Scottish prehistoric mummies made from jigsaw of body parts
The bodies had been buried hundreds of years after they had died
22 August 2011 Last updated at 08:07
DNA tests on British prehistoric mummies revealed they were made of body parts from several different people, arranged to look like one person.
The four bodies discovered in 2001 on South Uist, in Scotland's Outer Hebrides were the first evidence in Britain of deliberate mummification.
It is thought the body parts may have come from people in the same families.
Sheffield University's Prof Mike Parker Pearson said the mummies had not been buried straight after preservation.
A team from the University of Sheffield first uncovered the remains of a three-month-old-child, a possible young female adult, a female in her 40s and a male under the prehistoric village of Cladh Hallan.
But recent tests on the remains carried out by the University of Manchester, show that the "female burial", previously identified as such because of the pelvis of the skeleton, was in fact a composite.
It was made up of three different people, and some parts, such as the skull, were male.
Radiocarbon dating and stable isotope analysis showed that the male mummy was also a composite.
Prof Parker Pearson, an expert in the Bronze Age and burial rituals has a theory about why the mummies were put together this way.
"These could be kinship components, they are putting lineages together, the mixing up of different people's body parts seems to be a deliberate act," he said.
The results of the DNA work on the Cladh Hallan mummies will feature on the latest series of Digging For Britain on BBC2 in September with Dr Alice Roberts
"I don't believe these 'mummies' were buried immediately, but played an active part in society, as they do in some tribal societies in other parts of the world."
He said as part of ancestral worship, the mummies probably would have been asked for spiritual advice to help the community make decisions.
Archaeologists found the mummies in the foundations of a row of unusual Bronze Age terraced roundhouses.
But after being radiocarbon dated, all were found to have died between 300 and 500 years before the houses were built, meaning they had been kept above ground for some time by their descendants.
In order for the bodies to have been found as articulated skeletons as they were, rather than piles of bones, some soft tissue preservation had to have taken place.
Further tests showed that the bones had become demineralised, a process caused by placing a body in an acidic environment like a peat bog.
The degree of demineralisation on the bones found showed that after death, the bodies had been placed in bogs for about a year to mummify them before being recovered.
Mr Parker Pearson said he believed there may be more examples of deliberate mummification in Britain that have been missed by archaeologists up until now.
The Cladh Hallan mummies had been carefully placed in the crouch burial position, a style of burial where the body is drawn up into the foetal position, commonly found in the Bronze Age.
Archaeologists are sometimes puzzled by how the bodies were contorted into such tight positions.
Prof Parker Pearson's team are examining other crouch burial examples to see if these were in fact the mummified remains of much older bodies as well.
Early results are proving to be promising, as a sample from remains in Cambridge show that bacterial decay was halted at some point after death.
The results of the DNA work on the Cladh Hallan mummies will feature on the latest series of Digging For Britain on BBC Two in September.
Prehistoric burial cist excavated on Dartmoor
15 August 2011
Excavation has begun of a prehistoric burial cist, situated high up on Whitehorse Hill on northern Dartmoor (southwest England). The cist was discovered 10 years ago when its end stone fell out of the peat hag which had been concealing it. The cist is particularly unusual because of its situation within peat and its apparent isolation from other known archaeological sites. It is well over 100 years since a burial cist was excavated on Dartmoor.
It is hoped that analysis of buried pollen, insects and charcoal within the peat will help establish detail of the contemporary surrounding landscape. Artefacts deposited as part of the burial ritual, such as pottery, beads and stone tools will add to the understanding of the time, five thousand years ago.
Prehistoric cists are a particular kind of burial monument found on Dartmoor. They are chest like structures, usually sunk into the ground, with two long granite side slabs, two end slabs set between the sides, and the whole covered with a large slab. They are sometimes found within the remains of a burial cairn, and/or associated with a stone row. They contained both inhumations and cremations. The latter were usually placed in a type of pot known as a Beaker ware. Flint tools have also been found with the burials
There are nearly 200 surviving cists on Dartmoor and over 90 percent of these have their long sides orientated northwest-southeast. The reason for this orientation is not clearly understood, but it was obviously of significance to the prehistoric grave builders. It is anticipated that publication of the findings will take place later in the year.
