Black Death Victims and What They Tell Us About 14th Century England

It has long been understood that the Black Death was spread by flea-carrying rats. However, experts have begun to question how the disease could have spread as rapidly and had as devastating of an effect as it did (Current World Archaeology 2007). As a result, there has been increasing investigation into the environmental and social circumstances that created the conditions for such a disastrous plague.

Figure 1. An illustration of the mass burial at Lincolnshire showing the distribution of bodies, which notably includes many children. Image: University of Sheffield/PA

In 2016, a mass burial pit was discovered in Lincolnshire, England (Figure 1). Teeth recovered from the remains were used to detect DNA of Yersinia pestis, the plague-causing bacterium, which along with carbon dating confirmed that these were Black Death victims (Siddique 2016). Archaeologist Dr. Hugh Willmott explained that this rural community’s mass grave was indicative of how ill-prepared English society was to deal with such a calamity (Siddique 2016).

Discoveries of these mass graves have certainly improved the understanding of how 14th century England dealt with plague victims. But they have shed light on how people of the period lived, too. Archaeology has been used to establish the “epidemiological environment,” looking at housing, population density, and other factors to understand public health (Antoine 2008). This helps to reveal the conditions that would have allowed the disease to spread so rapidly. 

Figure 2. Archaeologists from the Museum of London in the process of excavating a 14th century burial ground in Farringdon, England. Photograph: The Telegraph

In 2013, a mass burial site was discovered in Farringdon, England (Figure 2). Analysis of the site’s skeletons revealed much about the victims’ lives — many suffered from malnutrition and back problems, 16% had rickets, and two-thirds had grown up outside of London (Miller 2014). This helps paint a picture of 14th-century London as a city that attracted people from across Britain, in which many people lived difficult lives.

The study of plague victim remains can also reveal which groups were more likely to suffer from the disease. A study of over 600 bodies from one cemetery indicated that the elderly and those with pre-existing health conditions were more likely to succumb to the illness. One study in the Netherlands has even indicated that women were affected more frequently than men (DeWitte and Kowaleski 2017).

It is important to acknowledge the shortcomings of archaeological analysis of these burials. For example, certain areas of burial sites could contain more acidic soil, resulting in a loss of certain remains and altering the distribution of burials. Furthermore, many conditions, including the plague, do not affect bones (Antoine 2008). And when conditions do appear on the skeleton, their cause can be unclear. Bone lesions could indicate a weakened individual that succumbed to the plague, or a healthy individual who survived long enough for lesions to form due to the disease (DeWitte and Kowaleski 2017).

As it stands, archaeology has been unable to fully explain the circumstances leading to and resulting from the Black Death. When taken with a grain of salt, however, these findings can be employed to better understand those conditions, as well as the lives and experiences of the 14th-century English.


Antoine, Daniel.                                                                                                                      2008   The Archaeology of “Plague”. Medical History. (27):101–114. PMID:18575084,        accessed October 5, 2019.

Current World Archaeology                                                                                                    2007   New Light on the Black Death. Current World Archaeology (magazine), March         4, 2007.                                                                                                                     ,                     accessed October 5, 2019

DeWitte, Sharon N. and Kowaleski, Maryanne.                                                            2017   Black Death Bodies. Fragments.                                                                                 DOI:, accessed October 5, 2019.

Miller, Ben                                                                                                                                2014   Skeletons buried beneath square were malnourished London victims of                  Black Death. Culture24, April 2, 2014.                                                                      ,                    accessed October 5, 2019

Siddique, Haroon.                                                                                                                    2016     Black Death burial pit found at site of medieval abbey in Lincolnshire. The              Guardian, November 29, 2016.                                                                                , accessed            October 5, 2019


Figure 1.                             

Figure 2.                                  

See also

This article discusses the facts that have led some to doubt that rats were responsible for the spread of the Black Death, and possible alternate explanations.

This video provides additional information on the archaeological methods employed at the mass burial site discovered at Lincolnshire.

The Use of Harris Lines to Determine Malnutrition in the Pre-Modern Era

Human remains have the ability to provide information even when all that is present is bones. After the start of the use of radiography, researchers were able to determine a line on the bone, invisible to the naked eye, that correlates with malnutrition or severe illness.

Figure 1: Harris Lines unable to be visualized by naked eye. Indicated with arrows.

Figure 2:Radiographic Image of male tibia. Harris Lines indicated by arrows.

The Harris Line is a transverse layer on a long bone that shows a period of arrested development (right). Studies have shown this line appears on a bone not when physiological stress is present, but the time after when the individual is on their way towards better health, either by meeting their nutritional needs or recovering from an illness. The process of mineralization would have ceased during illness, and its resumption is when the line occurs.

