The bleak fortunes of poor and migrant communities living in London up to 450 years ago have been revealed by the analysis of thousands of skeletons unearthed by MOLA archaeologists during construction of the Elizabeth line station at Liverpool Street.
The New Churchyard, the latest book in the Crossrail Archaeology series published by MOLA, is the largest archaeological study of London’s population of this period. It combines scientific techniques with historical research to paint an extraordinarily detailed picture of the lives of those interred at the New Churchyard burial ground.
The results have shed fresh light on what jobs they had and where they came from, what they ate, what illnesses they suffered and what medicines they took.
The New Churchyard, sometimes known as the Bethlem or the Bedlam burial ground, was in use from 1569-1739, a period of devastating plague, fire and civil war. London boomed to become the largest city in Europe, containing nearly 10% of England’s population.
High death rates and low birth rates made large-scale immigration a necessity; people from across England flocked into the capital in early adulthood to find work, spouses, and recreation. When they arrived they were greeted by increasingly crowded conditions, and their lives were hampered by bad hygiene, pollution, foul water, poor waste disposal and exposure to ‘urban’ diseases.
Robert Hartle, Senior Archaeologist at MOLA and author of the book, said: “This is the largest archaeological study of London’s population from this period. This was a time when the capital’s population grew at an incredible rate. Our research has shown how the conditions for those living and migrating into the city affected their lives.”
Isotope studies, which identify unique isotopic signatures within the skeleton, were undertaken on samples from the teeth of 20 skeletons that had been excavated from the burial ground.
The studies showed that nearly half of them had migrated into London from elsewhere in England, with one person migrating to the UK from a different country with a much warmer climate.
All of the skeletons appear to have been exposed to high levels of lead during childhood, perhaps from lead water pipes and glazed ceramics which would have been used for preparing and serving food. This could have led to delinquent behaviours and even compromised intelligence.
Dental calculus analysis, which examines traces of DNA and microscopic material trapped in the hardened plaque of the teeth, revealed the common bacteria carried in their mouths and throats, and included flu, pneumoniae and dental disease. Evidence of the treatments they used was also found in the form of pollen grains from medicinal plants such as borage, which was used to treat everything from ‘putrid and pestilential fevers’ to ‘expelling pensiveness and melancholy’.
The dental analysis also provided insight into the everyday activities that people were engaging in; the remains of chicken feather barbules, likely to be from plucking birds; fibres of flax, hemp and wool, probably the result of exposure to dust from the textile industry; and evidence of exposure to smoke and soot from domestic fires.
The construction of the Elizabeth line gave archaeologists a rare opportunity to explore some of the capital’s most historically significant, but normally inaccessible sites. Tens of thousands of artefacts spanning 55 million years of the city’s history have been uncovered.
The full MOLA research is available to buy priced £10 at the MOLA website.