Keele forensic geophysics helps solve 660-year-old mystery


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Posted on 01 April 2014
We have also found the eastern edge of the burial pit in the square by resistivity methods. This is one of the oldest mass burials found by geophysical methods anywhere."

A Geophysics team from Keele University has helped London Crossrail in their investigations into the burial of Black Death victims from the great pandemic of the 14th Century.

Records say thousands of Londoners perished and their corpses were dumped in a mass grave outside the City, but its exact location was a mystery.

But skeletons unearthed during London Crossrail excavations have been confirmed as Black Death victims - their teeth contain DNA from the plague bacterium Yersinia pestis and their graves have been dated to 1348-50.

Archaeologists now believe the grave is under Charterhouse Square near the Barbican.

In a bid to understand just how far the grave extends across the square, Crossrail approached the Keele University to undertake a forensic geophysics survey - using ground-penetrating radar, which has already picked up signs of many more graves.

Keele Geophysicist, Dr Jamie Pringle, said: "we have found significant numbers of buried objects in parts of the square which look to be similar to the graves found by Crossrail. We have also found the eastern edge of the burial pit in the square by resistivity methods. This is one of the oldest mass burials found by geophysical methods anywhere."

Crossrail's lead archaeologist Jay Carver says the find "solves a 660-year-old mystery".

He said: “Analysis of the Crossrail find has revealed an extraordinary amount of information allowing us to solve a 660 year mystery. This discovery is a hugely important step forward in documenting and understanding Europe’s most devastating pandemic. Historical sources told us that thousands of burials of Black Death victims were made in the 14th Century in the area that is now modern day Farringdon, but until Crossrail’s discovery, archaeologists had been unable to confirm the story. Ancient DNA work is complex and still in development but the results do confirm the presence of the deadly plague bacterium preserved in the teeth.

“What’s really exciting is the bringing together many different lines of evidence to create a picture of such a devastating world event as the Black Death. Historians, archaeologists, micro-biologists, and physicists are all working together to chart the origins and development of one of the world’s worst endemic diseases and help today’s researchers in ancient and modern diseases better understand the evolution of these bacteria.

“The forensic geophysics results are really intriguing and potentially an important breakthrough in burial ground research. We will undertake further excavations in Charterhouse Square later this year to confirm some of the results.”


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