Thursday Reader: Discoveries – Black Plague Skeletons in London, Alexander the Great-Era Treasure in Israel

Recent discoveries of more skeletons and ancient treasure come on the heels of what may describe 2015 as the Year of Archaeology.

These two adult skulls were among thousands uncovered at the Bedlam burial ground, which was used during the Great Plague in 1665. The remains will be removed over the next week by a team of archaeologists. Credit: PA

These two adult skulls were among thousands uncovered at the Bedlam burial ground, which was used during the Great Plague in 1665. The remains will be removed over the next week by a team of archaeologists.
Credit: PA

Archaeologists began excavating 3,000 skeletons from Bedlam Hospital cemetery disturbed by London builders. The skeletons of a mother and her child buried side-by-side are among those which are to be excavated from an ancient burial ground after being disturbed during construction for London’s Crossrail.

Other skeletons at the burial site include that of a mother and her two children (above). Most of the remains are unidentified since the site did not keep its own burial records when it was used between 1569 and 1738. Credit: Reuters

Other skeletons at the burial site include that of a mother and her two children (above). Most of the remains are unidentified since the site did not keep its own burial records when it was used between 1569 and 1738.
Credit: Reuters

Skeletons of a mother and child (this and following image) are among those which are to be excavated from the Bedlam burial ground, which is the site for the new Liverpool Street station that will serve London's Crossrail network Credit: Reuters & PA

Skeletons of a mother and child (this and following image) are among those which are to be excavated from the Bedlam burial ground, which is the site for the new Liverpool Street station that will serve London’s Crossrail network
Credit: Reuters & EPA

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Archaeologists have started excavating 3,000 skeletons from Bedlam burial ground, which is at the site of the new Liverpool Street station that will serve the cross-London rail network.

Used from 1569 until at least 1738, including during the Great Plague in 1665, the burial site – also known as Bethlehem and the New Churchyard – was opened after graveyards around London started to overflow.

A team of 60 archaeologists will work in shifts, six days a week, to excavate the skeletons and gather any other remains at the burial site. The skeletons (pictured above) will then be reburied on consecrated ground. Credit: PA

A team of 60 archaeologists will work in shifts, six days a week, to excavate the skeletons and gather any other remains at the burial site. The skeletons (pictured above) will then be reburied on consecrated ground.
Credit: PA

Archaeologists have started excavating 3,000 skeletons (pictured) from the ancient Bedlam burial ground. Credit: PA

Archaeologists have started excavating 3,000 skeletons (pictured) from the ancient Bedlam burial ground.
Credit: PA

It was situated in close proximity to Bethlem Royal Hospital – the first dedicated psychiatric institution in Europe – and was used to bury London’s poor and religious non-conformists as well as inmates from the asylum.

The site, which was uncovered by Crossrail workers who are in the process of building a new ticket hall above the burial ground, is thought to contain the remains of a former lord mayor of London, a notorious criminal and political activists.

The skeletons will be excavated over the next four weeks by a team of 60 archaeologists who will work in shifts, six days a week.

Bones and skeletal remains could be seen at the Bedlam burial site today as workers began excavating them. Credit: Reuters

Bones and skeletal remains could be seen at the Bedlam burial site today as workers began excavating them.
Credit: Reuters

Archaeologists at the new Livepool Street station (pictured) are expected to finish on site in September. Credit: PA

Archaeologists at the new Livepool Street station (pictured) are expected to finish on site in September.
Credit: PA

The remains were uncovered during Crossrail construction work, which is set to be completed by 2019. Credit: Reuters

The remains were uncovered during Crossrail construction work, which is set to be completed by 2019.
Credit: Reuters

They will carefully remove the remains and record evidence for what may prove to be, in archaeological terms, London’s most valuable 16th and 17th Century cemetery site.

After the excavation, the workers will then dig through medieval marsh deposits and Roman remains including a road that runs under the site, which has already yielded several interesting Roman artifacts such as horseshoes and cremation urns. The skeletons will then be reburied on consecrated ground.

Archaeologists are expected to finish on site in September, after which construction will proceed on a new eastern ticket hall by contractor Laing O’Rourke.

“This excavation presents a unique opportunity to understand the lives and deaths of 16th and 17th century Londoners. The Bedlam burial ground spans a fascinating phase of London’s history, including the transition from the Tudor-period city into cosmopolitan early-modern London. This is probably the first time a sample of this size from this time period has been available for archaeologists to study in London. Bedlam was used by a hugely diverse population from right across the social spectrum and from different areas of the city.

