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Skeletons of Black Death victims unearthed in London

| Friday, March 15, 2013, 9:45 p.m.

LONDON — Workers digging a railway line in London have uncovered what experts believe is a medieval burial ground for victims of the Black Death — a plague that wiped out as many as half of London's inhabitants when it swept the city in the mid-14th century.

Thirteen skeletons were found lying in two carefully laid-out rows about 2.4 yards below the road on the edge of historic Charterhouse Square in Farringdon.

Archaeologist Jay Carver said scientists will study the bones to establish cause of death and hope to map the DNA signature of the plague bacteria. “This is a pretty rare find within London,” Carver said on Friday.

It is the latest in a string of unusual discoveries that are a byproduct of the Crossrail project — including amber that is 55 million years old, bison bones from 68,000 years ago and Roman remains.

According to archaeologists, there could be up to 50,000 more skeletons buried nearby. “The short answer is we don't know just how many skeletons are out there,” said Nick Elsden of the Museum of London Archaeology.

The bubonic plague spread via fleas on rats, cutting a swathe through populations ignorant of its cause. It raced from Asia through Europe and North Africa in 1347. By the next year, it struck this island nation. The Black Death is thought to have killed roughly 75 million people worldwide in four years, spawning the nursery rhyme, “Ring around the rosie. ... Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.”

Thousands of Londoners died, though the exact number is unclear because record-keeping was so poor, said Roy Stephenson of the Museum of London.

Still there was order in the Charterhouse site, and the regular spacing between the bodies — their heads pointing to the west, awaiting Judgment Day — suggests some sort of municipal control, Stephenson said.

There's no chance that a new outbreak of bubonic plague might be ignited from the find. Stephenson said the bacillus is quite fragile and dies without a host.

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