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Rail Work Brakes for Plague Skeletons

Friday, March 22, 2013

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Construction workers try to avoid project glitches like the plague. But what if the actual plague is the cause of the glitch?

That's exactly what happened when 13 skeletons were recently discovered about eight feet under a road in central London, where construction is underway for a massive rail line.

The remains, believed to be from victims of the Black Death in the mid-1300s, were discovered lying in two neat rows as workers surveyed land for the Crossrail project, Europe's largest constructon project.

Crossrail UK infrastructure
Photos: Crossrail

Thirteen skeletons were discovered under a road in central London. The remains are believed to be from a burial ground set up during the Black Plague in 1348. An archaeologist called the find "highly significant."

Mass Burial Ground

"This is a highly significant discovery, and, at the moment, we are left with many questions that we hope to answer," said Jay Carver, Crossrail Lead Archaeologist, in a press release.

Historic records reference a burial ground opened during the Black Death in the area of Charterhouse Square, and limited written records indicate that up to 50,000 individuals may have been buried in less than three years, according to the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA).

"We will be undertaking scientific tests on the skeletons over the coming months," said Carver. "...However, at this early stage, the depth of burials, the pottery found with the skeletons, and the way the skeletons have been set out, all point towards this being part of the 14th-century emergency burial ground."

Black Plague skeletons

Crossrail is the biggest construction project in Europe and will boost London's rail-based transportation by 10 percent, the company said. Because of the unknown artifacts lying under the city, the vast infrastructure project also has a team of archaeologists on hand.

The skeletons are being excavated and taken to the archaeology museum, where experts will map DNA of the plague bacteria. The bones may also be radio carbon dated to try to establish burial dates.

After hundreds of years, the plague wouldn't be able to survive in the soil, so the bones do not present a modern-day health risk.

The Black Death—an outbreak of bubonic plague that began in China—was one of the worst pandemics of all time, peaking in Europe between 1348 and 1350, and killing between 75 million and 200 million people. In five years, the plague killed about one-third of Europe's people.

Abundance of Artifacts

This isn't the first archaeological find for the Crossrail project, which has a team of archaeologists on hand for such discoveries. Archaeologists previously uncovered more than 300 burials at the New Cemetery near where Bedlam Hospital was located from the 1500s to the 1700s.

With more than 40 worksites, Crossrail is the UK's largest archaeology program, the company said.

Archaeologists on the project have also found "the UK's largest piece of amber ever discovered, bones from huge prehistoric animals that roamed the ice-covered London plains, and items used by humans during the Bronze Age, Roman and Medieval times."

Charterhouse Farringdon

Work on Crossrail has also uncovered burials from the Bedlam Hospital, prehistoric animal bones, pottery, and a very large piece of amber. Archaeologists are assigned to the rail project.

About Crossrail

Crossrail is the biggest construction project in Europe and one of the largest single infrastructure investments ever undertaken in the UK, the company said.

The project has a funding envelope of £14.8 billion (approximately $22.5 billion U.S.).

When Crossrail opens, which is planned for 2018, it will increase London's rail-based transportation network by 10 percent. The route will pass through 37 stations, running 73 miles from Maidenhead and Heathrow in the west, and through new, twin-bore, 13-mile tunnels to Shenfield and Abbey Wood in the east. 

Crossrail is being delivered by Crossrail Limited (CRL), a wholly owned subsidiary of Transport for London. Crossrail is jointly sponsored by the Department for Transport and Transport for London.


Tagged categories: Construction; Infrastructure; Rail

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