New Archaeology Reveals the True Extent of the Black Death

Pretty much everyone has heard of the “Black Death”: the plague that wiped out almost 200 million people in Europe during the mid 14th century. For a time, 20th century archaeologists and historians debated the true effects of the plague, wondering whether or not the scale had been largely exaggerated. If the plague had killed so many people, they said, where were the mass graves filled with plague-ridden bodies? To be sure, there were some. But many questioned where some 200 million bodies had been buried across Europe. Some started to question whether or not the Black Death had been as devastating as originally thought. Well, new evidence uncovered by Professor Carenza Lewis has the answer: the impact of the Black Plague’s devastation on Europe is absolutely astounding.

Where does this evidence come from? Well, it comes from the most common of archaeological finds: the humble pottery shard. The pottery shard is an excellent indicator of the numbers of humans in any given area because of its widespread daily use. As quickly as it was made, people broke it and threw it away. Pottery was cheap, and it was everywhere. Professor Carenza Lewis decided to conduct a little experiment. Throughout England, she and her team of archaeologists and volunteers dug over 2,000 one square meter test pits, where they could dig down level by level in time and measure the pottery shard usage, year, after year, after year. What she found, Professor Lewis said, was “eye-watering”.

They took samples of the shard usage from the centuries leading up to the outbreak of the Black Death in Europe, and samples of the usage immediately after. Their results suggest an average population of 45% throughout England, which matches up with the original estimates for the plague’s death toll. In other areas, such as Binham and Norwich, there was a 71% fall in the pottery shard usage. There are other areas, even, where the figure just gets darker. The pattern for death was uneven in different cities, probably due to different levels of cleanliness and due to how tightly the population was packed together. Some cities showed a worse decline than Essex of Suffolk: up to 85% of the people dead.

One of the most stunning examples of the sheer amount of people that dropped dead during the 14th century has been found at Great Shelford in Cambridgeshire. According to archaeologists’ excavations, before the 14th century, the city was a huge medieval metropolis, sprawling more than a kilometer long. After the plague hit, the city shrunk to a single row of houses beside the church, just 200 meters long.

Professor Lewis believes that her death count figures are conservative. She doesn’t believe they correctly represent just how catastrophic the Black Death really was for Europe, as they haven’t even covered areas where the population was completely wiped out and their homes permanently abandoned. She believes that they’ll find an even higher count if they keep digging, and if her methods are applied to areas beyond England– to the rest of Europe.

These days, scientists and archaeologists attribute the origins of the Black Death to the pathogen Yersinia pestis, a bacteria that caused several forms of plague at the time. It was the same pathogen responsible for the Plague of Justinian, the Black Death, and the 19th century’s Third Pandemic. If you thought the disease was completely gone from the human story, you’re sadly mistaken. Yersinia pestis  is still hanging around in some parts of the world. It’s been responsible for the death of a scientist working on the strain, and has been found in some people groups in Siberia, Estonia, Russia, and Poland. Thanks to modern medicine, however, the effects of the disease have been limited.

“This disease is still endemic in parts of today’s world, and could once again become a major killer, should resistance to the antibiotics now used to treat it spread amongst tomorrow’s bacteriological descendants of the fourteenth-century Yersinia pestis. We have been warned.” – Professor Carenza Lewis