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.

PreservationN=%
Good42466.7
Medium18929.7
Poor233.6

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)

AgeN= %
Perinatal50.8
1-6 month40.6
7-11 month20.3
1-5 years528.2
6-11 years619.6
12-17 years 538.3
18-25 years639.9
26-35 years 12119.0
36-45 years 9715.3
>46 years223.5
Adult 11718.4
Sub adult396.1
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 years6315.03619.01615.4
26-35 years12128.86836.03836.5
36-45 years9723.16232.83129.8
>46 years 225.2126.398.7
Unsexed Adults11727.9115.8109.6
Total420189104
Table 3 Male and female distribution by age in the adult population

Stature

Sex Avg_stat SD VAR MIN MAX N
Female160.65.530.7151.1179.030
Male167.66.036.6153.3180.161
Unsexed 164.68.775.7147.6179.512
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 adultsMaleFemale
N n%Nn%Nn%
Osteoarthritis1391510.870710.062711.3
Osteophytosis1399467.6705071.4624166.1
IVD1395136.7702637.1622337.1
Schmorl's nodes1396043.2703955.7621829.0
Fusion13996.57057.16246.5
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.

CariesCalculusHypoplasiaPeriodotitisPeriapical lesions
Nn%Nn%Nn%Nn%Nn%
Male1418963.114113696.514111279.41368562.51363324.3
Female704665.7706795.7705781.4704564.3701724.3
All adults24514960.824523294.724519378.823714460.82375221.9
Sub adults1082119.41085450.01083835.29855.19822.0
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