East Smithfield Black Death cemetery summary

The Royal Mint medieval cemetery was situated at East Smithfield, E1. The Black Death cemetery was excavated in 1986-88 and covered approximately 2 ha in size. The cemetery was in use during 1348-1350 and was the first established Black Death cemetery in London (Grainger and Phillpotts in prep).

The burials were clustered in two areas. A total of 558 burials were excavated from the western cemetery; 300 individuals were uncovered from mass graves and a further 258 from single inhumation graves. The eastern cemetery revealed 192 individuals; 102 from mass graves and 90 individuals from single inhumations. It is estimated that approximately 40-50% of the cemetery is still in-situ below the Royal Mint’s courtyard (Grainger and Phillpotts in prep).

A total of 636 individuals from the two areas have been recorded onto the database.

Methodology

The recording of the East Smithfield Black Death cemetery deviates from the overall methodology.

Dental pathology was not recorded with the 0 and 9 option. Entries were only made when any pathological conditions were observed.

Joints were recorded when present. The four-digit array option for recording degenerative wear was not applied.

Certain non-metric traits were not recorded correctly and this section should therefore be used with caution.

It was evident that previous research on the collection had led to the removal of some skeletal remains with pathology, which has resulted in the pathological conditions recorded here to be of limited representative and interpretative value.

Preservation

The preservation of the material was good though skeletal completeness was poor for the subadults. A large proportion (24.8%) of the individuals could not be allocated an age category due to incompleteness.

Preservation N= %
Good 424 66.7
Medium 189 29.7
Poor 23 3.6

Table 1 Skeletal preservation

Skeletal completeness of east smithfield blck death individualsFigure 1 Skeletal completeness (N=636)

Demography

The demographic profile for the Black Death individuals revealed 27.8% subadults and 72.2% adults. The age profile indicated that a majority of the adults died before the age of 35, whilst a majority of the sub adults died over the age of 5 years. This profile does not follow the traditional death curve for a medieval population, but reflect the profile of a living population and a typical death curve for a catastrophe cemetery (Chamberlain 2006).

Age distribution chart from east smithfield black death individualsFigure 2 Age distribution (N=636)

Age N= %
Perinatal 5 0.8
1-6 month 4 0.6
7-11 month 2 0.3
1-5 years 52 8.2
6-11 years 61 9.6
12-17 years 53 8.3
18-25 years 63 9.9
26-35 years 121 19.0
36-45 years 97 15.3
>46 years 22 3.5
Adult 117 18.4
Sub adult 39 6.1
Table 2 Age distribution (N=636)

Male and female chart distribution from east smithfield black deathFigure 3 Male and female distribution of adults (N=420)

All adults % Male % Female %
18-25 years 63 15.0 36 19.0 16 15.4
26-35 years 121 28.8 68 36.0 38 36.5
36-45 years 97 23.1 62 32.8 31 29.8
>46 years 22 5.2 12 6.3 9 8.7
Unsexed Adults 117 27.9 11 5.8 10 9.6
Total 420 189 104
Table 3 Male and female distribution by age in the adult population

Stature

Sex Avg_stat SD VAR MIN MAX N
Female 160.6 5.5 30.7 151.1 179.0 30
Male 167.6 6.0 36.6 153.3 180.1 61
Unsexed 164.6 8.7 75.7 147.6 179.5 12
Table 4 Stature estimation from femoral length

Pathology

Only a few pathological conditions were recorded in the skeletal assemblage. Most common were non-specific periositis and cribra orbitalia.Through previous analysis it is known that some pathological examples are no longer in the collection and therefore seriously limits the interpretative value of the pathological conditions noted.

The low prevalence rate of pathologies may, however, also be a reflection of the young age groups in the assemblage and the acute nature of their deaths. The rate of osteoarthritis was noticeably low for a medieval population.

East Smithfield Black Death pathology table (Word 125kb)

Vertebral pathology

The low rate of osteoarthritis was also noted in the vertebrae whilst ostepohytosis and Schmorl’s nodes wre relatively high with males apparently affected more than females (Table 5).

All adults Male Female
N n % N n % N n %
Osteoarthritis 139 15 10.8 70 7 10.0 62 7 11.3
Osteophytosis 139 94 67.6 70 50 71.4 62 41 66.1
IVD 139 51 36.7 70 26 37.1 62 23 37.1
Schmorl's nodes 139 60 43.2 70 39 55.7 62 18 29.0
Fusion 139 9 6.5 70 5 7.1 62 4 6.5
Table 5 Distribution of vertebral pathology by sex in adults with one or more vertebrae present

Dental pathology

The crude table provided here (Table 6) suggests that the rate of dental enamel hypoplasia was relatively high in the Black Death population compared to the individuals recovered from St Mary Graces, perhaps suggesting a large proportion of the relatively young adults in this cemetery were exposed to the Great famine (1313-1317) during early childhood.

Caries Calculus Hypoplasia Periodotitis Periapical lesions
N n % N n % N n % N n % N n %
Male 141 89 63.1 141 136 96.5 141 112 79.4 136 85 62.5 136 33 24.3
Female 70 46 65.7 70 67 95.7 70 57 81.4 70 45 64.3 70 17 24.3
All adults 245 149 60.8 245 232 94.7 245 193 78.8 237 144 60.8 237 52 21.9
Sub adults 108 21 19.4 108 54 50.0 108 38 35.2 98 5 5.1 98 2 2.0
Table 6 Distribution of dental pathology in sub adults and adults

Discussion

The mass graves of the Black Death cemetery have been very closely dated to 1348-1350 during some of the most challenging years of the medieval period. Exposure to famine, war and epidemics was not uncommon. The demographic profile of the dead population reflects that of a living one, suggesting that there was an indiscriminate cross section of the population who died during the Black Death.

Links to excavations carried out on this cemetery


Royal Mint, East Smithfield, E1
Sitecode MIN86

Recorded by: Bekvalac J, Cowal L, Mikulski R and Kausmally T
Text by: Kausmally T
Last updated: 28 March 2007