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article imageBurial site for Black Death victims a first in Spain

By Anne Sewell     Aug 19, 2014 in Science
Barcelona - When the Black Death plague hit Spain back in the 14th century, the population reportedly plummeted from around six million to a mere 2.5 million people. However, the first mass grave from that period has only now been discovered, in Barcelona.
Experts found the mass grave underneath a basilica in Barcelona's Gothic Quarter, containing 120 bodies, identified as having died from the plague. This is the first discovery of its kind in Spain.
The mass burial site was found beneath the Sant Just i Pastor Basilica, which is already well known as a site of Roman ruins and Visigoth architecture. The basilica now has the dubious honor of also being the only place in Spain which is knowingly a Black Death burial ground.
Reportedly in most cases, including London, Prague, Poitiers and Marseille, the mass graves were dug in separate, Black Death-only cemeteries and the discovery in Barcelona is the first where plague victims were buried on consecrated church grounds.
The discovery was first made by archaeologists back in 2012, when they accidentally stumbled across the find, but September this year will see them begin the next excavation phase, which they hope will shed more light on how the bubonic plague actually affected 14th-century Spain.
Experts judge that around 400 bodies would originally have been tightly packed into the mass grave, which measures around 3.5 meters (11 feet) in width and a mere 1.5 meters (five feet) in depth. Archaeologists believe that many of the bodies were removed from the grave when a 15th century extension was built on the church. 120 corpses remain in the grave and these were laid to rest in ceremonial style. Their clothing was removed and the bodies were wrapped with quicklime-soaked linen to prevent both the spread of disease and the smell of rotting flesh.
According to the head of the excavation, Julia Beltrán, despite the desperate situation at the time of the Black Death, with few people on site to bury the dead and the cemeteries all full, great care was apparently taken in laying out the dead. She describes them as lying face up, with their arms by their sides or across their abdomen or chest. Their legs were always fully stretched out.
Beltrán told El País, “When we began to exhume the remains it was clear that this was a mass grave from the time of the epidemic.”
“Bones had been very well preserved, and none of them showed any signs of the kind of damage that could have killed somebody. What’s more, there were people of both sexes, children, and of all ages. The victims were all buried within a short time frame.”
This also explained why the experts found the grave to be so tightly packed, with 11 rows of bodies. On top of this, DNA tests were performed on the teeth of several of the bodies by the University of Tübingen. Each test showed the presence of Yersinia pestis, a bacterium associated with rats and other rodents which was transmitted by the parasites they were carrying, especially fleas, and then transmitted to the human host.
Dominique Castex of the University of Bordeaux is working on the excavation as part of a broader investigation on Black Death in Europe as a whole. According to Castex, this find is unique and is of great historical value, saying, “This is the first such site we have found in Spain, and we believe it can tell us a great deal.”
Reportedly the bubonic plague, or Black Death, killed up to 30 million people in Europe between the years of 1348 and 1354, with 3.5 million thought to be Spaniards.
More about Barcelona, Spain, Black death, Bubonic plague, Sant Just i Pastor Basilica
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