The Crossrail ‘Black Death Pit’: Corpses and Dead Body Politics

by Jen Turner

Copied from German Wikipedia, where caption "Illustration of bubonic plague in the Bible", Public Domain

Excavations for London’s Crossrail project have unearthed bodies believed to date from the time of the Black Death. The £14.8bn Crossrail project aims to establish a 118km-long (73-mile) high-speed rail link with 37 stations across London, and is due to open in 2018.Thirteen bodies have been found so far in the 5.5m-wide shaft at the edge of Charterhouse Square, alongside pottery dated to the mid-14th Century. A BBC report suggests that analysis of DNA taken from the skeletons may also help to shed light on the lives of Londoners of that day. In addition, the bodies may contain DNA from the bacteria responsible for the plague that became known as the Black Death – from an early stage in the pandemic – helping modern epidemiologists track the development and spread of differing strains of a pathogen that still exists today.

Charterhouse Square lies in an area that was once outside the walls of London, referred to at the time as “No-man’s Land”. By 1658, the area had escaped this status.  The skeletons’ arrangement in two neat rows suggests they date from the earliest era of the Black Death, before it fully developed into the pandemic that in later years saw bodies dumped haphazardly into mass graves. Archaeologists working for Crossrail and the Museum of London will continue to dig in a bid to discover further remains, or any finds from earlier eras.

Jay Carver, project archaeologist for Crossrail told the BBC that the site is “probably the most important medieval site we’ve got” because of the type of data represented in the shaft.  The find is providing more than just a precise location for the long-lost burial ground; “We’ve got a snapshot of the population from the 14th Century – we’ll look for signs that they’d done a lot of heavy, hard work, which will show on the bones, and general things about their health and their physique,” said Nick Elsden, project manager from the Museum of London Archaeology, which is working with Crossrail on its sites.

“It’s fantastic. Personally, as an archaeologist, finding good-quality archaeological data which is intact that hasn’t been messed around by previous construction is always a great opportunity for new research information – that’s why we do the job,” said Mr Carver. “Every hole we’re digging is contributing info to London archaeologists, who are constantly piecing together and synthesising the information we’ve got for London as a whole – it’s providing information to slot into that study of London and its history.”

The importance of this discovery for today’s population raises key issues surrounding the agency of dead bodies in contributing to the formation of contemporary geographies.  This calls to mind a paper recently published by Craig Young and Duncan Light in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers.  This paper follows the mobilities between 1958 and 1990 of the dead body of Dr Petru Groza (1884–1958), a significant political figure in post-World War II socialist Romania, to explore the implications for human geography of engaging with the dead. Young and Light argue that, although there has been a considerable interest in ‘geographies of the body’ and ‘deathscapes’, human geography has had relatively little to say about dead bodies. The paper draws on literatures from death studies and dead body politics, as well as research in memory studies, history, anthropology and law, to develop an interdisciplinary approach to understanding the role of the corpse in society, and argues that human geography should do more to consider how dead bodies contribute to the formation of contemporary geographies. To illustrate these points the analysis first explores how the treatment of Groza’s corpse and the ‘deathwork’ associated with it is an example of ‘dead body politics’. Second, the analysis draws out the agency of the corpse and its role in a variety of ‘deathscapes’. The conclusion considers the implications for human geography of engaging with ‘corpse geographies’ more generally.

In a field dominated by archaeologists and historians, it seems that Young and Light clearly find a more significant role for the dead in contemporary human geography.

books_iconCraig Young and Duncan Light (2013) Corpses, dead body politics and agency in human geography: following the corpse of Dr Petru Groza, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 38 (1), 135-148.

Jason Palmer,

‘Black Death pit’ unearthed by Crossrail project, BBC News, 15 March 2013.60-world2

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