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News and stories from the world of Archaeology and its related disciplines

Black death burial site in Italy yields a rare coffin birth

Researchers investigating a 14th century burial ground have identified a rare case of “coffin birth” – a gruesome phenomenon in which a deceased pregnant woman’s fetus is expelled within the grave.

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The remains of a mother and fetus were buried alongside those of two other children in the early days of the Black Death in Italy, however researchers cannot say for certain that they died of the plague [Credit: Fabrizio Benente (Universita di Genova – DAFIST)]

The event, which has seldom been reported in archaeology, is known as postmortem fetal extrusion. It results from a build-up of gas pressure within the decomposing body.

“In this case, we have a partial expulsion of a 38- to 40-week-old fetus, which was found to be complete and to lie within the birth canal,” Deneb Cesana, at the University of Genova, told Seeker.

The remains of the woman and her unborn baby were originally uncovered in 2006, interred with two other young individuals that scientists say were aged 12 and three years old. Only recently has the discovery been fully investigated.

The research was led by Cesana and her colleagues Ole Jørgen Benedictow, a plague historian at the University of Oslo, and Raffaella Bianucci, a bioanthropologist at the University of Warwick in England. Their work appears in the journal Anthropological Science.

The gravesite was found in the cemetery of the “ospitale” (hostel) of San Nicolao di Pietra Colice, located some 45 miles from Genova.

The hostel, which also housed a church, was situated in the Northern Apennines at about 2,600 feet above sea level, and was used as a resting place by travelers and pilgrims heading to Rome and trekking along the two major transit routes of the Liguria region.

“The woman was found laying slightly on her side, while on her left there were two young individuals of unknown sex,” said archaeologist Fabrizio Benente, of the University of Genova.

Benente, who was not involved in the anthropological study, directed the excavation campaign with a team of the International Institute of Ligurian Studies and the University of Genova.

“This was the only multiple burial found at the cemetery,” he said. “The others were all single graves.”

(a) Skeleton of the adult female (b) Skeleton of the 12-year-old sub-adult (c) Skeleton 
of the 3-year-old sub-adult (d) Skeleton of the 38–40-week-old fetus [Credit: Cesana, D., Benedictow, O.J., & R. Bianucci]

He added that the corpses had been buried simultaneously and directly into the soil, and dated the burial to the second half of the 14th century.

The timing corresponded to the arrival of the Black Death in Genoa in 1348. The researchers hypothesized that the woman and the two children likely died of the bubonic plague.

Bianucci’s analysis confirmed that three of the four individuals – the woman, the fetus, and the 12-year-old child – tested positive for the F1 antigen of Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that causes the plague.

“This is the first evidence of Y. pestis infection in 14th-century Liguria,” Bianucci said.

“Our finding supports the notion that the contagion, which had originally started from Genoa’s port area, progressively spread and disseminated through the main communication routes,” she added.

Anthropological investigations carried out and funded by the Archaeological Museum of Sestri Levante and the Archaeological Superintendency of Liguria showed that the woman, who was about 5 feet 11 inches tall, was between 30 and 39 years old when she died.

It emerged that she had several ailments during her life. Her teeth revealed localized periodontitis and linear enamel hypoplasia – a band-like dental defect that denotes childhood physiological stress – while her bones showed evidence of other diseases.

The woman also suffered from congenital hip dysplasia and was likely affected by Legg–Calvé–Perthes disease, a childhood condition that affects the hip, resulting in a permanent deformity of the head of the thigh bone (femur). She likely walked with a limp.

The skeleton of the 12-year-old showed signs of lesions that were possibly linked to metabolic diseases or nutritional deficiencies. The 3-year-old child had no evidence of disease.

The researchers have not yet conducted DNA analysis that will determine the sex of the children and whether they have a relationship with the pregnant woman.

According to Benente, it is possible that they were her children. He believes that they ended up in the mountains, far from the villages, because the hostel of San Nicolao might have worked as a lazaretto, a hospital for people afflicted with contagious diseases.

“She was in advanced pregnancy and limping,” Benente said. “This wasn’t the best condition to go on a pilgrimage to Rome, possibly with two kids.”

According to the authors of the study, every conclusion is premature before DNA tests and further research are carried out.

“At the moment we can really only say that the skeleton of this unfortunate and frail woman is providing us with a new case of coffin birth,” Bianucci said, “which adds to the limited number reported so far.” 

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Crossrail excavations: The archaeological legacy

The skeletons of plague victims, a Tudor bowling ball and medieval ice skates fashioned from animal bones are among hundreds of artefacts on display at a new exhibition showcasing the most interesting finds made during the Crossrail excavations.

What’s been unearthed undoubtedly offers a fascinating insight into London life over the centuries – but what will be the archaeological legacy of what is Europe’s largest infrastructure project?

Tens of thousands of artefacts have been dug up during work to create the 42km (26-mile) Elizabeth Line, which runs from the east to the west of the capital.

With careful planning, 20 sites were excavated by archaeologists at locations where ventilation shafts were put in, where railways entered tunnels and where new ticket halls were to be built.

