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Black Death burial pit found by archaeologists at English 14th-century abbey
The bones were carbon-dated to the mid-1300s when the Black Death -- one of the most deadly pandemics in human history -- is estimated to have wiped out up to 60 percent of Europe's population. Photo: University of Sheffield.

LONDON (AFP).- An "extremely rare" mass grave containing 48 victims of the Black Death has been found at the site of a 14th-century monastery hospital in northeast England, archaeologists said Wednesday.

The grim discovery by the University of Sheffield at Thornton Abbey in Lincolnshire included the skeletons of 27 children, as well as men and women.

The bones were carbon-dated to the mid-1300s when the Black Death -- one of the most deadly pandemics in human history -- is estimated to have wiped out up to 60 percent of Europe's population.

DNA tests revealed the presence of Yersinia pestis, the bacterium responsible for the disease, previously only identified at two 14th-century cemeteries in London set up to bury large numbers of urban dead, the university said.

"Despite the fact it is now estimated that up to half the population of England perished during the Black Death, multiple graves associated with the event are extremely rare in this country," said Hugh Willmott from the University of Sheffield’s archaeology department.

Archaeologists say the scale of the find suggests the community was overwhelmed by the disease and unable to cope with the number of people who died.

"Local communities continued to dispose of their loved ones in as ordinary a way as possible," explained Willmott.

"The finding of a previously unknown and completely unexpected mass burial dating to this period in a quiet corner of rural Lincolnshire is thus far unique and sheds light into the real difficulties faced by a small community ill-prepared to face such a devastating threat."

Few mass graves associated with the Black Death have been found in England or northern Europe, he added.

Archaeologists were expecting to find a large mediaeval building when they started digging last year at the site, a green field grazed by sheep for hundreds of years.

"Instead, to our complete surprise, we found a huge mediaeval mass grave -- a big rectangular pit containing rows of women and men and a large proportion of children," said Willmott.

Teeth samples from the skeletons were sent to McMaster University in Canada where ancient DNA was extracted and tested positive for Yersinia pestis.

Diana Mahoney Swales, leading a study at Sheffield University of the bodies, hopes it will shed light on the victims' lives.

"We hope... that we will get a proper idea of who these people were, how they lived and why they ended up being buried as they were at Thornton Abbey," she said.

© 1994-2016 Agence France-Presse

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