Excavating Spitalfields – The Story of a Global Disaster

Don Walker is a Senior Human Osteologist at Museum of London Archaeology.

For many years excavations have been continuing in the area of the priory/hospital of St Mary’s Spital Without Bishopsgate.  There was a Roman cemetery, just outside the city walls, probable water use of this sacred ground and in 1197 the establishment of the priory church and hospital by the Brunus family.  During the 13th and 14th centuries this became one of the greatest hospitals in the country.

Major excavations in 1999 – 2002 uncovered about 10,500 skeletons.  Work on the adjacent market site revealed many more, the majority being buried in the period 1120 – 1539, those pre 1200 being before the founding of the priory.

Near the main church there were several stone tombs including one of a priest, interred with chalice and patten. The cemetery seems to have had four main periods of use.

  1. 1120 – 1200  – pre priory
  2. 1200 – 1250  – “attritional” burials, mostly single, some   double and some stacked.
  3. 1250 – 1400  – “catastrophic” multiple burials in pits.
  4. 1400 – 1539  – final years of cemetery.

The multiple burials were carefully laid out side by side and layered with feet facing to the east.  There was some evidence of linen like shrouding material, a very few items of jewellery, such as rings, but very little else. There was a 50/50 spread of male and female adults, bones in excellent condition and exhibiting usual range of size for this medieval period.  There was a noticeable absence of children’s skeletons.

The initial phase of multiple burials was in square pits; followed, a short while later, by a series in rectangular pits, fitted in between the earlier pits.

The excavators wondered why there were so many mass graves, was it the “Great Famine”, the “Black Death”, they puzzled over the two distinct phases, they looked for evidence of blunt force trauma and battle injuries but found very little.

The “Great Famine” occurred 1315–17 and an estimated 10–25% of Londoners died.  The Black Death happened 1348–50 with 30–50% dying.

Fortunately the excavations have been well funded and the archaeologists were able to get large numbers of skeletal samples radio-carbon dated.  Results proved unexpected giving dates in the period 1230–60, too early for the known disasters that have traditionally explained mass burials.

Looking for possible explanations, researchers looked at documentary records where available, historical and modern famines, funerary evidence, and osteological evidence from attritional and catastrophic events.  They analysed the results of famine, starvations and subsequent disease as immunity wanes and its spread through the population, the poor and migrants dying first, the wealthy becoming more vulnerable with time.


They found two written accounts from this period that give useful information. One believed to be 1258, describes a very cold winter and spring with a vicious north wind affecting crop growth, food production and human survival.  The other account details a massive crop failure, with major loss of life from starvation, with final salvation coming from the importation of large amounts of corn from Almaine.

Could these events be linked to volcanic eruptions, blacking out the sun, putting masses of ash and toxic substances into the earths’ atmosphere?  Scientists know from Arctic and Antarctic ice core specimens that volcanic ash levels and sulphate levels were massively elevated in the mid 13th century. This is confirmed by mud-core samples taken from African lakes.  Levels show results 8 times more concentrated than those found when Krakatoa erupted in 1883.  This eruption resulted in dry fogs, periods of intense rain, very poor harvests, famine and disease.

There are two recorded eruptions in the period 1240 – 1270, El Chichon in Mexico and Quilotoa in Ecuador with a third possibility at Rinjani in Indonesia.

Quite recently a mass grave has been found just outside the old city walls of Berlin.  Radio – Carbon dating indicates burials in the mid 1200s, extensive investigation is ongoing and it will be interesting to see if there are similarities to the Spitalfields site.  Maybe history will have to be expanded and re-written to include another disaster within the time frame of the burials, maybe a massive volcanic eruption occurred, but will it be adults only in Berlin? In which case a further explanation might be sought.





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