Who Doesn’t Love a Plague Pit? (most people except for me!)

Sorry for my radio silence on this blog recently, but in my defence I have a stack of awesome new content because I was in Europe for research and fieldwork. So this post is dedicated to my first dig of the 2015 season – Thornton Abbey!

The Thornton Abbey Project has been running for several seasons now and is a field school for my beloved University of Sheffield. However you can also score yourself a spot on the excavations upon application via their website, and its always a very multinational excavation. This season there were Brits, Canadians, Americans, Hungarians, Indians, Francophones, Icelanders and of course… Australians! To read more about the Thornton Abbey project click here. The project leader is Dr Hugh Willmott from Sheffield, a great man, who begun this project to find the post-medieval manor theoretically built in the grounds by one of the families who owned it post-dissolution… the manor is yet to be found, sorry Hugh!


the fortified gatehouse of the abbey

Thornton Abbey is in “rural” (what passes for rural in the UK) Lincolnshire and what is left of the Abbey is open to the public as an English Heritage run site with the surrounding paddocks privately owned and tenant farmed. We were digging in the fields surrounding the Abbey, where the older church turned Abbey Hospital (or so we think) were located and where some other associated buildings once stood – very much a case of finding a series of small walls (youtube clip).


see… a series of…


… not so small walls…

Here is my extremely brief run down of the site’s history:

  • Some early Anglo-Saxon activity and possibly Roman wares found, not too sure about intervening years until the Norman period (bad Anglo-Saxonist that I am…)
  • Priory founded on the site in 1139 by William le Gros, Count of Aumale, Augustinian/black canon house
  • 1148 raised to status of abbey
  • 1180 le Gros buried at Thornton
  • 1274 patronage passed to the Crown
  • 13th century much of the building works are in progress
  • 1382-1389 fortification of the gatehouse, likely due to the peasants’ rising
  • Survived the dissolution because it became a secular college 1540s under Henry VIII
  • Closed in 1547 as a training institution and went into private ownership

NOW TO THE PLAGUE PIT! Due to the sensitivity of working with human remains I cannot put any of my photos of the skeletal material up here, so for anyone looking for cool skelly pics, sorry. You’ll just have to use your imaginations.

Next to what the team believe is the monastery’s hospital lies a quite large cemetery. This is not a typical high-medieval, nicely laid out cemetery but, we think, at some point, a mass grave for victims of the plague. Which, if I may say so as a funerary archaeologist is PRETTY DAMNED COOL! From my understanding it wasn’t really a massive pit of bodies per se, a little more organised than that, but by no means the individualised burials of people who have died separated by time.


Trench M aka the Plague Pit, where I was most of the dig, sans skeletons

Needless to say, coming from an Australian background where archaeological human remains are a bit taboo (for multiple reasons) I was very keen to excavate the graves. By the time I joined the dig it was the last week of the season, and it appeared that they were down to lifting the last few graves (this earliest phase appears to not be from the plague period as the individuals are in individually cut simple graves with a mixture of men, women and children – suggesting a lay population). So myself and a colleague were set to levelling some of the areas between graves to make the section nice for photography and recording… until we hit another skeleton that was not meant to be there… rude! This set the tone for the rest of the week with more and more skeletons popping up around the old church/hospital building, which is a bit inconvenient when you need to shut the trenches down for the season, but for us students it was heaven.

If I remember correctly they have lifted over 200 skeletons from the site for careful storage and research back at the osteology labs in Sheffield. It will be a great teaching and research collection, I am really looking forward to seeing what work comes out of it.

Sadly I don’t think I can give you much more detail than that, you’ll have to wait for them to publish findings or read the dig’s blog. What I can give you more info on is the plague and how it does (or does not) affect the human body and then the skeleton. Finally a medieval use for my science degree!

  • The plague or its most famous outbreak – The Black Death was at its peak in Europe c. 1347-1350 (give or take) and killed somewhere in the region of 30-60% of Europe’s population
  • Most forms of plague are bacterial and only affect the soft tissues of the body, and pretty horrifically at that. The Black Death is caused by a bacillus bacteria called Yersinia pestis
  • Did you know that China and other parts of the world are having resurgences of plague? Read more here
  • Whilst the bacteria has devastating affects on the body it rarely if ever leaves identifiable traces on the bone, therefore our only hint as archaeologist is usually the circumstances of the burial i.e. mass graves, although carbon dating to the 14th century does also help clinch it if its available
  • However if you are lucky and have good preservation sometimes you can get aDNA (ancient DNA), but not of the people, of the bacteria, and this is the best diagnostic tool of all. Often such bacterial indicators of health will be trapped in dental calculus (the oh so lovely plaque etc. build up on teeth that happens in past populations when brushing your teeth wasn’t a done thing)
  • My colleagues who work on aDNA, palaeopathology and related fields have discovered through aDNA research that there were actually several strains of plaque in the middle ages, and are studying the evolution of modern plague. Some of the research suggests that it hasn’t necessarily evolved too much… an outbreak in Madagascar in 2013 proved to be almost identical to that found in 14th century skeletons in London, clearly it is still as dangerous as ever and doesn’t need to evolve too much.

If it goes ahead in future years I can thoroughly recommend taking part, its a fun, friendly atmosphere and if you’re keen you can try your hand at not just excavation but geophysics, trench recording, find processing and much more.

And now for some more pretty pictures of the site and the dig in progress:


Archaeologists like to be silly too sometimes… being cool benedictine style!

IMG_1638 IMG_1627 IMG_1626IMG_1507


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