Digging up 3,000 skeletons turns Crossrail project into bedlam

PUBLISHED: 16:58 24 March 2015 | UPDATED: 16:58 24 March 2015

Skull uncovered at Liverpool Street

Skull uncovered at Liverpool Street

Tom Lawson

Construction for the Crossrail underground rail project around Liverpool Street has literally been bedlam for archaeologists.

Recording finds from BedlamRecording finds from Bedlam

Excavations have so far uncovered 3,000 human skeletons from the Bedlam burial ground at Bishopsgate where the new station complex is soon being built.

A team of 60 archaeologists are working in shifts, six days a week over the next three weeks, removing the skeletons and carefully recording evidence of this 500-year-old burial site.

“This is a unique opportunity to understand the lives of Londoners in the 16th and 17th centuries,” Crossrail lead archaeologist Jay Carver explained.

Examining 500-year-old human remains under Liverpool StreetExamining 500-year-old human remains under Liverpool Street

“The Bedlam burial ground spans the transition from the Tudor-period into the cosmopolitan early-modern London.

“It’s probably the first time a sample of this size from that time period has been available to study.”

The burial ground was in use from 1569 to 1738, spanning the start of the British Empire and including civil war, the Restoration, Shakespeare’s plays, the Great Fire of London and numerous plagues.

Liverpool Street excavation plans, down to Roman London, which finish in SeptermberLiverpool Street excavation plans, down to Roman London, which finish in Septermber

This year marks the 350th anniversary of London’s last Great Plague in 1665. The archaeologists hope tests on excavated plague victims will help understand the evolution of the bacteria strain.

Excavated skeletons are being taken to the Museum of London for osteology tests before being reburied in a consecrated ground.

Researchers wants to shed light on migration, diet, lifestyle and demography of the people living 500 years ago.

Architect's impression of Crossrail station entranceArchitect's impression of Crossrail station entrance

Bedlam was London’s first municipal cemetery just outside the original City Wall at Bishopsgate, used by those who could not afford a church burial or chose to be buried there for religious or political reasons. It was also an ‘overflow’ cemetery in times of plague.

A Roman road also runs under the site, which has already yielded artefacts such as horseshoes and cremation urns.

Crossrail has found more than 10,000 artefacts spanning 55 million years on 40 construction sites.

The “jewel” in the Crossrail stash was pieces of amber which had been buried beneath the Isle of Dogs for 55 million years, uncovered in 2011 at the Canary Wharf station site.

“It was like finding a large diamond on the beach,” archaeologist Dr Ursula Lawrence said at the time. “Most amber is under the chalk level, but this was just 50ft below the dock bed.”

The amber was later analysed to reveal what kind of tree it came from and the environment at the time, including embedded gas bubbles showing conditions 55 million years ago.

The archaeologists are expected to finish in September, when construction for the station ticket hall gets the green light.

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