Heritage Daily (14 August 2011)
Underground chamber unearthed in Irish garden
14 August 2011
An ancient underground chamber which could date back 2,000 years has been unearthed near Clonmany in Inishowen (County Donegal, Ireland). Discovered by Sean Devlin, the previously unrecorded structure appears to be an underground tunnel or souterrain.
Mr Devlin revealed that he first discovered the underground chamber several years ago while landscaping his front garden, but didn't make much of a fuss about his amazing find at the time. The historic significance of the tunnel only became apparent recently after Mr Devlin showed it to amateur archaeologist friends. "I had been doing my lawn and dug it out accidentally with a digger. It was a big round circle with a tiny dark tunnel leading off it which seems to go quite far," he said.
Souterrains are underground man-made drystone built structures roofed with large lintels, comprising of one or more chambers linked by tunnels called creepways. Their entrance is concealed at ground level. They are usually found in locations near to ringforts, cashels and early ecclesiastical sites.
Amateur archaeologist Eddie Harkin, who visited and examined this fascinating structure with colleagues Tommy Gallagher and Brian MacNeachtain, confirmed that it has at least three chambers with a creepway linking each one. In one chamber Mr Harkin says there is a quantity of bones - which may or may not be human - deposited in niches along one side of the souterrain wall. He also found part of a quern stone as well as a quantity of shells.
Mr Devlin says he may try to improve the underground chamber: "The tunnel seems structurally safe and dry so eventually I might do it up and maybe try and put some kind of lights in there to make going in there a bit easier." A member of his local heritage group, Mr Devlin says he hopes to learn more about his discovery when an archaeologist from Dublin examines it some time soon.
Edited from Derry Journal (13 August 2011)
'Britain's first pre-Roman planned town' found near Reading
18 August 2011 Last updated at 04:56
By Louise Ord
Assistant Producer, Digging for Britain
Archaeologists believe they have found the first pre-Roman planned town discovered in Britain.
It has been unearthed beneath the Roman town of Silchester or Calleva Atrebatum near modern Reading.
The Romans are often credited with bringing civilisation to Britain - including town planning.
But excavations have shown evidence of an Iron Age town built on a grid and signs inhabitants had access to imported wine and olive oil.
Prof Mike Fulford, an archaeologist at the University of Reading, said the people of Iron Age Silchester appear to have adopted an urbanised 'Roman' way of living, long before the Romans arrived.
"It is very remarkable to find this evidence of a planned Iron Age layout before the arrival of the Romans and the development of a planned, Roman town," he said.
"Indeed, it would be hard to see a significant difference between the lifestyles of the inhabitants of the Iron Age town and of its Roman successor in the 1st Century AD."
He said they seem to have been drinking wine and using olive oil and a fermented fish sauce called garum in their cooking, all imported from abroad.
Silchester is famous for the most complete Roman town walls in Britain.
After the Roman invasion, the town was used by its military, and there is evidence that Roman buildings were very swiftly built on top of Iron Age structures.
Prof Fulford believes that shortly before this, the town may have been taken over by the British Iron Age chieftain Caratacus - a leader of the Catuvellauni tribe - as his stronghold.
The evidence comes from coins minted by Caratacus in the area.
"Both their tight distribution in central southern England and their style point to Calleva as being the source of Caratacus' coins," he said.
Caratacus was a hero of the British resistance to Roman rule. He famously took on the invading Roman army at the Battle of Medway and after his capture was taken to Rome where he appeared so fearless that the Emperor Claudius was moved to spare his life.
As for the fate of the Roman town, a scorched layer within the archaeology suggests that it was actually burnt to the ground, and seems to have been abandoned for about 20 years.
It is possible that this destruction was carried out by the Queen of the Iceni tribe, Boudicca, or at least at the time of her anti-Roman rebellion in 60 - 61 AD.
Queen Boudicca burnt down the city of London but did she burn Silchester too?
It is known from the Annals of Tacitus that Boudicca and her army laid waste to the Roman towns of Colchester (Camulodunum), London (Londinium) and St Albans (Verulamium), but could Silchester have been a fourth, previously unknown Roman settlement to fall victim to Boudicca's rebellion?
If these theories are correct, then within a single generation Silchester went through a period of turbulent evolution from a prosperous and sophisticated Iron Age town, to being under direct Roman army control to being burned to the ground and deserted.
Prof Mike Fulford will be talking to Dr Alice Roberts in the latest series of Digging For Britain on BBC Two in September.
