Sharon DeWitte, 38, is a bioarchaeology professor at the University of South Carolina who commutes from Winston-Salem, where her husband, Eric Jones, is an archaeologist at Wake Forest.
Where does she spend her summers? In the storage room of a London museum, examining bones of people who died in the mid-1350s of bubonic plague. It was a terrifying disease that swept across Europe, killing entire villages and reducing some cities’ population by half.
It struck quickly. People who awoke feeling well could, by noon, find their skin erupting with telltale black pustules. Their carcasses would be stacked into burial pits by nightfall.
It was called the Black Death.
Her findings are turning up what could be described as, well, relatively good news.
The exhumed individuals are each in a labeled box in a storage facility. I take the bones from a box, lay them on a table to form the skeleton, and examine the bones.
Most people have assumed that because the Black Death killed so many people that it killed indiscriminately. I wanted to determine whether there was any variation of risk: I wanted to see if an individual’s age, sex or health made a difference.
For my original project and dissertation, I looked at almost 1,000 individuals. I’ve looked at 1,000 more for my current project.
For adults, I mostly look at the pelvis. There are two joints that change in pretty regular ways with aging. For adults, I also determine if they were, on average, short. Studies show that people who are short tend to be at higher risk: During their developmental period, if they don’t get enough food or suffer from diseases, they are not as tall as they should have been.
For determining how tall a person was, I use length of bones as an indicator of stature.
I also look at lesions that form on the teeth called enamel hypoplasia – grooves across the surface of a tooth that reflects illness or malnutrition during childhood. Also, I look for shinbones for extra bone growth, which can form from disease or trauma.
There are no records. And there are no grave goods to indicate social status. A typical Christian burial in the medieval times meant wrapping the body in a shroud and not including any worldly goods. Under normal circumstances, for a wealthy person there might have been a plaque to say who the deceased was. But that wasn’t the case during the Black Death because of the speed with which victims had to be buried.
Multiple trenches may have been used at the same time. Trenches may have been used for poor people or – when mortality was at its height, with thousands dying every day – contain a mix of the poor and the not-poor.
The modern plague is primarily a disease of rodents transmitted by fleas. But it can become pneumatic – carried by air – and be spread from one person to another more easily.
The speed with which Black Death spread across the Old World – from city to city, from home to home – suggests to some it was a person-to-person transmissible form in the lungs. Rats don’t move across the countryside that far and that fast. People have looked for things like rat skeletons in archaeological sites, but found nothing that would offer definitive evidence Black Death was largely spread by rat fleas.
If you or I were exposed to bubonic plague today, we would be given antibiotics and would be fine. Where people run into problems is when they don’t have access to good medical care – and that would be disproportionately poor people.
The Black Death could have been an episode of natural selection, certainly. If that were case, the assumption is there was some sort of genetic trait that allowed the survivors to live.
These question opens up opportunities for additional work.