– Jay Carver, Crossrail lead archaeologist

The archaeological excavations at Liverpool Street are being undertaken by Museum of London Archaeology on behalf of Crossrail. Scientific analysis of the remains will help provide new insights into the lives and deaths of early modern Londoners.

Bedlam burial ground was established in 1569 to help parishes cope with overcrowding during outbreaks of the plague and other epidemics.  As well as being used to bury those who were struck down with disease, it also became the site for those who passed away at the nearby Bethlem Royal Hospital – which is thought to have been the world’s first mental asylum.

Preliminary excavations at the Liverpool Street station site have already uncovered more than 400 skeletons. Credit: PA

Preliminary excavations at the Liverpool Street station site have already uncovered more than 400 skeletons.
Credit: PA

However, with mental patients showing no physical symptoms of illness, determining which of the remains belonged to those treated at the hospital will be near impossible for experts.

Earlier this year, Crossrail-led research identified the names and backgrounds of more than 5,000 people buried at the site. Names include Sir Ambrose Nicholas, who was lord mayor of London in 1575, and Dr John Lamb (also known as Lam or Lambe), an astrologer and adviser to the First Duke of Buckingham.

Lamb was said to have been stoned to death by an angry mob outside a theatre in 1628 following allegations of rape and black magic. Others identified in the research, carried out by 16 invited volunteers, include victims of riots by ‘Fanatiques’, noted in the diaries of Samuel Pepys in January 1661.

To date, Crossrail has found more than 10,000 artefacts spanning many years of London’s past across more than 40 construction sites. It is the UK’s largest archaeology project. Preliminary excavations at the Liverpool Street site in 2013 and 2014 have already uncovered more than 400 skeletons and numerous artifacts.

Bedlam – Synonym for Chaos

Bethlem Royal Hospital was founded in 1247 and was the first dedicated psychiatric institution in Europe.

Bethlem Royal Hospital was founded in 1247 and was the first dedicated psychiatric institution in Europe.

The Bedlam burial ground, also known as the New Churchyard, was situated near the notorious Bethlem Royal Hospital which opened during London’s response to the plague crisis in the 16th Century.

The burial site was the first in London which was not associated with a parish church and it did not keep its own burial records. Instead, the City’s parish churches recorded which of their parishioners were buried at Bedlam in their own records.

The graveyard, built on Bethlem Hospital’s vegetable patch in the 1560s after churchyards around the city started to overflow, was used to bury London’s poor and religious non-conformists as well as inmates from the asylum.

Bethlem Royal Hospital, which quickly became pronounced ‘Bedlam’ by Londoners, was founded in 1247 and was the first dedicated psychiatric institution in Europe. It was founded by Goffredo de Prefetti, who had been elected Bishop of Bethlehem, and was originally located just outside the London city wall, on the site of what is now Liverpool Street station.

By 1403, the majority of its patients suffered mental health issues. Others suffered from epilepsy, learning disabilities and dementia. Due to the hospital’s reputation as the principle treatment center for the insane, a bastardized version of its name – ‘Bedlam’ – came to signify madness and chaos more generally.

Although it is sometimes thought to have treated its patients cruelly, most were free to walk around the grounds. Inside the single-storey building that housed 12 cells, a kitchen, staff accommodation and an exercise yard, inmates were manacled and chained – and treated as a tourist attraction by Londoners who paid a penny to stare at them.

Patients, usually poor, were given treatments including restraint, dousing with water, beatings and isolation. Conditions inside Bedlam were depicted by William Hogarth in his 18th century drawings A Rake’s Progress, charting the decline of a merchant’s son from wealthy heir to asylum inmate, via debtor’s jail.

In 1674, the hospital’s governors decided that the institution should move a few hundred metres to the west to Moorfields, with the area’s open space thought to be healthier than its original premises.

Bethlem moved again in 1815, to St George’s Fields in Southwark, which is now the site of the Imperial War Museum. A final move came in 1930 when the hospital relocated to the suburb of Bromley. It is now run by the NHS and is considered to be a leading psychiatric hospital.