Iron Age road link to Iceni tribe
16 August 2011 Last updated at 04:55
By Louise Ord, Assistant producer, Digging for Britain
A suspected Iron Age road, made of timber and preserved in peat for 2,000 years, has been uncovered by archaeologists in East Anglia.
The site, excavated in June, may have been part of a route across the River Waveney and surrounding wetland at Geldeston in Norfolk, say experts.
Causeways were first found in the area in 2006, during flood defence work at the nearby Suffolk town of Beccles.
It is thought the road is pre-Roman, built by the local Iceni tribe.
Exact dating has yet to be carried out but tree-ring evidence suggests a date of 75BC.
That dates the timber road to more than 100 years before the Roman invasion, which saw the Iceni and their leader Boudicca lead a revolt which threatened to end Roman rule.
In AD60, the Iceni ambushed one Roman legion and sacked Roman settlements at London and Colchester before being defeated.
The timber structures, usually lost on archaeological sites, are marked out by the posts which have been preserved in remarkable detail. As they are dug up, they look almost modern, and it is still possible to clearly see tool marks in the timbers.
University of Birmingham archaeological researcher Kristina Krawiec, from the dig team, said: "Instead of getting post holes, we're getting the posts that would have gone in them. We're understanding more about the technology and skills that went into these sort of things."
John Davies, chief curator at Norwich Castle Museum, added: "This particular track way is very interesting to us because we have tools... which may actually tie in with some of the tool marks and methods of construction we are turning up in the excavation."
Discovered in June last year, the recently excavated timbers form a 4m-wide (13ft) route, running for 500m across wetland right up to the river. There have been two previous linked finds nearby including one on the other side of the river and another running alongside it.
"We perhaps have evidence that these alignments were designed to indicate a crossing or access route to the River Waveney," said University of Birmingham archaeologist Ben Gearey.
As well as providing practical ways of getting across the wet flood plain, the archaeologists believe the roads may have been a way of marking territory to traders and travellers from afar, and spiritual gathering places where the tribe that built them could go to the river to make offerings.
Items such as swords, shields and spearheads are often found in rivers - probably gifts to the gods or to long-dead ancestors.
In a world without roads, rivers were the motorways of the time and it is thought the Waveney formed part of a major metal trading route from Europe.
The timber structures would probably have been an impressive sight to any passing travellers.
Find out more on the new series of BBC Two's Digging For Britain, to be aired in September.
Archaeologist digs into grandad's tale to uncover lost Yorkshire amphitheatre
A national theatre of the north is found on summit of Studforth Hill in Aldborough
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 17 August 2011 21.02 BST
The lost amphitheatre of northern England has been found on a Yorkshire hilltop in a discovery with major implications for the study of Roman Britain.
Centuries of speculation have ended with a printout from geomagnetic scanners which reveals a great tiered bank of seats below curving hummocks in a field now frequented only by a herd of cattle.
Crowning the summit of Studforth Hill, the oval arena would have combined spectacles and entertainments with a magnificent 360-degree view, making it the equivalent of a national theatre of the north.
The find by Cambridge University archaeologists – led by a young woman who grew up locally and was told the amphitheatre legend by her grandfather – seals the importance in Roman times of the small village of Aldborough, between Harrogate and York.
It also adds to growing evidence that Britannia Inferior, as the northern province was known, was busier, more prosperous and cultured than previously thought. There have been a relative shortage of digs and studies of civilian sites in the area, compared with hundreds in Britannia Superior, today's south.
Initial work suggests the amphitheatre was flanked by a sports stadium.
"Its discovery leaves little doubt that Isurium Brigantium, as Aldborough was called in Roman times, was the civil capital of the Britons known as Brigantes, effectively the population between Derbyshire and Hadrian's Wall," said Martin Millett, professor of classical archaeology at Cambridge.
"York is much better-known for Roman remains, in part because it has remained a great city, but the evidence suggests that it was the military base. Civil power and society, and the most important place for Roman Britons in the northern province, was likely to have been here."
The sweeping curve of the amphitheatre, which crowns a long series of discoveries at Aldborough, lay hidden because of changing fashions in archaeology, shortage of money for excavations and pressure for resources to go elsewhere.
Rose Ferraby, who has led a two-year survey of the village with Millett, said: "It was under our noses. I used to come here as a girl with my friends because the slope and terracing made it Aldborough's sledging hill.
