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A summary of information on human remains held at the Museum of London from burial sites dating from 1547 to 1852.
The post-medieval period has its origin at the beginning of the Reformation (1550) and continues up until modern day, though the closure of almost all burial vaults and churchyards in London through the burial act of 1852 saw an end to almost all burials in London after this date (Harding 1998,63).
The period encompasses a series of key events in London’s history such as the Great Plague of 1665 and the Great fire of London (1666), which required large parts of London to be rebuilt.
The period is well documented historically, because in 1538 Henry VIII dictated that each parish should keep a register of all births, marriages and deaths. In the 17th century the Bills of Mortality were introduced, providing further information on mortality rates and cause of deaths in London up until the mid-19th century (Roberts and Cox 2003, 289).
Rapid population growth and urban expansion defines the period. Industrialisation attracted rural dwellers to the city causing a huge shift in the population. As a result, problems of overcrowding, sanitation and hygiene became an issue. In the 19th century, water and sanitations systems were introduced, though these were not built where they were needed most, the slums and other over-crowded areas (Roberts and Cox 2003, 289).
Infectious diseases were rife and spread rapidly in the overpopulated areas, where immunity was low due to the migration of people to the city. The year 1665 saw an outbreak of plague which ravaged London causing mortality rates to soar. In the 18th century, smallpox and tuberculosis were some of the biggest killers according to the Bills of Mortality (Roberts and Cox 2003, 291). Lack of sunlight,outdoor activities, and dietary fashions caused metabolic disorders such as rickets and scurvy to thrive. The rise of syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases was seen, perhaps associated with the many brothels in London during this time.
Burials during this period are complex. Location and coffin furniture clearly reflected the social status of the individuals and their family during life (Litten 1998). Coffin furniture came in many different designs. Coffin plates would usually display the name, age and year of death of the individual buried. Occasionally these have preserved in the archaeological record, enabling identification of the individual.
Due the rise in population, overspill cemeteries were created away from church burial grounds. These were generally occupied by the less affluent in society, whereas the churchyards and crypts were reserved for the more well to do (Roberts and Cox 2003, 297). This period also saw the opening of non-Conformist burial grounds in London, often to reflect the needs of new communities to London.