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£1.2m Wellcome Trust Grant for St John's Medieval Cemetery Project

last modified May 18, 2016 10:40 AM
The McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research has received a Wellcome Trust Collaborative Award for a 4-year project, "After the plague: health and history in medieval Cambridge."


Image credit: C. Cessford

This collaborative project, with Professor John Robb as PI and collaborators Dr Toomas Kivisild, Dr Piers Mitchell, and Mr Craig Cessford, explores the historical effects of major health events such as epidemics. It will combine multiple methods (archaeology, history, osteoarchaeology, isotopic and genetic studies of both human and pathogen aDNA) to study the people of medieval Cambridge. It will use the recently excavated large sample of urban poor people from the Hospital of St. John, complemented by comparative samples from other medieval social contexts and other historical periods. The results will be analysed both statistically and biographically. A proximate goal is to build a nuanced picture of health, lifestyle and activity in medieval England, one grounded in direct examination of human bodies themselves.

The overall goal of the project is to understand the biosocial effects of the Black Death of 1348-1350.

Beneath the current St John's College, Cambridge lies the cemetery of The Hospital of St. John the Evangelist, an Augustinian charitable establishment dedicated to providing care to members of the public in use c. AD 1200-1500. Extensive areas of this cemetery were excavated by the Cambridge Archaeological Unit in advance of building works in 2005-2012, resulting in 404 complete or partial burials and some 600 commingled burials.

A preliminary inventory of the burials shows that they contain men and women of all ages, as well as children, confirming that although the cemetery may contain some clerics associated with the hospital, most of the burials are ordinary poor townsfolk. Burials were made in the Hospital’s cemetery continuously throughout its history, and the excavations afford substantial samples from both before and after the Black Death (1348-50). Most of the complete or partial burials can either be assigned to a specific phase using existing dates, or potentially could be with new radiocarbon dates. Bone preservation is good and pilot work has shown highly positive results for both isotopic analysis and aDNA recovery and sequencing. The St. John’s cemetery, thus, provides an excellent chance to test directly the effects of the Black Death on a medieval town population living through the epidemic.

The overall goal, however, of the £1.26m Wellcome Trust-funded project is to understand the biosocial effects of the Black Death of 1348-1350,  an epidemic of bubonic plague which decimated Europe. By comparing samples from before and after the epidemic for a wide range of social and biological indicators, this research will reveal how the plague changed human well-being, activity, mobility health and the genetic constitution of Europe.

As part of the project, there are 2 x PhD studentships and 3 x Post-doctoral research associate positions available.

Read Craig Cessford's article, "The St. John’s Hospital Cemetery and Environs, Cambridge: Contextualizing the Medieval Urban Dead" in Archaeological Journal here:




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