kilometers south of Lincolnshire. Archaeologists recovered the DNA of Y. pestis from four people in East Smithfield Cemetery in London. So far, however, the sequences from Thornton Abbey have not been sufficient to compare the tribes.
Enlarge /. A map of the abbey area with the location of the new discoveries.
"Further analysis will show how the plague at Thornton Abbey has been linked to other outbreaks in England and Europe, and will help reconstruct the historical spread of the disease," wrote Willmott and colleagues.
Rediscovery of a medieval hospital
The dead of Thornton Abbey had their own story to tell, but they also helped archaeologists find the hospital that they looked after in their final days. Medieval hospitals were often linked to monasteries and cathedrals, such as St. Mary's Hospital in London, where several large grave pits date from the 13th century. After Willmott and his colleagues found the mass grave, they decided to look for a hospital outside the walls of Thornton Abbey.
A document from 1322 describes repairs to the chapel roof of a hospital called St. James, which was right in front of the monastery. But 800 years later, the foundations of the buildings were long buried and forgotten – until Willmott and his colleagues dug a trench south of the mass grave. There they found the foundations of a large stone building 21 meters long and 11 meters wide, which they say was probably the hospital chapel (obviously much worse for wear despite the 1322 roofing). . A brick building extended from the west end of the chapel, and Willmott and his colleagues say this may have been the hospital's living area.
"It now seems likely that the St. James Hospital was actually in this location," wrote Willmott and his colleagues, "and in the 14th century it became the center for the treatment and subsequent burial of the large number of people affected . " with the black death. "