Archeologists are able to use this information to determine if an illness or famine was present in an area. Should the majority of the remains show Harris Lines, it can be deduced that famine was present throughout a large area, and not necessarily a problem of one individual’s social status, or lack of means to acquire food. If the age of the remains can be deduced, researchers may be able to determine a more precise date of its occurrence. Furthermore, it is noted that childbirth can also be determined by the presence of Harris Lines, likely due to the fetus taking much of the mother’s vitamins and nutrients.

One study was done that focused on the differences between medieval Joseon and modern-day Korean samples. Researchers found that modern-day Koreans had a smaller percentage of adults with Harris Lines, and the instances where they did occur were nearly equal in both males and females. Joseon-age Koreans, however, showed Harris Lines at more than double the amount of modern-day. It was also noted that women were more likely to have a sign of malnutrition. While it was not explicitly stated, this could be due to pregnancy and breastfeeding after childbirth, both of which take vitamins and nutrients from the mother and pass them to the child.

In addition to having the ability to discover malnutrition in an area, archeologists can also use Harris Lines to unearth a rough estimate of population. According to a 2007 article by Neil H Metcalfe, Harris Lines may also appear on women’s pubic bones. These lines can help deduce the birth rate in the area and, when combined with annual death rates, may give a rough estimation of the population.



Beom, Jaewon, et al.

2014   “Harris Lines Observed in Human Skeletons of Joseon Dynasty, Korea.” Anatomy & Cell Biology, Korean Association of Anatomists, March 2014. Electronic document,, accessed 4 October 2019.

Metcalfe, Neil H.

2007   “In What Ways Can Human Skeletal Remains Be Used to Understand Health and Disease from the Past?” Postgraduate Medical Journal, BMJ Group. Electronic document,, accessed 3 October 2019.

Morgan, Matt A., and Daniel J Bell.

“Growth Arrest Lines: Radiology Reference Article.” Radiopaedia Blog RSS, Electronic document,, accessed 5 October 2019.

Piontek, Janusz & Jerszyńska, Blandyna & Nowak, Oskar.

2001  Harris lines in subadult and adult skeletons from the medieval cemetery at Cedynia, Poland. Variability and Evolution. 9. 33-43.



Figure 1:

Figure 2:


Further Readings:

How to calculate the age of Harris Lines:

Harris Lines as Stress Indicators


Neanderthal DNA: How different were they from humans?

The Homo neanderthalensis are often regarded as the long-lost cousins of the Homo sapiens sapiens. However, it is an ongoing debate whether the Neanderthals were a sub-species of humans, or a separate species by themselves. The analysis of Neanderthal DNA has provided the key to the many questions surrounding this member of the Homo genus.

The nuclear DNA of Neanderthals has been studied extensively in the Neanderthal genome project, which gave the conclusion that modern non-African human populations have traces of Neanderthal DNA. To explain this, Green et al. argues that interbreeding happened between Neanderthals and humans shortly after the ancestors of modern non-Africans migrated out of Africa. Hence modern African populations do not show any Neanderthal DNA traces. However, fossil records did not place humans and Neanderthals in the same geographic region at this period.

In 2015 Neanderthal remains dating to about 55 thousand years ago were discovered in Manot Cave, Israel. This bridged the gap between the fossil record and DNA record and provided evidence for both species inhabiting the region at the same period, hence inbreeding was possible (Hershkovitz 2015).

Figure 1: Geographic Location of Manot Cave, Israel

Other sections of Neanderthal DNA have also been researched on. Mitochondria, a type of cell organelle, contains small DNA loops (mtDna), which is only passed along by females (Renfrew 2018). The analysis of mtDNA from Neanderthals fossils shows that the Neanderthals have not contributed to the modern human mtDNA pool. Yet this only disapproves the flow of DNA from Neanderthals to humans through maternal lines (Wang 2013). The Y chromosome of Neanderthals has also been studied, primarily by Mendez et al. in 2016. Unlike mtDNA, Y chromosomes are passed along the paternal line. The data suggests that the Neanderthal Y chromosome is not present in modern human samples at all. Mendez concluded that mutations made the Neanderthals genetically incompatible to humans and consequently resulted in the loss of the Neanderthal Y chromosome in present-day humans.

However, for all that DNA analysis tells us, it does not tell us much about the material culture of the Neanderthals. This is where archaeology comes in. The sites and artifacts can tell us how the Neanderthals lived, what they ate, what technology they used. They used stone and wooden tools but unlike early humans, their living areas did not have specific activity sites. Their diets were highly reliant on meat, as has been revealed by isotopic analysis of their remains. It has also been argued that the rarity of “symbolic” objects such as art or ornaments in Neanderthal sites indicates “a lack of human cognitive ability and language” (Harvati 2010).

