This week I was lucky enough to venture into the very depths of the Museum of London to meet Jelena Bekvalac and her team in Human Osteology where they are slowly but surely reassembling and recording the skeletons of Londoners from a 2000 year period. This mammoth task includes separating and cataloguing the bones of everyone from plague victims to newborn babies.
The plague, or the Black Death, is a particularly interesting period in London’s history; it was both short and dramatic, hitting hardest in 1349 to 50. Whilst outbreaks of plague in London would continue throughout the following two centuries (and still occur throughout undeveloped parts of the world), the largest death toll occurred in a very brief period. Families were wiped out, whole neighbourhoods destroyed and the landscape of the medieval city was changed for good.
Chatting to Jelena and the team, one thing became clear, that the architecture of ‘catastrophe cemeteries’ has changed little over hundreds of years. When the need arises to bury many bodies in a very short space of time, multiple burials or ‘pits’ are how it works. The London Plague Pits are remarkable in their construction, forming two long trenches rather than rough holes, indicating some order and forethought. This is, as far as is known, a unique site.
London’s plague pits in East Smithfield are, of their type, the finest and most complete in the world, matched only by a similar Black Death catastrophe cemetery of similar age in Germany. Catastrophe cemeteries are invaluable in providing a ‘living cross-section’ of society. This sounds strange, but as plague is an indiscriminate and ‘unnatural’ killer, the cemetery contains the remains of Londoners from every strata of the city and from tiny babies to healthy youths, all the way to the elderly. Jelena and her team have worked with the remains disinterred from this cemetery to reconstruct a picture of the city in those years. The results are fascinating.
Jelena will be speaking on excavations undertaken at the catastrophe cemetery at East Smithfield (upon which the Royal Mint was subsequently built), at the upcoming Museum of London free Lunchtime Lecture.