Skeletons Under Railroad Could Tell Us About Plague
London excavation to unearth thousands of bones with possible bubonic clues
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Mar 10, 2015 11:57 AM CDT
Archaeologists excavate the 16th- and 17th-century Bedlam burial ground uncovered by work on the new Crossrail train line next to Liverpool Street station in London, Friday, March 6, 2015.   (Matt Dunham)
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(Newser) – They came from every parish of London, and from all walks of life, and ended up in a burial ground called Bedlam. Now scientists hope these centuries-old skeletons can reveal new information about how long-ago Londoners lived—and about the bubonic plague that often killed them. Archaeologists announced yesterday that they've begun excavating the bones of some 3,000 people interred in the 16th and 17th centuries, who now lie in the path of the Crossrail transit line. They'll be pored over by scientists before being reburied elsewhere. One recent workday, just yards from the teeming Liverpool Street railway station, researchers scraped, sifted, and gently removed skeletons embedded in the dark earth. In one corner of the site, the skeleton of an adult lay beside the fragile remains of a baby, the wooden outline of its coffin still visible. Most were less intact: a jumble of bones and skulls.

Due to open in 2018, the 73-mile trans-London Crossrail line is Britain's biggest construction project, and its largest archaeological dig for decades. The central 13-mile section runs underground, with tunneling beneath some of the oldest, most densely populated parts of the city. Bedlam cemetery opened in 1569 to take the overspill as city churchyard burial grounds filled up. Tests on the bones may reveal where these Londoners came from, what they ate, and what ailed them—in many cases, the plague. There were four outbreaks of the deadly disease over the two centuries the cemetery was in use, including the "Great Plague" that killed 100,000 people in 1665. The chief archaeologist says researchers will analyze DNA taken from pulp in the skeletons' teeth to help fill in the "evolutionary tree of the plague bacteria." Sixty archaeologists will spend about a month removing the remains; after study, they'll be reburied on Canvey Island in the Thames Estuary.