For archaeologists, ancient bones are like Christmas A skeleton lies in the ground on the archeological excavation site at the 16th and 17th century Bedlam burial ground (AP photos)
For archaeologists, ancient bones are like Christmas

They came from all parts of London,. And from all walks of life. They ended up in a burial ground called Bedlam. Now scientists hope their centuries-old skeletons can reveal new information. They want to know more about how long-ago Londoners lived. And learn more about the bubonic plague that often killed them.

Archaeologists have announced that they have begun excavating the bones of some 3,000 people. They died in the 16th and 17th centuries. The remains now lie in the path of the Crossrail transit line. They will be pored over by scientists before being reburied elsewhere.

One recent workday, researchers worked just yards from the very busy Liverpool Street railway station. The scientists scraped, sifted and gently removed skeletons. In one corner of the site, the skeleton of an adult lay beside the fragile remains of a baby. The wooden outline of its coffin still was visible. Most were less intact. They mostly were a jumble of bones and skulls.

"Part of the skill of it is actually working out which bones go with which," said Alison Telfer. She is a project officer with Museum of London Archaeology. The organization is overseeing the dig.

The 73-mile trans-London Crossrail line is due to open in 2018. It is Britain's biggest construction project. It's also the city's largest archaeological dig in decades. The central 13-mile section runs underground. That has meant tunneling beneath some of the oldest and most densely populated parts of the city.

For Londoners, it has brought years of noise and disruption. But for archaeologists, it's like Christmas. Almost every shovelful of earth has uncovered a piece of history. What they have found includes bison and mammoth bones, Roman horseshoes and medieval ice skates. They even found the remains of a moated manor house.

Chief archaeologist Jay Carver says the Bedlam dig could be the most revealing yet.

"It's going to be archaeologically the most important sample we have of the population of London from the 16th and 17th centuries," Carver said.

Bedlam cemetery opened in 1569. It took the overspill as the city's churchyard burial grounds filled up. It is the final resting place of prosperous citizens and paupers alike. Religious dissenters including the 17th-century revolutionary Robert Lockyer were buried there. And, of course, patients from Bedlam Hospital. It was the world's first asylum for the mentally ill. The hospital's name is a corruption of the word Bethlehem. Today, bedlam has become a synonym for chaos.

Tests on the bones may reveal where these Londoners came from, what they ate and what ailed them. In many cases, it was the plague. There were four outbreaks of the deadly disease over the two centuries the cemetery was in use. One was the Great Plague. It killed 100,000 people in 1665.

Carver says researchers will analyze DNA taken from pulp in the skeletons' teeth. What they find will help fill in the "evolutionary tree of the plague bacteria."

The technique was used to discover the plague bacterium. Its scientific name is Yersinia pestis. Researchers found it in 14th-century skeletons excavated at another Crossrail site. Many were victims of the Black Death. That plague wiped out half the city's population in 1348.

Scientists should be able to compare the bacterium found in Bedlam's plague victims with the 14th-century samples. It could help them understand more about the disease. The sickness still infects several thousand people a year. The researchers want to know how the illness has evolved over the centuries.

Sixty archaeologists are working in shifts. They work 16 hours a day, six days a week. They will spend about a month removing the remains. After scientific study, they will be reburied on Canvey Island in the Thames Estuary.

The old burial ground will be the site of a new train station. Its users will probably give little thought to the history beneath their feet.

But Telfer says she never forgets that these fragile bones were once living, breathing individuals.

"When you are doing something like this, you do feel a connection with them," she said. "I think you have a responsibility to treat them with great respect. It's quite a special process."

Critical thinking challenge: For Londoners, this project has brought years of noise and disruption. But ultimately they will benefit. How?

Assigned 27 times

  • VanessaC-3
    4/03/2015 - 07:07 p.m.

    It could be that in fact being an archeologist could be hard to do even that it could make it through a lot of work and fortune. As it being said they have the perfect skill of what to know about a particular topic or subject of whether finding animals and plants. For it being it like a bone or body can just pop out of nowhere to make it just open it or dig as I should say to look for what they always wanted and never knew that it was coming for them at all.

  • John0724-YYCA
    5/20/2015 - 08:04 p.m.

    I really don't know why that archaeologists like to dig up dead bones because I know its their job but I really don't know why they would even want to pick those bones up because in my opinion it is really nasty and I would rather be a zoologist than a archaeologists even though I have to scoop up poo because you wold never know if those bones carry diseases. Like the archaeologists were picking up bones of dead people from the bubonic plague.

Take the Quiz Leave a comment