A volcanic eruption was responsible for wiping out almost a third of the population of London.
Incredible as that statement may seem, research into the discovery of thousands of medieval burials at a Spitalfields site suggests strongly that this is indeed the case. Many of the mass burials in London had been thought to relate to plague outbreaks in the 14th century, but scientific techniques, including radio carbon dating, have led to revelations of an eruption somewhere in the tropics, many times more powerful than the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883. Climatic disturbances, caused by the huge volcanic eruption in 1257/1258, brought about freak weather conditions that wiped out crops and led to famine and famine-related diseases. A contemporary account says that over fifteen thousand of the approximately fifty thousand population of London died.
Because London has been a human settlement for thousands of years, there is a wealth of archaeological material being discovered all the time. Roman hairpins, for example, have been found all over the city, showing that Roman ladies liked to adorn their hair with pins decorated with birds and flowers, as well as using ones charmingly shaped to represent phalluses.
The Crossrail project has led to numerous archaeological discoveries, the oldest being wooden remains thought to come from a Bronze Age route through London. Before any of the construction work can begin on more than forty Crossrail sites, archaeological investigations are carried out, and artefacts and remains are removed.
Crossrail staff working on developments near Liverpool Street station, have brought to light thousands of Roman remains, including many human skulls and numerous horse’s skulls and shoes. Archaeologists are investigating suggestions that there is some significance to the placement of so many skulls, although they may just have been washed downstream from a burial ground too close to a river.
The site, dubbed the Pompeii of the North, has been excavated to a depth of twelve metres. Whole Roman streets, part of the temple of Mithras, wooden floors, leather goods and private correspondence have been found, preserved by the anaerobic conditions of the damp ground of the Walbrook, an ancient tributary of the Thames. Nearer to current street level, evidence of a medieval tannery, a monastery garden and a later burial site have been found.
Around three thousand skeletons were found in this burial ground, which is on the original Bedlam site. The St Mary Bethlem, or Bedlam, Hospital was the first psychiatric hospital in Europe, but when it moved to a site at Moorgate, the land became London’s first municipal burial ground, and was in use from 1569 to 1738. Many plague victims are buried there, along with many other Londoners, whose details have been painstakingly researched from parish records.
When Blomberg company HQ is completed on the entrance to the Waterloo and City line at bank station, many of the archaeological finds will be put on display in a special exhibition in the new Blomberg Place building.
Information and updates can be found on the Museum of London Archaeology website: http://www.mola.org.uk/