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London skeletons reveal secrets of the Black Death

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In this Wednesday, March 26, 2014 photo, some of the skeletons found by construction workers under central London’s Charterhouse Square are pictured. Twenty-five skeletons were uncovered last year during work on Crossrail, a new rail line that’s boring 13 miles (21 kilometers) of tunnels under the heart of the city. Archaeologists immediately suspected the bones came from a cemetery for victims of the bubonic plague that ravaged Europe in the 14th century. The Black Death, as the plague was called, is thought to have killed at least 75 million people, including more than half of Britain’s population. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

In this Wednesday, March 26, 2014 photo, some of the skeletons found by construction workers under central London’s Charterhouse Square are pictured. Twenty-five skeletons were uncovered last year during work on Crossrail, a new rail line that’s boring 13 miles (21 kilometers) of tunnels under the heart of the city. Archaeologists immediately suspected the bones came from a cemetery for victims of the bubonic plague that ravaged Europe in the 14th century. The Black Death, as the plague was called, is thought to have killed at least 75 million people, including more than half of Britain’s population. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

In this Wednesday, March 26, 2014 photo, Don Walker, a human osteologist with the Museum of London, poses for photographers, with one of the skeletons found by construction workers under central London’s Charterhouse Square. Twenty-five skeletons were uncovered last year during work on Crossrail, a new rail line that’s boring 13 miles (21 kilometers) of tunnels under the heart of the city. Archaeologists immediately suspected the bones came from a cemetery for victims of the bubonic plague that ravaged Europe in the 14th century. The Black Death, as the plague was called, is thought to have killed at least 75 million people, including more than half of Britain’s population. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

In this Wednesday, March 26, 2014 photo, Don Walker, a human osteologist with the Museum of London, poses for photographers, with one of the skeletons found by construction workers under central London’s Charterhouse Square. Twenty-five skeletons were uncovered last year during work on Crossrail, a new rail line that’s boring 13 miles (21 kilometers) of tunnels under the heart of the city. Archaeologists immediately suspected the bones came from a cemetery for victims of the bubonic plague that ravaged Europe in the 14th century. The Black Death, as the plague was called, is thought to have killed at least 75 million people, including more than half of Britain’s population. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

In this Wednesday, March 26, 2014 photo, some of the skeletons found by construction workers under central London’s Charterhouse Square are pictured. Twenty-five skeletons were uncovered last year during work on Crossrail, a new rail line that’s boring 13 miles (21 kilometers) of tunnels under the heart of the city. Archaeologists immediately suspected the bones came from a cemetery for victims of the bubonic plague that ravaged Europe in the 14th century. The Black Death, as the plague was called, is thought to have killed at least 75 million people, including more than half of Britain’s population. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

In this Wednesday, March 26, 2014 photo, Don Walker, a human osteologist with the Museum of London, holds the scull of one of the skeletons found by construction workers under central London’s Charterhouse Square, while posing for photographers. Twenty-five skeletons were uncovered last year during work on Crossrail, a new rail line that’s boring 13 miles (21 kilometers) of tunnels under the heart of the city. Archaeologists immediately suspected the bones came from a cemetery for victims of the bubonic plague that ravaged Europe in the 14th century. The Black Death, as the plauge was called, is thought to have killed at least 75 million people, including more than half of Britain’s population. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

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LONDON (AP) — You can learn a lot from a tooth.

Molars taken from skeletons unearthed by work on a new London railway line are revealing secrets of the medieval Black Death — and of its victims.

This week, Don Walker, an osteologist with the Museum of London, outlined the biography of one man whose ancient bones were found by construction workers under London’s Charterhouse Square: He was breast-fed as a baby, moved to London from another part of England, had bad tooth decay in childhood, grew up to work as a laborer, and died in early adulthood from the bubonic plague that ravaged Europe in the 14th century.

The poor man’s life was nasty, brutish and short, but his afterlife is long and illuminating.

“It’s fantastic we can look in such detail at an individual who died 600 years ago,” Walker said. “It’s incredible, really.”

The 25 skeletons were uncovered last year during work on Crossrail, a new rail line that’s boring 13 miles (21 kilometers) of tunnels under the heart of the city. Archaeologists immediately suspected the bones came from a cemetery for plague victims. The location, outside the walls of the medieval city, chimes with historical accounts. The square, once home to a monastery, is one of the few spots in the city to stay undisturbed for centuries.

To test their theory, scientists took one tooth from each of 12 skeletons, then extracted DNA from the teeth. They announced Sunday that tests had found the presence of the plague bacterium, Yersinia pestis, in several of the teeth, meaning the individuals had been exposed to — and likely died from — the Black Death.

The findings didn’t stop there. Archaeologists, historians, microbiologists and physicists worked together to apply techniques from several scientific disciplines to the discovery.

Radiocarbon dating and analysis of pottery shards helped determine when the burials took place. Forensic geophysics — more commonly used in murder and war-crimes investigations — helped locate more graves under the square. Studying oxygen and strontium isotopes in the bones revealed details of

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