"My grandad told me the story of the lost amphitheatre and I got more and more interested through doing odd jobs at the manor house, whose garden has plenty of Roman remains."
The spell cast over her by the village, where no deep digging is allowed without planning permission and all building projects, down to conservatories, have to have an archaeologist on watch, took her from a Harrogate comprehensive to Cambridge and then the British School of Archaeology in Rome.
"The whole of Aldborough – and as much land again around it – is a scheduled monument," she said. "Work over the years has pointed more and more towards the conclusion that it was somewhere very important in this part of the Roman empire. Mosaics have been discovered with inscriptions in Greek, a sure sign of cultured inhabitants. We were certain that there had to be an amphitheatre somewhere."
The breakthrough came with geomagnetic and ground radar in which more than a square mile of cottages and pasture were turned into a grid, which Ferraby, Millett and volunteer students paced with handheld scanners and others examined on a machine akin to a lawnmower. They called locals to a packed meeting this week to announce the amphitheatre had at last been tracked down.
Most of the tiered seats were quarried or hacked out centuries ago, but the high bank which forms the crown of Studforth Hill hides the surviving section. The geomagnetic scan detected a large mass of material and then tiering, which is crudely reflected by ridges in the grassy surface until it disappears under a small copse.
"We don't yet know whether the seats are stone, which would have been the best quality, or a mixture of timber and compacted earth which has been found at other sites in the UK," said Ferraby. "But there are at least four rows and an extra ridge of land behind the trees suggests that there may have been a fifth. Whatever the material, it would have been an imposing building."
Aldborough was thought for years to have been a Roman fort because of its impressive town walls, which include a long remaining stretch with curved lookout towers. The strategic position on Dere Street, up which the ninth Hispana legion marched to its unknown fate in Scotland in about 120AD, also pointed to a largely military function.
But a series of small 19th- and 20th-century excavations, many in gardens and allotments, began to build a more complex picture, and the discovery of the town's Roman name – meaning the "main city of the Brigantes" – shifted opinion towards a large civilian settlement.
This evidence supported theories that the Romans kept their troops in large military bases while encouraging native Britons to build their own towns on the imperial model, with a forum, stone and brick buildings and temples for the appropriate gods, one of the parts of the Aldborough jigsaw still to be found.
The Cambridge team is now completing its geophysical survey of the Roman town's entire site, which will be analysed for possible excavation points, possibly including the amphitheatre, if funding can be found.
Archaeologists hope to combine the scanned data with work by the Landscape Research Centre to allow computer views of underground UK classified by historical period.
"We hope this will be a spur to more exploration of northern Roman sites," said Hillaby. "We probably have an unbalanced impression that more went on in Britannia Superior because archaeologists have spent more time on civilian settlements there. I have no doubt that the amphitheatre spectators, up on the best seats, would have looked out on scores of other settlements between the town and the escarpment of the Hambleton Hills and North York Moors."
New Finds Point to Roman Fashion Craze
By Frank Thadeusz
When the prefect Flavius Cerialis hosted a banquet at Vindolanda, a Roman fort in what is now northern England, the aroma of grilled chicken, goose and venison, seasoned with pepper from India, filled the air. Plenty of beer was also on hand for the festivities.
The only thing dampening the mood of the occupying forces was the wet weather, and the clammy fort's select guests were forced to bring their foul weather wear to the feast. On such occasions they favored a garment known as the paenula -- a wide, draping mantle made of wool, or sometimes leather or felt -- and wrapped a type of large shawl, called a laena, around their necks.
The Romans at Vindolanda compiled lists of the textiles they used, writing in ink on thin wooden tablets, and these descriptions offer insight into their clothing habits. Now, for the first time, experts are taking a closer look at samples of the textiles described in those historical documents, mud-brown scraps of cloth that have surfaced from the swampy ground beneath the ruined fort.
To keep their wooden buildings from sinking into the mire, the legionnaires trampled unneeded household objects and trash into the soggy earth. This practice of fortifying the ground beneath their dwellings now yields a rich source of artifacts for today's excavators.
Archeologists are delighted with their Vindolanda finds. "It's an explosion of sources," exults Michael Tellenbach, director of the Reiss-Engelhorn Museum (Rem) in the southwestern German city of Mannheim. Together with other European researchers, Tellenbach is at work unraveling the world of Roman fashion.
