Newly uncovered “Black Death” plague mass graves may be Europe’s largest

More than 1,000 skeletons of victims of the plague have been found in mass graves in the centre of the southern German city Nuremberg.

It is possibly the largest mass grave site ever excavated in Europe according to a statement by archaeological excavation company In Terra Veritas. It was uncovered when archaeological prospecting was carried out as part of the planned construction of new apartments.

Mass grave in germany
Dead buried in a sitting position (left) and people lying on their side (bottom half) with a dense filling in the centre of the pit. Credit: In Terra Veritas.

A total of 8 mass graves were found marking 2 separate “Black Death” events.

Radiocarbon dating indicates that Mass Grave 4 (MG 4) was constructed between the late 1400s and the early 1600s. Silver coins found in MG 2 suggest it was built shortly after 1619 or 1622.

The oldest graves are believed to be from one of the plague epidemics between 1622 and 1634.

Nuremberg suffered 3 major and several smaller plague outbreaks between the 16th and 17th centuries – 1533 (5,000 deaths), 1563 (10,000 deaths) and 1634 (15,000 deaths).

The “Black Death” is a bubonic plague caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis. The first European bubonic plague epidemic occurred between 1346 and 1353. An estimated 50 million people – possibly half of Europe’s population – died.

Many further epidemics were recorded for the following 400–500 years across Europe, the Middle East and northern Africa. Total deaths from the Black Death are estimated to be between 75 and 200 million.

The last Black Death epidemic in Europe was in the late 17th century. Today there are several hundred cases each year. About 10% of cases lead to death if not treated.

The Nuremberg mass graves were dug at about the same time as another event which caused mass fatalities – the “Thirty Years’ War” between 1618 and 1648. The war was fought primarily in central Europe and is believed to have resulted in 8 million deaths in battle as well as famine and disease.

Archaeologists working on mass grave in germany
Credit: In Terra Veritas.

While 280 bodies were uncovered from MG 2, some bodies were removed or disturbed at some unknown time after they were buried. MG 3 contains about 150 bodies. That mass grave was damaged due to shockwaves from a bomb explosion during the Second World War in 1943.

“The skeletons are in very good shape for examination, despite the destruction that occurred,” says In Terra Veritas anthropologist Florian Melzer. “We can now detail out all information that is kept in those bones, e.g. the prevalence of different kinds of cancer, genetic mutations that show in skulls, age and sex determination, status of the teeth and conclusions from that to the general health and life circumstances in this period.”

Almost 1,000 bodies have been found and removed for further examination. It is expected the total number of individuals buried is about 1,500.

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