Where in London are there 20,000 bodies buried under a roundabout?

This is a good quiz question and the answer is under the Museum of London!  Underneath the museum of London (which is built on a roundabout) in the bunker-like bowels is a collection of a completely different kind that is not open to the public.

Shelf after shelf of cardboard boxes slightly bigger than a shoebox, which all have the neatly handwritten labels on saying the same words – “human skeleton”.

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Skeleton’s in boxes.

This is the museum’s Centre for Human Bioarchaeology, home to some 20,000 human remains.  The skeletons who have mainly been found on archaeological digs in the last 100 years and date from nearly every point in London’s history – from the Roman era up to the mid-19th Century – they have taught archaeologists and historians a great deal about London’s past.

They’ve even helped re-write some of history’s most enduring stereotypes, from the idea that the city fell apart in the face of the Black Death (in fact, excavations have shown burials of plague victims were organised, neat and in consecrated ground) or that dental hygiene was terrible until the modern era (instead, the healthiest teeth come from the medieval era – courtesy of a lack of refined sugar).

Sometimes, the remains get reburied.  One reason is if they’re only a small portion of the full skeleton.  That can happen not only from the site being disturbed by development over time, but even as a result of the excavation itself: archaeologists get a specified perimeter for an excavation, so they have to stop digging at exactly that border… even if it means severing a skeleton in half.

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Skeleton of a Roman male.

The centre doesn’t only hold bones, they have fingernails and hair from skeletons.  From analysing the bones, some of the unusual things that have been revealed are:

  • An adult Roman male who was discovered to have multiple myeloma, a type of blood cancer;
  • A Medieval male aged between 36-45 years old, from the Black Death catastrophe cemetery, East Smithfield who, although likely to have died from plague, had an arrowhead lodged in his spine;
  • A Medieval male aged around 46 years old from Bermondsey Abbey who sustained multiple injuries and fractures throughout his life;
  • A Post-medieval female aged between 17-25 years old from Crossbones – a burial ground in Southwark for paupers and ‘single women’ (prostitutes) – who sadly suffered the ravages of syphilis seen in the skull bones.

And because the researchers are using the same clinical techniques that modern-day doctors would use, namely digital radiography and CT scanning, they can also compare their finds to medical data right up to the present day.

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