A rare Black Death burial site has been discovered at a 14th-century monastery hospital in the UK, containing skeletons of 48 victims of the worst pandemic in human history.
The Black Death devastated European populations from 1346-1353 AD and resulted in the deaths of an estimated 75 to 200 million people.
The presence of such a large burial site, containing both male and female adults, as well as 27 children, suggests the local community was overwhelmed by the Black Death and was left unable to cope with the number of people who died.
"The only two previously identified 14th-century sites where Yersinia pestis (the bacterium responsible for the plague) has been identified are historically documented cemeteries in London, where the civic authorities were forced to open new emergency burial grounds to cope with the very large numbers of the urban dead," said Hugh Willmott from the University of Sheffield in the UK.
"The finding of a previously unknown and completely unexpected mass burial dating to this period in a quiet corner of rural Lincolnshire is thus far unique, and sheds light into the real difficulties faced by a small community ill prepared to face such a devastating threat," said Willmott.
"While skeletons are interesting, they just represent the end of somebody's life and actually what we are interested in as archaeologists is the life they led before they died," he said,
"One of the ways we can connect with that is through the everyday objects they left behind," said Willmott, who has been working on the excavation site since 2011.
"One artefact that we found at Thornton Abbey was a little pendant. It is a Tau Cross and was found in the excavated hospital building," he said.
"This pendant was used by some people as a supposed cure against a condition called St Antony's fire, which in modern day science is probably a variety of skin conditions," he said.
Ancient DNA was successfully extracted from the tooth pulp of the skeletons found at the site. Tests on the DNA showed the presence of Yersinia pestis, which is documented to have reached Lincolnshire in the spring of 1349.
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