Tens of thousands of skeletons that lie hidden beneath the streets, houses and offices of London have been revealed for the first time on a map, in a collaboration between the Museum of London and The Times.
The electronic map allows readers to zoom in on streets to see how many bodies they walk over on the way to work. It pinpoints the location of many of the 37,000 skeletons the museum found in the capital. Curators have kept 17,000 of these in storage at the museum’s headquarters in Central London, but reinterred the rest.
The map is available in the UK news section of Times Online.
The skeletons on the map represent only a fraction of the number of bodies lying beneath the city. They were discovered when buildings were demolished and new foundations dug.
The 26 skeletons with the most fascinating stories will be put on display at the Wellcome Collection in London. The most gruesome example is the skeleton of a young woman who died around the beginning of the 19th century. She had such severe syphilis that her skull still bears the scars of where the disease entered her bones.
Bill White, senior curator of the museum’s bio-archaeology department, said that the woman would have had open sores on her forehead. “By that time she would have been out of her mind, so she wouldn’t have known much about it,” he said. “She was in her twenties when she died. We think she may have been a prostitute, because Southwark, where she was found, was well known for prostitution at the time.” She also suffered from rickets, probably from being kept indoors away from sunlight as a child, and had chronic tooth decay.
Another skeleton was found with a metal spike lodged in its spine. Its owner, a man who was buried in Smithfield, East London, in about 1350, was probably hit with an arrow or spear, but the attack did not kill him. He survived only to catch bubonic plague in his late thirties or early forties. “Somehow the injury didn’t cause an infection,” Mr White said. “The body has reacted by building bone around the projectile. He survived for months or possibly years. He was found in a large plot of land set aside for burying victims of the Black Death.” It is not known why the man was attacked, but it is thought that he may have been a soldier in the Hundred Years War.
Nicholas Adams, whose remains were discovered in Chelsea, led a more charmed life and died in 1827, aged 78, with a full head of hair. The hair is still attached to the skull, kept in place by a hairnet placed on it by curators.
Archaeologists exploring the Chelsea graveyard also discovered the Hand brothers, imaginatively named Richard Gideon and Gideon Richard, whose family invented the Chelsea Bun. Richard Gideon, whose skeleton will not be in the exhibition, was an officer in the Staffordshire militia and known to his men as “Captain Bun”. To his neighbours in Chelsea he was seen as a bit of an eccentric. “He used to go around in a fez and a long gown,” said Jelena Bekvalac, an osteologist at the museum.
Archaeologists who unearth the skeletons occasionally take fright when they discover bodies. Mr White said: “At Christchurch in Spitalfields they found someone with smallpox scars in soft tissue. They dropped it and ran away. They sent it to one of the two laboratories in the world that can deal with smallpox.” The labs said that smallpox spores were present, but not enough to be a danger.
It is now routine to rebury unbreached lead-lined coffins without opening them in case the disease that killed the occupant is still a threat.
The Wellcome Collection exhibition will also feature a skull with green teeth, which came from a woman in her thirties who was buried near the Royal Mint. Copper deposits from the mint leached into the soil and stained skeletons buried beneath. Skeletons are usually off-white, but minerals and moulds mean that purple and black bones have also been found.
Unfortunately, the public will not get a chance to see one of the most bizarre finds. Archaeologists exploring a graveyard at St Pancras stumbled across a coffin containing a mysterious set of bones. They were later identified as belonging to a walrus. An explanation for the animal’s dignified burial has not yet surfaced.
— The exhibiton takes place at the Wellcome Collection, London NW1, from July 23 to September 28.