London Crossrail Project Unearths Black Death Burial Pit

“Bring out your dead!”

If you lived in London in 1348-50, you’d hear that call a lot. All of Europe was swept with the Black Death, a virulent plague that killed an estimated one-third of the population. London, like other congested urban areas, got hit hard.

Now archaeologists working in London have uncovered a mass grave of Black Death victims, a Crossrail press release reports. Digging ahead of the planned London Crossrail transportation project, the team discovered a mass grave of 13 bodies at Charterhouse Square, an area known as a burial ground during the plague. Pottery from the mid-14th century found at the site helps confirm the identification.

The bodies were laid out neatly in rows, hinting that the burial ground was from the early stages of the Black Death. When the plague was going full force, bodies were simply dumped into giant pits.

Now archaeologists are examining the bones to learn more about how the people lived, including diet, physical health and work-related wear and tear on the body. They also hope to find surviving DNA from the plague to give scientists a better idea of how it developed. Researchers stress that the plague bacteria cannot live for long in the soil and the excavation poses no health risk.

This is only the latest in a series of finds by the Crossrail workers. Earlier we reported on their discovery of a 3,500-year-old Bronze Age trackway. The Crossrail project is a high-speed train system that will link 37 stations along 73 miles of track through London. It’s due to open in 2018.

Sadly, the 14th century plague was only the first wave of a persistent contagion. The Black Death returned to London several times, the worst being in 1665-6, when it killed 100,000 Londoners.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Five unusual monuments of London

The historic city of London is filled with monuments of all kinds: to politicians, heroes, kings, and queens. Many blend into the background, just some more overdressed statues on plinths looking down at the traffic. Here are five unusual monuments that really stand out.

Animals in War Memorial

While London is full of war memorials, this one on Park Lane next to Hyde Park is a bit different, as you can see from this Wikimedia Commons image. It’s dedicated to all the animals who served in war. Used as mounts for cavalry or as beasts of burden, they suffered and died alongside their human comrades. The inscription says:

“This monument is dedicated to all the animals
that served and died alongside British and allied forces
in wars and campaigns throughout time
They had no choice”

The Golden Boy of Gluttony

This fat little naked guy commemorates the Great Fire of 1666, when much of London burnt down. The plaque claims the fire was caused by the “sin of gluttony”. Located at the corner of Giltspur and Cock Lane, the fire stopped just short of here. That’s a shame because the old inn that stood on this site was the scene of sins far greater than gluttony. At a time when the only bodies surgeons could get for study were those of the executed, “resurrection men” would steal the recently buried from graveyards and lay them out for sale in the upper floors of the inn. The practice became so widespread that cemeteries had to post armed guards.


Simply called “Monument”, the 202-foot column at the corner of Monument St. and Fish St. Hill also commemorates the Great Fire. Unlike the people who erected the Golden Boy, the builders of this memorial blamed the Catholics. The anti-Catholic plaque was removed in 1831. The column’s height is significant-it’s the exact distance from the pillar to the house in Pudding Lane where the fire started.

Monument was designed by the famous architect Sir Christopher Wren (who also designed St. Paul’s Cathedral) and was completed in 1677. It sports a bright golden flame at the top and an observation tower with splendid views reachable by 311 steep steps. Making it all the way up earns you an official certificate proving your accomplishment. The platform became a popular place for distraught Londoners to hurl themselves to their deaths; more people died at the Monument than from the fire itself until a protective screen was installed.

Cleopatra’s Needle

Dramatically set alongside the Thames Embankment between Waterloo and Hungerford Bridges is something you don’t expect to see in London-an ancient Egyptian obelisk covered in hieroglyphs. The name is misleading. It wasn’t erected by Cleopatra but rather by Thothmes III around 1500 BC. Two centuries later Ramses the Great added some inscriptions boasting of his military prowess. When Cleopatra was redecorating Alexandria in 12 BC she had the obelisk moved there.

It was donated to the British Empire in 1819 by Muhammad Ali, viceroy of Egypt, as thanks for the English kicking Napoleon out of Egypt. Getting it to England proved problematic. They didn’t even try until 1877, when the obelisk was encased in a metal cylinder and towed out to sea. It was lost in a storm in the Bay of Biscay only to be spotted by another ship floating peacefully on the waves. The chips out of its bottom are courtesy of German bombing during World War One.

Watts Memorial in Postman’s Park

Next to the 18th century church of St. Botolph-without-Aldersgate on Aldersgate Street stands Postman’s Park, a tranquil oasis amid the rush of the city. A curious feature of this park is the Watts Memorial, erected in 1900 by a parishioner who wanted to honor those who had given their lives while trying to save others. Each hero or heroine is given a plaque briefly telling their story. The accumulated effect of the dozens of plaques is deeply moving.

Visiting monuments is one way to travel on a budget. All except Monument are free, and they tell you a lot about British history and worldview. Are going to London? Check out AOL Travel’s London guide!

London’s seamy side revealed in new exhibition

London has always had an underworld, a dangerous side. Just go out late on a Saturday night and you’re sure to see a fight. For many, the hint of danger is one of the city’s attractions, at least if you don’t have to deal with it full time.

Back in the 18th and 19th century, there was nothing attractive about the St. Giles Rookery. It got its name because tiny apartments were stacked atop one another like birdhouses. Only the poorest of the poor lived there–the beggars, the prostitutes, the gin addicts. Especially the gin addicts. Gin was a national addiction, a cheap way to get blasted. Gin addiction was immortalized in Hogarth’s engraving Gin Lane, showing a drunken mother accidentally knocking her baby over a railing while a tradesman hawks his tools and a man hangs himself within view of an uncaring crowd.

Hogarth was no teetotaler. He liked a good drink, as his engraving Beer Street shows. It’s the same scene, gentrified. Industrious drinkers of real ale prosper and flirt in clean, attractive surroundings. It must have seemed like heaven to the denizens of the Rookery.

A new exhibition by the Museum of London looks at the lives of these nearly forgotten people, thanks to an excavation the museum sponsored at the site of the old Rookery. London’s Underworld Unearthed: The Secret Life of the Rookery features finds from the excavation along with contemporary and modern depictions of this Hell on Earth.

The finds remind us that these were real people living here. Children’s toys, simple crockery, and trick glasses used in drinking games give us a glimpse of their lives, and the gin bottles hint at how many of them died. The modern art, created by Jane Palm-Gold, draws comparisons with today’s urban blight. The permanent collection at the Museum of London is well worth a visit too in order to get a better understanding of one of the world’s most fascinating cities.

The show runs until June 3 at the Coningsby Gallery.

[Hogarth prints courtesy Wikimedia Commons.]