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An Ice Core Reveals How Profoundly The Black Death Changed Medieval Society

In the year of the Lord 1347, the Black Death arrived in Europe. Introduced by merchants coming from Asia, the plague, caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, spread quickly. Following trading routes, in just six years this incurable disease killed 25 million people, one-third of the population on the continent. Entire villages were wiped out, some cities lost 80% of their citizens. The plague was followed by famine. Thomas Basinus (1412-1491), bishop of Èvreux and later historian, notes that ‘many peasants fled or died so that many fields remained uncultivated or there was nobody left to care.’ In the cities, overpopulation and poor hygiene helped to spread the plague, rivers were used to dispose of the many corpses, contaminating the water. Riots of desperate people were common, like in 1323 in Flanders and in 1358 in France. Many believed, as one witness testified, that the end of the world had arrived.

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The Triumph of Death is a painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, painted c. 1562 it was inspired by the waves of the Black Death plaguing the 14th century.

The dramatically reduced population had, however, a surprisingly beneficial effect on the environment. The pollution of the air dropped to a historic low.

Analyzing a 236 feet long ice core recovered from a glacier in the Swiss-Italian Alps, a team of scientists from Harvard University was able to reconstruct the concentration of lead in the air over Europe for the last 2,000 years. The research with the title ‘Next-generation ice core technology reveals true minimum natural levels of lead (Pb) in the atmosphere: Insights from the Black Death,’ was published in the open access journal GeoHealth.

Atmospheric circulation transported the lead from the lowlands into the Alps, where it was washed out from the atmosphere by rain and snow. The snow, accumulating mostly during winter, partially melts and changes over the summer into ice, forming single layers, as found in a glacier. By analyzing the concentration of elements in the single layers, it is possible to create an annual record of the atmospheric deposition. One significant spike can be found around 1349-1353 when the measured concentration of lead dropped far below the average value of 10^2 nanogram of lead per liter air. Even today, after the introduction of unleaded fuel in the 1980s, the concentration of lead in the air is still 10 times higher as in 1350.

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Reconstructed lead concentration in the last 2,000 years and most important mining districts. Image Source & Credit MORE et al. 2017. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

In medieval times, lead was used for roofing of large buildings such as cathedrals, water pipes, but especially for dishes and glazed pottery valued by the rich. The most important lead ore is galena. As galena also contains silver, it was widely mined (silver, lead, and copper were the most important metals in medieval Europa). The most productive mines were found on the British island, South Italy, the Harz mountains with Freiberg in Saxony and Kutna Hora in Bohemia. We know of contemporary records of the silver medieval monarchs received as royalties, that the mines of  Freiberg and Kutna Hora alone provided 20 tons of silver and 100 tons of lead per year. To get this amount,  it was necessary to mine and process an almost 2,000 times larger quantity of rocks and ore. The Black Death impacted mining in two ways. The miners and workers died in great number, and many mines were abandoned. As the population died, including the rich people, the demand for lead also dropped.

The Black Death was so deadly, mining for lead virtually stopped and no lead dust, coming from both mining as smelting, was dispersed into the environment. As the atmosphere became cleaner, the concentration of lead deposited in the glaciers of the Alps dropped.

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Entrance to a medieval mine in the Alps, dated around 1530.

The Black Death had a disastrous impact and yet helped to create modern Europe. Plagued previously by overpopulation and poverty, Europe could reinvent itself after the Black Death made the old political system obsolete. Many peasants at the time were virtually slaves, owned by the rich landlords. As the landlords were gone, many people were free to choose where and when to settle. The surviving landlords, in desperate need of somebody to take care of their properties,  agreed to lower the taxes and more privileges were granted to farmers. Wages everywhere increased, as healthy workers were rare, and the land became cheaper. Many previously poor people managed to achieve some wealth. Authorities even tried to forbid the use of fur in clothing, a privilege reserved only to the aristocracy in former times, but now common. Political and social independence was now possible and a new class rose from the ashes of the old society — the free citizen. A new human being for a new epoch, as the Renaissance was later seen by historians. However, even after 1353, the Black Death didn’t completely disappear. Almost once in a decade, a smaller outbreak was reported, but improved hygiene in the cities, quarantine procedures, and an acquired genetic immunity of the survivors reduced the risk of infection significantly.

This societal development can also be seen in the studied ice core. Just some years after the plague of 1347-1353, the concentration of lead significantly increased, approaching values seen before the Black Death. The European mining industry experienced a boom in the 15th and 16th century, testified also by many active mines found now also in the Alps. Only recently the concentration of lead started to drop again, in response to efforts to ban this toxic element from daily use and improved environmental regulations. However, it is still an important metal, mostly used for batteries in the automobile industry.

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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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