Analysis of a medieval mass grave excavated at Thornton Abbey, northern Lincolnshire, has confirmed that the people within it probably died during the Black Death in the 14th century – a discovery of national importance, offering unique insights into how the pandemic affected rural communities.
The outbreak of bubonic plague known as the Black Death killed between a third and half of England’s population between 1348 and 1349, but archaeological evidence is still relatively scarce. While a few mass graves associated with the disease have been found in urban settings, it was previously assumed that lower overall numbers of deaths in the countryside would have made it easier for rural populations to carry on using normal burial practices. The discovery at Thornton Abbey shows that this was not always the case.
The Augustinian priory was founded in 1139, and archaeological work by the University of Sheffield began at the site in 2011. In 2013, excavations of a natural mound to the south of the inner precinct wall identified a feature that turned out to be a mass grave (see CA 324), and analysis of the skeletons found within it has now been published in the journal Antiquity (https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2019.213).
The burial contained at least 48 individuals, although later disturbances and poor preservation due to soil conditions means that there may have been more originally who cannot now be detected. The bodies appear to have been buried within days of each other, suggesting a single, catastrophic event, but they had been placed in the grave with care, in a single layer with eight overlapping rows, mostly bound in shrouds.
The impact of the catastrophe that prompted this mass interment evidently was felt by all members of the community, with young people aged between 1 and 17 years representing 27 of the 48 individuals. Among the 17 adults for whom sex estimation could be carried out, six women were identified, demonstrating that, although the grave lay within the monastery’s precinct, it contained members of the secular population.
Radiocarbon dating of several samples placed the burial in AD 1295-1400 which, combined with pottery finds and two silver pennies of Edward III (r. 1327-1377) recovered from the grave fill, suggests a mid-14th-century date. This coincides with the initial outbreak of the Black Death, which arrived in this area in the spring and early summer of 1349, although it could also relate to one of the later outbreaks in the 14th century.
This was confirmed after Yersinia pestis, the plague pathogen, was identified in the sampled skeletal remains, making it most likely that these people had died from the Black Death. This discovery has important implications for our understanding of how rural populations responded to the pandemic – and overturns the previous assumption that they were able to manage plague deaths using normal burial practices.
The location of the grave in the monastic precinct rather than in the burial ground around the medieval parish church 1.6km away suggests that the local population had struggled to cope with the great number of plague victims. A large stone structure excavated to the south of the grave is believed to be the hospital of St James, run by the religious community, where the people of Thornton would have turned for help in this devastating time.