Black Death discovery offers rare new look at plague catastrophe

An unexpected archaeological find in an ancient abbey may reveal how rural populations handled the ravages of a deadly epidemic.

Photograph courtesy University of Sheffield, Antiquity Publications Ltd
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Four dozen individuals were buried in a mass grave (detail above) on the grounds of Thornton Abbey, England, during the plague outbreak of 1348-49.

Photograph courtesy University of Sheffield, Antiquity Publications Ltd

Black Death discovery offers rare new look at plague catastrophe

An unexpected archaeological find in an ancient abbey may reveal how rural populations handled the ravages of a deadly epidemic.

In 1348 London, people looked to mainland Europe with dread. The Black Death was sweeping in from the Continent, leaving panic and death in its wake. “The wife fled the embrace of a dear husband, the father that of a son, and the brother that of a brother,” according to one Italian account. “Those burying, carrying, seeing or touching the infected often died suddenly themselves.”

Just as health officials today are reacting to the spread of a new strain of coronavirus, the medieval city of London prepared for the plague’s impact more than 600 years ago. Historical documents show that the city leased land for emergency graveyards, digging long trenches for mass burials in advance of epidemics.

Meanwhile, some 150 miles north of London, the rural residents of the countryside in what is today Lincolnshire seem to have been taken by surprise by the impact of Y. pestis. Rather than bury their dead in in the parish cemetery, per tradition, at one point in the mid-14th century local residents quickly buried dozens of people at once in a mass grave on the grounds of Thornton Abbey, a mile from the churchyard.

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Villagers carry the coffins of plague victims in this mid-14th-century depiction of the outbreak in Europe.

As the plague took its toll across the countryside, it appears that its stricken victims in Lincolnshire flocked to the hospital at Thornton Abbey. There, they hoped to receive a “good death”—last rites and burial in consecrated Christian ground, ensuring their place in the afterlife.

“They probably came [to the hospital] to die,” says Sheffield University archaeologist Hugh Willmott. “It was more about burial than getting better.”

Willmott and his colleagues have found rare—and unexpected—evidence of the locals’ response to the 1348 plague on the grounds of the former abbey: A mass grave holding the remains of 48 people, all of whom appear to have been buried within days or weeks of each other.

Though as much as half of England’s population was dead by the end of 1349 (and perhaps 200 million dead across Eurasia), there are surprisingly few archaeological sites associated with medieval plague events.

And while there are less than a handful of mass graves associated with the plague yet found in England, according to Willmott, the Thornton Abbey discovery is also notable for being the only one so far that has been unearthed in a rural setting. That’s especially notable because it’s been assumed that in sparsely populated rural areas with plenty of open land, people were able to regularly bury their dead in individual graves rather than in mass burials. Thornton Abbey suggests other outcomes. “Clearly,” Willmott says, “the system that normally operated for dealing with the dead broke down.”

The researchers documented their find in a paper published today in the journal Antiquity.

Demographics of devastation

In 2013, the multi-disciplinary group of researchers archaeologists excavated a mound of glacial sand and gravel on the former site of the wealthy priory, which was ultimately shuttered in 1539 by Henry VIII. A geophysical survey suggested they’d find the remains of a building. Instead, they found bodies—four dozen of them—each individually shrouded with arms crossed at the waist. While no grave goods accompanied the remains, archaeologists were able to pinpoint a mass burial date around the time of the plague based on two silver pennies and two radiocarbon-dated skeletons.

The plague’s devastation is reflected in the grave demographics, Willmott says. More than half of the burials are children under 17—an overrepresentation for the time period, when infant mortality was high, but older children tended to survive into adulthood.

“What we've got is a catastrophic mortality profile, in which basically everyone is being cut down equally,” says Willmott. “We've got sort of a flat line going across society.”

The area’s local parish cemetery—which is still in use today—is only a mile from the abbey, but at the time of the epidemic in the mid-fourteenth century, it may have been overwhelmed by the number of local victims. “I suspect these bodies were buried in the precincts of the abbey as the churchyard had become full, and rather than dispense with the normal requirements of burial by packing bodies in communal pits in the churchyard, they used land within the abbey walls,” says University of Cambridge historian John Hatcher, who has written three books on the plague. He was not involved in the current study.

The teeth of two children in the grave tested positive for Y. pestis, and the DNA of the microbe was recovered from one of them.

“The retrieval of plague DNA from a burial at Thornton Abbey is a significant discovery, particularly as it is the first from the north of England,” says Don Walker, senior human osteologist for Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA), which in 2013 unearthed a 1348–49 plague mass grave in London’s Charterhouse Square during the Crossrail transit project. (Walker wasn’t part of the Antiquity study.) He adds, “further analysis of the bacterial DNA promises to contribute significantly to recent work on the evolution and spread of plague in Europe during and after the Black Death.”