Rare plague pit find made by Sheffield archaeologists

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More than half of 48 skeletons found in an ‘extremely rare’ Black Death burial pit were those of children, Sheffield archaeologists have said.

The mass burial has been uncovered at the site of a 14th-century monastery hospital by a team from Sheffield University.

The presence of such a large burial site - which included both male and female adults as well as 27 children - suggests the community was overwhelmed by the plague and left unable to cope with the number of people who died, they said.

The Black Death was one of the worst pandemics in human history. It devastated European populations from 1346 to 1353 and resulted in the deaths of an estimated 75 to 200 million people.

The team said they sent teeth samples from the skeletons, found at Thornton Abbey, near Immingham in North Lincolnshire, to McMaster University in Canada, where ancient DNA was successfully extracted from the tooth pulp. The test revealed the presence of Yersinia pestis, the bacterium responsible for the plague.

Dr Hugh Willmott, from the university’s archaeology department, said: “Despite the fact it is now estimated that up to half the population of England perished during the Black Death, multiple graves associated with the event are extremely rare in this country, and it seems local communities continued to dispose of their loved ones in as ordinary a way as possible.”

Dr Willmott, who has been working at the abbey since 2011, said the only two previously identified 14th-century sites where Yersinia pestis has been identified are historically documented cemeteries 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.

He 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.”

Dr Diana Mahoney Swales, of the university’s department for lifelong learning, who is leading the study of the bodies, said: “Once the skeletons return to the lab, we start properly learning who these people really are.”

Experts will identify the bones’ gender and age, then investigate the diseases the people may have lived through.

n The project will feature on the BBC’s Digging For Britain programme on December 13.