These textile researchers have been searching museums and gravesites for traces of antique fabrics. Even corroded coins have revealed impressions of textile structures. Rem, the museum complex in Mannheim, has also acquired a scanning electron microscope, which allows researchers to view the fabrics used in the Roman wardrobe with an unprecedented level of detailed accuracy.
These fabric scraps, it turns out, provide evidence that Rome developed an unparalleled textile industry. Romans established factories throughout their empire, having learned effective loom building from the Egyptians. Dyes allowed the creation of riotous color compositions popular with the Roman people. Gradually, these techniques grew into mass production of a type not seen again until the High Middle Ages, a millennium later.
Materials were thoroughly prepared before manufacturing began. Experts combed out sheep's wool to make the fibers more uniform. "Extremely professional production allowed for astonishingly high quality," reports archeologist Annette Schieck. "The fabrics were very soft and comfortable."
Some 1,500 years later, clothes found in the deserts of Egypt and Syria are "still so intact and flexible, some of them could still be worn," Schieck says. As recently as the 18th century, she adds, poor fellahs in Egypt regularly looted Roman graves in search of ancient garb.
New discoveries concerning the cut of these garments may also unseat long-held notions in the field. While examining clothing fragments from the collection at the Roman-German Central Museum in Mainz, Sylvia Mitschke, a restoration expert in Mannheim, discovered pieces of fabric called gussets sewed inside underwear to make them more comfortable.
Until now experts believed Romans did not use the technique, which places triangular inserts along seams to strengthen and expand a garment. They assumed instead that the size and shape of their garments were determined by the dimensions of the loom, since the search for evidence of any type of ancient sewing patterns had proved fruitless.
The prevailing opinion was that form-fitted tailoring was a foreign concept to the Romans, with both genders wearing similarly sack-like garments. Women accented their femininity by fastening a belt directly beneath the bust, while men buckled their own belts at the hips.
The latest findings from Mannheim point archeologists in a new direction, though. "This has definitely thrown us off a bit," Mitschke says. It looks as if the Romans might have understood the art of textile design after all.
Now, textile experts are on the hunt for the ancient world's equivalent to modern fashion labels. It's possible that previous clues and signs in this direction weren't sufficiently appreciated. For instance, Kolumba, the art museum of the Archdiocese of Cologne, holds a tunic with the letter kappa embroidered onto it in red thread. Is it simply the owner's monogram -- or could it be the logo of a fashion designer?
Despite scholars' best efforts, the Romans' relationship to underwear remains an open question. Mosaics laid in the floor of the Villa Romana del Casale in Sicily, which dates from the late Roman period, show shapely women exercising in a sort of bikini, but textile evidence of the use of anything resembling underpants or bras is scarce.
Experts in Mannheim are aware of only three items of surviving Roman clothing that bear a resemblance to underwear. Legionnaires, for example, had to protect their genitals with a type of underpants, since the tunics they wore were about the length of mini dresses. Farm workers, on the other hand, wore loincloths wrapped like diapers.
Their simple daily wear suggests that Romans placed a great deal of value on the comfort of their clothing. This makes it all the more mysterious that the toga, one of the most impractical garments in human history, attained such popularity in Rome.
Senators and other rich Romans inflicted themselves with these cloth burdens that could reach up to six meters (20 feet) long, meaning the wearer was often unable even to don the garment without the help of a house slave. To wear the toga in a dignified manner, the gentry were also required to keep their lower arm extended to hold its folds. The free citizens of Rome crept about the streets thus swaddled, hardly able to leave their homes without assistance.
But perhaps here, too, established notions are in need of some updating, says archeologist Schieck. "In many cases we owe much of our insight into the practical application of historical clothing to reenactors," she explains. That is, the subculture whose members don historical outfits as a recreational pastime. Upstanding family men in England, for example, have been striding around the countryside in Roman legionnaire costumes during their free time since 1972, when the country's first Roman reenactment society formed. The group, called the Ermine Street Guard, takes its name from a nearly 2,000-year-old Roman road in the country.
Bits of Roman legionnaires' uniforms found near a hill called Kalkriese in northwestern Germany suggest a different picture of these troops than is commonly accepted, though. It seems the imperial army wasn't nearly as smartly dressed as reenactors and Hollywood historical dramas would have us believe. Researchers believe the mighty Roman army looked more like a ragtag bunch of boys who'd just barely managed to agree on the same color shirts and shorts for a game of pick-up soccer.
