A huge burial pit containing 48 skeletons, 27 of which are children’s, has been excavated in the unassuming port town of Immingham in Lincolnshire.
A group of archaeologists from the University of Sheffield were searching the site of Thornton Abbey for evidence of a post-medieval buildings but got more than they bargained for when they uncovered a Black Death burial pit.
The skeletons have now been found to date back to the 14th century and are thought to have died from the bubonic plague which wiped out between 75 million and 200 million people across Europe and Asia. Teeth samples tested positive for plague-y bacteria which is recorded to have hit Lincolnshire in 1349.
The differentiating factor in this mass grave from, say, the numerous ones under London, is that the bodies weren’t all just flung in – a common way of putting dead bodies in pits.
Instead, these skeletons lay neatly in lines, with a good bit of wriggle room between them, indicating that they all died and were placed in there at the same time.
Dr Hugh Willmott, from the University of Sheffield’s department of archaeology, said the placement of some of the children overlapping adults indicates that there may have been family members.
As for how it went unnoticed for so long, there’s a reasonable explanation; burying people in a church graveyard makes large numbers of skeletons somewhat unassuming.
However, as these included men, women and children it means they were not from the abbey but possibly from a monastery hospital believed to have also been on the site.
Because the plague killed people within three to five days, it is likely that family members brought their relatives to the hospital in the hope that they would be administered the last rites and get a decent burial.
Dr Willmott said: “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.
“Mass burials are a signal of when the system has broken down,” he said. “This community had obviously reached a point where it could not cope.”
And while skeletons are morbidly fascinating, it’s what the reveal about life rather than death that is most interesting, says Dr Willmott.
“We don’t focus just on their deaths. Archaeologists tend to see the point as learning about these people in life. We know now they died from the Black Death but this was a living, breathing community. What can these skeletons tell us about their lives before their funeral?”
He said one artefact found in the excavated hospital building was a small Tau Cross pendant, which some people thought was a cure for St Anthony's fire, a term used to describe a variety of skin conditions.
The team are now setting about finding out how many of the skeletons are related and what else they may have lived through.