Figure 2: 337,000 – 300,000 years old wooden spear from Schöningen

To summarize, present-day humans outside of Africa show traces of Neanderthal DNA, but there are no Neanderthal mtDNA or Neanderthal Y chromosomes in modern human populations. The current consensus among anthropologists is that Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens sapiens are indeed separate species, although that might change with further research and with the discovery of more Neanderthal samples.


Further information on early hominids and the great human migration.


Images: Figure 1 and Figure 2


References cited:

Green, Richard E., et al.

2010  A Draft Sequence of the Neandertal Genome. Science 328: 710-722

Link to “A Draft Sequence of Neandertal Genome

Harvati, Katerina

2010  Neanderthals. Evo Edu Outreach 3: 367–376

Link to “Neanderthals”

Hershkovitz, Israel, et al.

2015  Levantine cranium from Manot Cave (Israel) foreshadows the first European modern humans. Nature 520: 216–219

Link to “Levantine cranium from Manot Cave (Israel) foreshadows the first European modern humans”

Mendez, Fernando l., G. David Poznik, Sergi Castellano, and Carlos D. Bustamante

2016  The Divergence of Neandertal and Modern Human Y Chromosomes. Am J Hum Genet 98(4): 728-734

Link to “The Divergence of Neandertal and Modern Human Y Chromosome

Renfrew, Colin, and Paul Bahn

2018  Archaeology Essentials Theories/ Methods/ Practice. Thames &Hudson, London.

Wang, Chuan-Chao, Sara E. Farina, and Hui Li

2012  Neanderthal DNA and modern human origins. Quaternary International 295: 126-129

Link to “Neanderthal DNA and modern human origins”

Easter Island Moai: How Were They Transported

The Easter Island is located at the southeastern Pacific Ocean, 3512 kilometers away from the nearest continental point in Chile. It is inhabited by the Rapa Nui people, whose ancestors in around 1250-1500 AD built the famous Easter Island Moai–large stone statues averagely weighed 14 tons and measured 4 meters high. These large statues stood on their platforms called “ahu”, near the periphery of the island. They were not made there, since no quarry large enough near the periphery of the island can provide such huge stone for carving, thus an inevitable questions rose: how were these giant stone statues moved from the quarry to the platforms at a time that didn’t have mobile facilities?

Many possible theories was raised. Some people suggest that they were pulled lying down on their back entirely by human forces, or they were placed on timber columns to roll to the destinations. The most wide-spread theory was put forward by archaeologists Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo, who did a series of experiment to reproduce the process of moving the Moai. The two archaeologists found out that some statues were also left on the ancient roads of the island, facing downwards, showing an unfinished transporting process, and the fact that these statues can’t stand on their own without the special platform “ahu”. These statues have D-shaped flat bottom bases, but the bases forbid the Moai to stand vertically to the ground. They measured a 14°angle at the bottom of the Moai, which made the statues leaning forward. Why made this angle that was harder for the statues to stand? Hunt and Lipo then hypothesized that the angle was made for the transportation of the Moai.

The space between the statue Moai and the paltform was stuffed with stones so that it could stand vertically

In the oral history of the Rapa Nui people, the Moai were not “moved” but “walked”. Hunt and Lipo took this into concern. They also indicated that the deep groove of the eyes of the statues can be tied around with ropes, which probably was how the Rapa Nui ancestors pull the statues to turn and twist on the ground to “walk”. They replicate a statues weighed 5 tons, and found volunteers to move it. It was placed upright, as the history suggested, “standing” on the ground. Three groups of ropes were tied on the groove of the eye socket of the replica, and volunteers cooperated to pull and made the Moai twist. Using the 14°angles, the Moai leans forward while the people on two front sides (front-left and front-right) pull, and was pulled back by the third group to make another “step”. It didn’t take many people as originally imagined to move the Moai forward.

A drawing of how Hunt and Lipo tied the replica to move it with three groups of ropes

Wilkinson, Christian. “Easter Island.” A Guide to Easter Island, Chile, June 13, 2018. ​

Brand, Stewart. “Terry Hunt, Carl Lipo: Easter Island Reconsider.” The Long Now ​Foundation, January 17, 2013. ​​aster-island/.

Walking with Giants: How the Easter Island Moai Walked | Nat Geo Live. YouTube. National Geographic, 2012.