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Treasures From the Era of Alexander the Great

Included in the 2,300-year-old cache were two coins of Alexander of Macedon, three rings, four bracelets, two decorated earrings, three other earrings and a small stone weight. Credit: CLARA AMIT/ THE ISRAEL ANTIQUITIES AUTHORITY

Included in the 2,300-year-old cache were two coins of Alexander of Macedon, three rings, four bracelets, two decorated earrings, three other earrings and a small stone weight.
Credit: CLARA AMIT/ THE ISRAEL ANTIQUITIES AUTHORITY

A rare cache of jewelry and silver coins, minted during the reign of Alexander the Great, has been discovered in a stalactite filled cave in northern Israel, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) announced on Monday.

The 2,300-year-old treasure was found by three members of the Israeli Caving Club who wriggled through a narrow passage at the entrance of the stalactite cave and wandered inside for several hours.

The 2,300-year-old treasure was found by three members of the Israeli Caving Club who wriggled through a narrow passage at the entrance of the stalactite cave and wandered inside for several hours. Skeletons Shed Light on Ancient Earthquake in Israel. Credit: SHMUEL MAGAL/ISRAEL ANTIQUITIES AUTHORITY

The 2,300-year-old treasure was found by three members of the Israeli Caving Club who wriggled through a narrow passage at the entrance of the stalactite cave and wandered inside for several hours. Credit: SHMUEL MAGAL/ISRAEL ANTIQUITIES AUTHORITY

Stashed inside a niche, one of the spelunkers, Hen Zakai, spotted two ancient silver coins. On one side of the coins was an image of Alexander the Great, while the other side portrayed an arm raised Zeus sitting on his throne.

The archaeologsts believe the coins had been minted in the late fourth century B.C. at beginning of the Hellenistic Period during the reign of Alexander the Great.

Alongside the coins, the spelunkers found the remains of a cloth pouch with three rings, four bracelets, two decorated earrings, three other earrings, probably made of silver, a small stone weight, and a clay oil lamp. Dating from the Hellenistic period, the lamp contained some agate stones that were part of a string of beads.

“The valuables might have been hidden in the cave by local residents who fled there during the period of governmental unrest stemming from the death of Alexander,” the IAA said in a statement.

Stashed inside a niche, one of the spelunkers first spotted two ancient silver coins. On one side of the coins was an image of Alexander the Great, while the other side portrayed Zeus sitting on his throne. The archaeologists believe the coins had been minted in the late fourth century BC at beginning of the Hellenistic Period during the reign of Alexander the Great. Credit: SHMUEL MAGAL/ISRAEL ANTIQUITIES AUTHORITY

Stashed inside a niche, one of the spelunkers first spotted two ancient silver coins.
On one side of the coins was an image of Alexander the Great, while the other side portrayed Zeus sitting on his throne.
The archaeologists believe the coins had been minted in the late fourth century BC at beginning of the Hellenistic Period during the reign of Alexander the Great.
Credit: SHMUEL MAGAL/ISRAEL ANTIQUITIES AUTHORITY

At that time, the Wars of the Diadochi broke out in Israel between Alexander the Great’s successors who fought for the control of the king’s empire after his death in 323 B.C.

“Presumably the cache was hidden in the hope of better days, but today we know that whoever buried the treasure never returned to collect it,” the IAA said.

As archaeologists of the Israel Antiquities Authority this week-end entered the cave, they discovered evidence of human habitation that occurred there over extended periods, from the Chalcolithic period 6,000 years ago to the Hellenistic period approximately 2,300 years ago.

Numerous pottery vessels were discovered in the cave and some even merged with the limestone sediments.

“The finds in the cave will allow the researchers –- archaeologists and geologists alike –- to accurately date both the archaeological finds and the process of stalactite development,” the IAA said.

The treasure trove, which promises to shed light on the lives of ordinary people in Israel during the late 4th century BC, follows another significant finding. Last month amateur scuba divers stumbled across a trove of nearly 2,000 gold coins that sat on the bottom of the Roman-era port of Caesareafor about 1,000 years.

“After the gold treasure from Caesarea, this is the second time in the past month that citizens have reported significant archeological finds and we welcome this important trend,” Amir Ganor, director of the Unit for the Prevention of Antiquities Robbery in the Israel Antiquities Authority, said.

“Thanks to these citizens’ awareness, researchers at the Israel Antiquities Authority will be able to expand the existing archaeological knowledge about the development of society and culture in the Land of Israel in antiquity,” he added.

On the Web:

Sunday Reader: Tomb of Celtic Prince Uncovered in France

Saturday Reader: The Oldest Known Human Fossil Discovered

Friday Reader: Richard III and the Mystery Woman

Thursday Reader: Ancient Skeletons in Paris and a Rare Roman Tombstone in England

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