In the summer of 1348, the Black Death arrived in southwest England. The deadly disease rapidly swept through the country, ultimately killing between one-third and one-half of its population. Now, a team of researchers writing in the journal Antiquity has revealed new details about a mass grave of probable Black Death victims buried in the English countryside. The discovery offers rare insight into the plague’s “catastrophic” impact on rural communities.
The grave, located on the grounds of the historic Thornton Abbey in North Lincolnshire, was first excavated in 2013. Archaeologists unearthed the remains of at least 48 individuals, including 27 children. Differences in levels between the rows of bodies suggest the grave was “filled over the course of several days or weeks,” according to the study’s authors. Radiocarbon dating of two skeletons indicated the victims died sometime between 1295 and 1400, while ceramics and two silver pennies found in the grave helped experts narrow the date range down to the mid-14th century.
Though the researchers acknowledge that any number of factors could have driven the mass fatality in Lincolnshire, they suspect the Black Death is the “most probable cause.” Documentary evidence indicates the bubonic plague had hit Lincolnshire by the spring of 1349. What’s more, centuries-old DNA extracted from the teeth of 16 individuals buried at the site revealed the presence of Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that causes the disease.
The skeletons’ ages—which ranged from 1 year old to over 45—lend further credence to the theory that something devastating was at play. Hugh Willmott, a senior lecturer in European historical archaeology at the University of Sheffield and leader of the excavation, tells Live Science’s Mindy Weisberger that medieval cemeteries are typically dominated by very young and relatively old individuals, who are particularly susceptible to disease and injury.
“But what we’ve got is not that profile at all,” says Willmott. “We can tell from the proportion of individuals that everyone is being affected, and everyone is dying.”
Despite the Black Death’s seismic impact on medieval England’s population and society, graves filled with plague victims are quite rare. The best-known examples come from two 14th-century mass graves in London, “where the civic authorities were forced to open new emergency burial grounds to cope with the very large numbers of the urban dead,” explains Willmott in a statement.
Researchers once thought that rural villages with sparser populations were able to cope with the number of plague victims by burying the dead in separate churchyard graves, just as they would have done under less extreme circumstances. But the mass grave in Lincolnshire—which, according to the study authors, “represents the first Black Death mass grave found in Britain in a non-urban context”—suggests country dwellers were also overwhelmed by the Black Death’s toll.
Crucially, the researchers suspect that a hospital run by the clergy of Thornton Abbey was located just outside of the monastery’s walls; records from 1322 reference the building, and the remains of a structure discovered south of the grave might represent the spot where the hospital once stood. If many people died at the facility during the Black Death outbreak, clergymen may have struggled to cope, opting for a communal grave instead of distinct burials. The location of the grave also suggests that something was profoundly amiss. Normally, Willmott tells Esther Addley of the Guardian, Lincolnshire’s dead would have been buried in a nearby parish graveyard.
“[P]erhaps the priest or the gravedigger has died—[so] you turn to the church, the canons at the abbey down the road,” the archaeologist explains.
The Lincolnshire grave thus seems to represent a “catastrophic failure of the established system of dealing with the dead,” according to the study. Rather poignantly, however, the burials were far from haphazard. Based on the compression of the skeletons’ shoulders, the researchers think the bodies were wrapped in shrouds, then carefully arrayed in eight rows.
“They are trying to treat them as respectfully as possible, because in the middle ages it’s very important to give the dead a proper burial,” Willmott tells the Guardian. “Even though it is the height of a terrible disaster, they are taking as much care as they can with the dead.”