Further Reading:
Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo: The Statues That Walked | Nat Geo Live

Hunt, Terry L., and Carl P. Lipo. The Statues That Walked: Unraveling the Mystery of Easter Island. Berkeley, CA: Counter Point Press, 2012.

The Richer Pompeii: Herculaneum

Probably the most famous archaeological discovery to mankind is the city ruins of Pompeii. In pop culture, Pompeii is known as the city that was washed away by Mount Vesuvius. But did you know that another city fell victim that August day in 79 AD? Its name is Herculaneum. 

Herculaneum was a Roman city on the port of the Gulf of Naples (Figure 1). In trying to reconstruct the past of these townspeople, archaeologists have found several luxurious places including bathhouses and theaters. This suggests that the town was one of the wealthiest areas in the Roman Empire, unlike its sister city Pompeii (Herculaneum 2016). It could even be a vacation spot! So, it was like the Hawaii of the Roman Empire! 

Figure 1: Herculaneum on the Map

However, that all changed on midnight, August 24th, 79 AD (Sheldon 2010). Mount Vesuvius wiped everything in its past. For the other Romans looking in, it was assumed that everyone escaped. That was it. From the records, no one talked about the city and the “story” of Herculaneum was sealed under sixty feet of volcanic material (Britannica 2019). It would reopen hundreds of years later. There isn’t a clear source as to how it was discovered. However, all sources have a common thread; it was accidentally founded by ordinary people in the 18th century.

Immediately, archaeologists from around the world wouldn’t only excavate Herculaneum but also explain the past of these ancient people. The site of Herculaneum is one of the best preserved sites in the world. The volcanic ash actually preserved the city underneath. Archaeologists got to recover jewelry and even food (Sheldon 2010)! The only food found were loaves of bread found within ovens that were accessible only to the higher class (Britannica 2019). In Pompeii, the volcanic material actually preserved the human body; we see the final positions they were in before they perished. In Herculaneum, it was initially believed that they escaped since no human bodies were found. Then in the 1980s, two hundred fifty human skeletons were found, like Figure 2, suggesting that the pyroclastic flow burned them, leaving only bone (Difference 2013).

Figure 2: Jewelry still worn on a woman’s hand found in a Herculaneum site

Today, Herculaneum is a tourist attraction (Figure 3). The discovery of Herculaneum debunks the myth that archaeology is a fully planned out process in that archaeologists know where the sites are beforehand. Herculaneum was discovered by accident; it’s through chance and improvisation in which the archaeological process for the city was founded upon. Through the various findings, we can tell the story of these Romans thousands of years later. The ovens, jewelry, boats, and bathhouses were the pieces to the puzzle on how we can confirm that Herculaneum was exclusive to the upper class. Only through archaeology could we do all of this and that’s the beauty of this field.

Figure 3: Herculaneum & Mount Vesuvius Today

Has the inner archaeologist in you want to explore this site? Here are two links to start your adventure:


Reference list


Britannica, The Editors of EncyclopaediaHerculaneum. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. 2019.

Difference Between Pompeii and Herculaneum. May 7. 2013.

Herculaneum Half-day Tour. 2016.

Sheldon, Natasha. The History of Herculaneum. Ancient History and 2010.



File:Mt Vesuvius 79 AD eruption.svg. Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation.

Kleiner, Diane E.E2018 Habitats at Herculaneum and Early Roman Interior Decoration. We’re Never Far from Where We Were. February 19.

Parco Acheologico di Ercolano – 2019 All You Need to Know BEFORE You Go (with Photos). TripAdvisor.


Sutton Hoo: How Burials Can Form Images of a Society Without Physical Remains

When Edith Pretty hired archaeologist Basil Brown in 1937 to excavate the large mounds on her property, they discovered Europe’s richest ship burial to date. Sutton Hoo is home to a magnificent burial dating back to seventh-century AD, the grave of an Anglo-Saxon king who was buried with a ship full of grave goods (Knight 2019). This archaeological site in England provides a bountiful supply of information about Anglo-Saxon society.

In 1939, Brown excavated the largest mound at Sutton Hoo. He eventually uncovered the remains of a large ship (Walker 2017). At more than twenty-seven meters, the Anglo-Saxon rowing boat had been hauled up from the river and buried on land (Knight 2019). Unfortunately, not everything buried there 1,400 years ago still remained. The ship functioned as a water-repellent body, causing any water that seeped through the soil to build up. The soil turned acidic, dissolving any organic remains. (Sutherland 2018). Therefore, the wooden ribs of the ship rotted away over the centuries. Although the tangible remains of the ship had deteriorated, the ship left an intricate imprint (Knight 2019); the impression of the ship shaped a picture of what the ship looked like (Figure 1), despite the absence of physical remains.

