Bodies discovered in a pit near Liverpool underwent DNA testing, leading scientists to a massive discovery.
Crossrail reported a burial pit contained as many as 100 bodies.
Of those bodies, archaeologists removed 42 individuals, five of whom were exposed to Yersinia pestis, otherwise known as the bubonic plague.
The mass grave was dated between 1650 and 1670 with help from pottery, glass and coffin handles.
DNA testing revealed the Great Bubonic Plague of 1665, the last major bubonic plague epidemic in Britain that killed 100,000 Londoners, was truly caused by Yersinia pestis.
It has long been believed the bubonic plague was responsible for the deaths of the majority of London’s population but until this discovery, there was no solid evidence.
Jay Carver, the Crossrail Lead Archaeologist, stated: “The Crossrail project has given archaeologists a rare opportunity to study previously inaccessible areas of London. The discovery of the ancient DNA, which has eluded scientists for so long, is yet another piece of the jigsaw that we are piecing together to learn more about the lives and deaths of 16th to 18th Century Londoners.”
Don Walker, the Senior Osteologist at MOLA, reported: “This is a hugely significant discovery as it is the first identification of ancient DNA from the 1665 Great Plague in Britain. This discovery has the potential to greatly enhance scientist’s understanding of the disease and coupled with detailed research of the skeletons reveal more about this devastating epidemic and the lives of its victims.”
Finally, Vanessa Harding, a professor of London History, Birkbeck, and the University of London, said: “This is a very exciting finding, for the history of London, the history of disease, and the history of burial. It confirms that Yersinia pestis was present in early modern London plague epidemics, and links them epidemiologically with the 14th-Century Black Death and the 1720 Marseille plague.
“We still need, however, to understand why the disease manifested itself in so many different ways, and whether other pathogens made a significant contribution to these epidemics. The excavation also underlines the strength of custom and order in time of crisis, showing that plague burial, even in mass graves, could be controlled and orderly, with bodies in coffins laid neatly on each other – not quite the shamolic ‘plague pit’ of popular discourse.”
Though Yersinia pestis was once responsible for the deaths of thousands of people, today it is easily treated with a course of antibiotics.
By Kenya Sinclair