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Home » Black Death victims not all buried in mass graves, DNA analysis shows

Black Death victims not all buried in mass graves, DNA analysis shows

In the mid-14th century, Europe faced a devastating pandemic—the Black Death—resulting in the loss of 40 to 60 percent of the population. Subsequent waves of plague continued to afflict the continent for centuries. Plague, known for its rapid fatality, typically leaves no discernible traces on skeletons, making it challenging for archaeologists to identify individual victims unless buried in mass graves.

The After the Plague project, led by researchers at the University of Cambridge's Department of Archaeology, has made a breakthrough by studying DNA from teeth of individuals who succumbed to the Black Death. The presence of Yersinia Pestis, the plague-causing pathogen, was identified in individuals buried individually at a parish cemetery and friary in Cambridge, as well as in the nearby village of Clopton.

Craig Cessford, the lead author from the University of Cambridge, emphasized that the findings challenge previous assumptions, highlighting that even during plague outbreaks, individuals were buried with care and attention. Notably, the friary revealed instances where several individuals received meticulous burials within the chapter house, as uncovered by excavations conducted by the Cambridge Archaeological Unit on behalf of the University in 2017.

Individuals buried in the chapter house of the Augustinian friary, Cambridge, who died of plague. Credit: Cambridge Archaeological Unit

Even at the parish of All Saints by the Castle in Cambridge, an individual who fell victim to the plague received a carefully arranged burial. This stands in stark contrast to historical accounts in 1365, describing the church as partially ruinous, with “the bones of dead bodies exposed to beasts.”

The study further unveils instances of mass burials for certain plague victims in Cambridge. Yersinia Pestis, the plague pathogen, was identified in individuals from St Bene't's parish, buried collectively in a large trench within the churchyard. This trench was excavated by the Cambridge Archaeological Unit on behalf of Corpus Christi College.

Remarkably, this section of the churchyard was later transferred to Corpus Christi College, founded by the St Bene't's parish guild to commemorate the deceased, including victims of the Black Death. For centuries, members of the College traversed the ground daily, unaware that they walked over the mass burial site.

Craig Cessford, the lead author, highlighted the significance of their findings, asserting that it is now feasible to identify individuals who succumbed to the plague and received individual burials. This advancement enhances our understanding of the plague, revealing that even amid traumatic pandemics, people endeavored to bury the deceased with utmost care.

Source: University of Cambridge

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