Figure 1. The remains of the grand burial ship as they are excavated from the largest mound.

So, who was buried at Sutton Hoo? Like the boat, the body that was buried in the mound dissolved due to the soil’s acidity (Walker 2017). However, even when there are no physical remnants, evidence of human remains can still persist (Renfrew 2018). Tests done on the soil revealed traces of residual phosphate, a chemical that a body leaves behind when it decomposes (British Museum 2010). The big mystery surrounds the individual’s identity. The top theory is that the burial belongs to King Rædwald of East Anglia, who died in 624 AD (Walker 2017).

In the largest mound, Brown found an array of impressive relics. These 263 artifacts formed an image of beauty and sophistication. The most famous item found is the iconic metalwork helmet (Figure 2). The goods originated from diverse places; for example, coins from Merovingian France and a silver dish from Constantinople were found among the goods (Knight 2019). The diversity in places of origin of these items display the extensive trade connections that the Anglo-Saxons had with other European communities in the ancient world.

Figure 2. The astonishing metalwork helmet, made of iron and covered with panels depicting various scenes.

Before the burial’s discovery, a common belief about Anglo-Saxons depicted them as “crude folk… who lived crude lives and left little of value behind” (Knight 2019). The sophistication and intricacy of the artifacts found in the burial disprove these misconceptions about the Anglo-Saxons, showing they were more complex and worldly than people gave them credit for. The burial also displays the importance of grave goods and afterlife in this society’s beliefs. The artifacts emphasize the significance of burying respected or loved figures with valuable items that will travel with them as they move to the afterlife.

Additional Reading:

Additional information about Sutton Hoo from the National Trust:

About the connection between Sutton Hoo and the epic Beowulf:


British Museum

2019 “British Museum – Who was buried at Sutton Hoo?”. ed. Vol. 2019,

Knight, Sam

2019 “Revisiting Sutton Hoo, Britain’s Mythical Burial Ground.” ed. Vol. 2019,

Renfrew, Colin and Paul Bahn

2018 Archaeology Essentials. 4th Edition. Thames & Hudson, New York.

Sutherland, A.

2018 “Sutton Hoo Ship Bural and Famous Helmet That Could Belong To Raedwald, King Of All Kings Of Britain”. ed. Vol. 2019,

Walker, Verónica

2017 “The Ghostly Treasure Ship of Sutton Hoo.”
ed. Vol. 2019,


Figure 1:

Figure 2:

Minoan Human Sacrifice?

There is an ongoing debate as to whether or not the Minoans practiced human sacrifice, but as time goes on, evidence is making it increasingly clear that although it was not a common religious motif, human sacrifice in Minoan Crete did indeed occur. Three Bronze Age sites in Crete contain evidence of Minoan human sacrifice: at the “North House” in Knossos (LMIB), what is perhaps a religious building in Fournou Korifi (EMII), Anemosphilia, a temple near Mount Juktas (MMII), but for the sake of brevity and because it is by far the most published on, I will be focusing on the human sacrifice at Anemosphilia.

At Anemosphilia, a temple site located 20 miles from the palace of Knossos in a cave near Mount Ida, a group of human bones were found. Based on the bones, archaeologists have identified the remains of three humans at the site. The report that followed detailed a gruesome scene. Yannis Sakellarakis, the lead excavator at the cave at the time these bones were discovered, has been accused of skewing evidence for the sake of drama, but others say those who deny Sakellarakis’ evidence are simply Minoan-centric scholars who cannot stomach the idea of their beloved Minoans carrying out such a deed. Three bodies were found at the temple. A young man of about sixteen, an extremely tall (well over six feet) middle aged man, and a female who has been interpreted as a priestess. The boy was found in front of the tall man near a long piece of stone, which Sakellarakis has interpreted as an altar. Restraints were found near the both of them, along with a 16 inch knife. 

Perhaps most interestingly, an iron pendant was found near the priestess. At this time, iron would have been inexpressibly rare, (think a moon rock) and would have been needed to be found naturally. The presence of this object suggests that no matter what happened at Anemosphilia, the event carried significance. Because Minoans did not routinely practice human sacrifice, many questions have been raised about the purpose of sacrificing what looked to be a healthy adolescent male. Due to the timing of this sacrifice, archaeologists have theorized the sacrifice was a desperate attempt to stop environmental disturbances occurring on or near the island of Crete. Indeed the scene painted does suggest desperation, a priestess directing a huge man to seize an unwilling boy and drag him 20 miles to a mountain to sacrifice is dramatic, but does point to this event being very important.


the 16-inch knife

the site of Anemosphilia

one of the bodies found


Further Reading: