Construction in Poland Reveals Graves of 18th-Century Plague Victims

The Great Northern War plague outbreak peaked between roughly 1708 and 1712

Aerial view of cemetery in Poland
So far, researchers have discovered 100 plague victims buried in 60 graves. Jarosław Puszko via Facebook

Construction workers in northern Poland have uncovered an 18th-century cemetery where victims of the Great Northern War plague outbreak were laid to rest.

As Blanka Konopka reports for the Polish First News, builders stumbled across the burials while constructing an apartment complex in the town of Mikołajki. So far, archaeologists from the Jerzy Okulicz-Kozaryn Dajna Foundation have discovered the remains of 100 people in 60 graves.

Locals used the cemetery between 1710 and 1711, when the plague was spreading across the Mazury region, notes David Ruiz Marull for Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia. Many of the graves contain the remains of entire families.

“Written sources mention that there were no places in the church cemetery and therefore the dead were buried by the road to Mrągowo,” Agnieszka Jaremek, vice president of the Dajna Foundation, tells Joanna Kiewisz-Wojciechowska of the Polish Press Agency (PAP). “Everything indicates that we have discovered this place.”

In addition to the graveyard, researchers at the site found remnants of Neolithic and Roman settlements, including shards of ceramic vessels and a blue glass bead. Per La Vanguardia, ancient people probably gravitated toward the area because it was close to a lake and had relatively flat terrain.

The team also uncovered a separate burial ground dated to after the plague had passed. In use through the 19th century, this cemetery yielded buttons, among other finds.

“[The later burials] are different than the graves of plague victims, less ordered, multilayered,” Jaremek tells PAP.

Construction in Poland Reveals Graves of 18th-Century Plague Victims
In addition to the plague cemetery, researchers discovered traces of Neolithic and Roman settlements. Mateusz Klimek via Facebook

The plague besieged Europe during the Great Northern War, a clash that pitted Russia and its allies against Sweden in a quest for dominance of the Baltic Sea. Spanning 1700 to 1721, the conflict saw Russia defeat Sweden and successfully establish itself as one of the continent’s most formidable forces.

A physician at a Swedish military hospital recorded the first case of the plague in 1702, notes La Vanguardia. By 1709, the disease had reached the Baltic coast of Prussia, and by 1712, it had been recorded as far away as Hamburg, Germany.

According to Statista’s Aaron O’Neill, the epidemic peaked between 1708 and 1712. Trade and warfare contributed significantly to the plague’s spread, with soldiers and refugees carrying the disease across the region.

The Great Northern War outbreak was the last plague episode to affect the Baltic, which had experienced multiple waves of the disease since the Black Death struck in the mid-14th century, writes Jeff Moran for History Atlas. During this final plague epidemic, the death toll along the eastern Baltic coast was as high as two-thirds to three-quarters of the population, per La Vanguardia.

Researchers plan to continue analyzing the skeletons discovered in Mikołajki. Once tests are finished, they will rebury the remains in a communal grave.

“The issue of the exact burial place is a question for the future,” Joanna Sobolewska, director of the Department for the Protection of Monuments in Olsztyn, tells the First News.