“We’ve managed to take a slice down through London but also across London,” said Jackie Keily, the curator of the exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands.

One of Ms Keily’s favourite exhibits is a bowling ball discovered at the site of a Tudor manor house in Stepney Green.

“It’s amazing it survived,” she said.

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This Tudor bowling ball was found preserved in the boggy moat of a manor in Stepney Green.

“It had been in a moat which was boggy. Henry VIII brought in a ban banning commoners from bowling. It was only for the aristocracy.

“Stepney Green is now part of Greater London but it would have been a weekend retreat in the countryside.”

A chamber pot found beneath 19th Century terraced housing, also in Stepney Green, ranks as another highlight for Ms Keily.

“It dates back to when there were no indoor toilets or bathrooms,” she said. “This one is fabulous because it has a shocked-looking man saying: ‘What I see I will not tell’.”

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Victorian chamber pot

The discoveries made were by no means restricted to those from Victorian, Tudor or medieval times though, with considerably older items being unearthed, including bison bone fragments in the part of the capital we now call Royal Oak.

Asked if there had been previous evidence of bison roaming there, Ms Keily said: “We kind of knew but it’s incredible to find the remains.

“There were three fragments of bison bone and one of reindeer from an antler. They were dated back to about 68,000 years ago.

“Some of the bones had traces of gnawing, possibly from wolves.”

Two finds from the Crossrail project have ended up among the 80 million specimens at the Natural History Museum: a piece of 55-million-year-old amber and two parts of a woolly mammoth jawbone. Both were discovered beneath Canary Wharf.

The bone find could prove to be important, as Jessica Simpson from the museum explains: “They can date the woolly mammoth specimen once it is off display and they might be able to determine when they became extinct in our region.

“The last known woolly mammoths were roaming a small part of northern Siberia about 4,000 years ago.”

For Ms Keily, the discovery that will perhaps provide the most significant element of Crossrail’s archaeological legacy is the human remains found at Liverpool Street.

DNA testing on teeth found in the 17th Century Bedlam cemetery confirmed the identity of the bacteria behind London’s Great Plague for the first time.

“That’s an important discovery,” she said.

And it’s not the only one.

Don Walker, senior human osteologist at the Museum of London Archaeology, analysed some skeletons found at Charterhouse Square in Farringdon.

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This leather shoe is believed to date from the 15th or 16th Century

He said of the discovery: “It was important because we found documented evidence of a Black Death cemetery dating to 1348 or 1349.”

Isotope, radiocarbon and DNA analysis was performed in an effort to reveal details such as how a person’s diet had changed during their lifetime and where they were likely to have lived.

Mr Walker said: “We don’t know much about how infectious diseases interacted with people in the past.

“If we can understand the evolution of infectious diseases such as the plague that will help us understand how diseases will behave in the future.”

Asked what the impact of the Crossrail excavations would be, he said: “I think it goes beyond archaeology and I’m certain there will be some benefits for future medical work as well.”

Dr Piers Mitchell from Cambridge University is president of the Paleopathology Association and was part of the team that found Richard III’s skull in a Leicester car park.

Asked if Crossrail would go on to be viewed as a significant project in British archaeology, he said: “The problem with Crossrail is you only get a little vertical shaft, a little box to excavate.

“That gives you a little vignette of life in the past. It’s a little bit frustrating.

“They’ve got lots of little circles and they are trying to interpret London from that.”

But he added: “Only time will tell. If interesting papers are published and we learn more about diseases of the past and how they are changing, it’s going to be a good resource to teach students with.”

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Jay Carver, lead Crossrail archaeologist, believes the project will be held up as an example of how developers, engineers and archaeologists can work together and share finds with the community.

He said: “Every 10 years there’s a mega-project that involves a lot of archaeology; previously there was the Eurostar tunnel and then Terminal 5 at Heathrow.

“With each project we are developing the way we work with construction and engineering. In the past archaeologists and engineers have been at loggerheads.

“I think it’s been a really successful project.”

And it’s a project that is set to continue, with plans in place for Crossrail 2, the proposed north-south line from Epsom in Surrey to Broxbourne in Hertfordshire.

But wherever there are huge infrastructure projects of this kind, there are difficult decisions to be taken, such as the possibility the Curzon cinema in Soho might have to make way for a new ticket hall.

Stephen Fry has said he does not want to be a “numby” – not under my backyard – but, as a supporter of the Curzon Soho, objects to the plans as they stand.

And the Victorian Society warns Wimbledon is among the areas that face losing important architecture to Crossrail 2’s bulldozers – although a Transport for London spokesperson said: “Demolition is always our last resort.”

Back in east London at the Museum of London Docklands – a stone’s throw away from where engineers are putting the finishing touches to the Canary Wharf Crossrail station – Jackie Keily reflects happily on the impact of the several years of excavations.

“It’s been an amazing project,” she said.

“To be able to archaeologically take a slice through London east to west is pretty amazing.”

Tunnel: The Archaeology of Crossrail runs from Friday 10 February to 3 September 2017 at the Museum of London Docklands.

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Filed under: Universalis

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