The idea of soldiers draped in red cloaks, meanwhile, is absolute nonsense. Lustrous crimson robes worn by centurions are an invention of the 20th century. In reality, the military probably favored grays and earth tones.
"Red was a feminine color reserved for women," Schieck explains. Wealthy ladies owned exorbitantly expensive dresses and coats dyed with secretions from murex sea snails found in Tyre, now in Lebanon. This dye, Tellenbach explains, withstood any amount of washing. Still, women wearing it were quick to seek shelter when it rained, though for a different reason -- when wet, the purple-red wool stank horribly of fish.
But not everything red was made from the Tyrian snail. Because such luxury items were prohibitively expensive for the average citizen, counterfeiters brewed up cheaper versions of the dye in secret.
The poet Ovid expressly endorsed the discount advantages of such replacement dyes in "Ars amatoria," his instructional volume on love. "Don't ask for brocade, or wools dyed purple with Tyrian murex," the poet wrote. "With so many cheaper colours having appeared, it's crazy to bear your fortune on your back!"
Yet many luxury addicts set out to do precisely that. Newly wealthy merchants strolled the streets draped in necklaces, covered in perfume and wrapped in the finest Chinese silk. This penchant for fine fabrics even caused an imbalance in Rome's budget, with considerable sums flowing east for imported clothing. Emperor Diocletian established maximum prices for foreign textiles in an attempt to keep the empire from going bankrupt.
Manufacturers responded to the crisis with innovation. The researchers in Mannheim have discovered indications of production techniques long since forgotten. For example, Romans evidently wove garments from nettles that matched the quality of exotic products from China.
Still, turbans and other foreign garb made their appearance on the streets of the multicultural city. Even barbarians in trousers were tolerated. In fact, it would have been difficult to find clothing that would provoke a negative reaction on the streets of Rome. Only unmanly men were unacceptable.
Ovid, the beauty expert of the antique world, warned against metrosexual proclivities: "Don't delight in curling your hair with tongs, don't smooth your legs with sharp pumice stone," advised the poet, whose 2,000-year-old writings document an eternal truth: "Leave that to (eunuchs). Male beauty's better for neglect."
Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein
Ancient Roman Ship Discovered off Albanian Coast
17 AUG 2011 / 10:12
The remains of a 2,100-year-old Roman ship have been discovered off the Karaburun Peninsula in Albania’s southern coast by archaeologists.
Besar Likmeta Tirana
Relict of ancient ship found off Albanian coast | Photo courtesy of RPM Nautical Foundation
A research team comprised of Albanian and US archaeologists found the wreckage this week at a depth of 50 metres and believe it dates to between the second and first century BC.
According to archaeologists, the discovery of a 30 metre-long ship with more than 300 amphoras-a type of ceramic container- aboard, sheds new light on the ancient population of the southern Illyrian coast and its trade relations in the Mediterranean.
“The growing maritime evidence points toward an intense wine industry and associated heavy trade that developed in the 2nd century BC and continued into the 1st century CE,” Dr Jeff Royal of the RPM Nautical Foundation said in a statement.
“The heavy traffic of this commodity ran southward down the Eastern Adriatic route to the Vlora area before cutting over to Southern Italy and continuing into the West Mediterranean,” Royal added.
During ancient times, Albania’s coast stood on an important trade route, receiving traffic from Greece, Italy, North Africa and the western Mediterranean.
“This discovery is important not only for the expedition but also for Albania’s underwater archaeology,” Dr Adrian Anastasi from Albania’s Institute of Archeology said.
The expedition was financed by the RPM Nautical Foundation, which was founded by US financier George Robb Jr. It has discovered 20 shipwrecks from ancient, medieval and modern times in its survey of the Balkan country's coast in the last five years.
Robb and his research team have called repeatedly for the creation of an underwater archaeology museum, which would allow for the excavation and preservation of these relics, but so far they have received little support from local authorities.
“The discoveries of the last five years could create a unique museum for the Balkans, an opportunity that Albania should not miss,” Robb said.
