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Crossrail excavation leads to Great Plague DNA

Excavation of Bedlam burial ground July 2015

Scientific analysis of skeletons excavated as part of the Crossrail programme has identified the DNA of the bacteria responsible for the 1665 Great Plague.

5 skeletons found to contain 1665 Great Plague bacteria

Five skeletons found to contain 1665 Great Plague bacteria

Five individuals were found to have been exposed to the plague pathogen Yersinia pestis before they died.

The discovery comes following a year-long study into skeletons found in a mass grave during the construction of the Elizabeth line station at Liverpool Street in 2015.

The burial ground in New Churchyard, dated between 1650 and 1670, was excavated by the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA). Traces of the pathogen Yersinia pestis were found in five individuals, leading to the first identification of plague DNA from 17th century Britain.

“The Crossrail project has given archaeologists a rare opportunity to study previously inaccessible areas of London,” said Crossrail’s lead archaeologist Jay Carver. Scientists hope to get a better understanding of the disease’s evolution by sequencing the DNA’s full genome and comparing the 1665 Great Plague and 1348 Black Death to the modern pathogen.

“The discovery of the ancient DNA, which has eluded scientists for so long, is yet another piece of the jigsaw that we are piecing together to learn more about the lives and deaths of 16th to 18th century Londoners.”

In 2014, skeletons excavated during the construction of the Elizabeth line station at Farringdon were found to contain traces of the Yersinia pestis bacteria DNA responsible for the 1348 Black Death.

Crossrail’s archaeology programme, the largest in the UK, has found more than 10,000 artefacts and fossils spanning 55M years of London’s past at over 40 construction sites.

Full findings from the archaeological excavation at Liverpool Street will be published in early 2017.

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