Despite having completely altered the history of London during the end of the 17th century, actual evidence of the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague has remained elusive. But after discovering a mass grave of plague victims in 2011 while constructing a new underground railway in central London, archaeologists have managed to identify the DNA from the Yersinia pestis bacterium that causes the disease.
“This is a hugely significant discovery as it is the first identification of ancient DNA from the 1665 Great Plague in Britain,” explains Don Walker, senior osteologist at the Museum of London Archaeology, who has spent the last five years analyzing all the remains unearthed. “This discovery has the potential to greatly enhance scientists' understanding of the disease and coupled with detailed research of the skeletons reveal more about this devastating epidemic and the lives of its victims.”
It has been during the building of Crossrail – the largest construction project in Europe – as it tunnels its way under London, that the engineers discovered over 3,500 remains in what was once Bedlam cemetery. The astonishing find of the plague pit has given researchers an unparalleled glimpse into what was going on during one of the most notorious periods of the city’s history, as well as providing an incredible record of the people who were living in London in the 1660s.
It was during this period that what is now known as the Great Plague swept through London, killing an estimated 100,000 people, thought to account for up a quarter of the entire city at the time. The epidemic that hit in 1665 was actually of a smaller scale than the earlier Black Death, but has been etched into the city's consciousness by Daniel Defoe’s evocative writings of the event in the early 18th century.
More than five years since the discovery of the mass grave at Liverpool Street, which is to become a new ticket hall for the railway, archaeologists have been studying those who succumbed to the disease, and have eventually been able to isolate the Y. pestis bacterium.
Interestingly, the mass grave at Liverpool Street is also able to reveal another aspect of the plague as it swept through London. Despite Defoe writing at the time, “Tis certain they died by heaps and were buried by heaps; that is to say, without account,” the burials were actually very ordered, with the team of archaeologists determining from the positioning of the skeletons that they had all been laid to rest in coffins. It seems that even when scores were dying due to the plague, the dead were still treated with respect, though it is also possible that by the end of the epidemic disorder began to spread.