Black Death study lets rats off the hook
Plague of 1348-49 spread so fast in London the carriers had to be humans not black rats, says archaeologist
Maev Kennedy, guardian.co.uk,
Wednesday 17 August 2011 19.37 BST
Bubonic plague victims of 14th century London, uncovered in the 1980s in an excavation at the Old Royal Mint. Photograph: Rex Features
Rats weren't the carriers of the plague after all. A study by an archaeologist looking at the ravages of the Black Death in London, in late 1348 and 1349, has exonerated the most famous animal villains in history.
"The evidence just isn't there to support it," said Barney Sloane, author of The Black Death in London. "We ought to be finding great heaps of dead rats in all the waterfront sites but they just aren't there. And all the evidence I've looked at suggests the plague spread too fast for the traditional explanation of transmission by rats and fleas. It has to be person to person – there just isn't time for the rats to be spreading it."
He added: "It was certainly the Black Death but it is by no means certain what that disease was, whether in fact it was bubonic plague."
Sloane, who was previously a field archaeologist with the Museum of London, working on many medieval sites, is now attached to English Heritage. He has concluded that the spread of the 1348-49 plague, the worst to hit the capital, was far faster, with an impact far worse than had been estimated previously.
While some suggest that half the city's population of 60,000 died, he believes it could have been as high as two-thirds. Years later, in 1357, merchants were trying to get their tax bill cut on the grounds that a third of all property in the city was lying empty.
Sloane spent nearly 10 years researching his book, poring over records and excavation reports. Many records have gone missing, while there was also a documentation shortfall as disaster overwhelmed the city. Names of those buried in three emergency cemeteries seem not to have been recorded.
However, Sloane found a valuable resource in records from the Court of Hustings, of wills made and then enacted during the plague years. As the disease gripped – in October 1348 rather than the late summer others suggested, reaching its height in April 1349 – the numbers of wills soared as panic-striken wealthy citizens realised their deaths were probably imminent.
On 5 February 1349 Johanna Ely, her husband already dead, arranged provision for her children, Richard and Johanna. She left them property, spelled out which beds and even pots and pans each was to receive, and placed them in the guardianship of her own mother. She was dead within 72 hours.
It appeared to the citizens that everyone in the world might die. Richard de Shordych left goods and money to his son Benedict when he died in early March: his son outlived him by a fortnight.
Money, youth, and formerly robust good health were no protection. Edward III's own daughter, Joan, sailed for Spain with her trousseau, her dowry and her bridesmaids, to marry Pedro, heir to the throne of Castile. She would never see her wedding day as she died of the plague within 10 days of landing.
John of Reading, a monk in Westminster, left one of the few witness accounts. He described deaths happening so fast there was "death without sorrow, marriage without affection, self-imposed penance, want without poverty, and flight without escape".
In Rochester, William of Dene wrote that nobody could be found to bury the dead, "but men and women carried the bodies of their own little ones to church on their shoulders and threw them into mass graves from which arose such a stink that it was barely possible for anyone to go past a churchyard".
Sloane estimates that people living near the cemetery at Aldersgate, which is now buried under Charterhouse Square, in Smithfield, would have seen a corpse carried past every five minutes at the height of the plague.
As many wills were being made in a week as in a normal year. Usually these would only be activated months or years later: in the worst weeks of the plague there was barely time to get them written down. Many, like Johanna Ely, probably made their wills when they felt the first dreaded sweats and cramps of the disease. Others left property and the care of their children to people who then barely outlived them.
The archaeology of the plague also reveals that most people, however, were buried with touching care, neatly laid out in rows, heads facing west, with far more bodies put in coffins than in most medieval cemeteries – but possibly through fear of infection.
Only a few jumbled skeletons hint at burials carried out some time after death and decomposition; those cases probably arose because bodies were found later on in buildings where every member of the household had died.
Sloane believes there was little difference in mortality rates between rich and poor, because they lived so closely packed together. The plague, he is convinced, spread from person to person in the crowded city.
Mortality continued to rise throughout the bitterly cold winter, when fleas could not have survived, and there is no evidence of enough rats.
Black rat skeletons have been found at 14th-century sites, but not in high enough numbers to make them the plague carriers, he said.
In sites beside the Thames, where most of the city's rubbish was dumped and rats should have swarmed, and where the sodden ground preserves organic remains excellently, few black rats have been found.
Sloane wants to dig up Charterhouse, where he believes 20,000 bodies lie under the ancient alms houses and modern buildings, including the Art Deco block where the fictional character Hercule Poirot lives in the television series. And, if anyone finds a mass medieval rat grave, he would very much like to know.