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March 20, 2015updated 20 Jul 2021 3:33pm

Crossrail excavations are digging up thousands of skeletons

By City Monitor Staff

Construction on Crossrail’s new eastern ticket hall at Liverpool Street Station is ready to begin! Well, almost – first there’s the small matter of the thousands of corposes in and around the proposed site. 

That’s because Liverpool Street Station and its surrounding area sit above Bedlam Burial Ground, London’s first municipal cemetery, which provides a home to around 20,000 dead people from the 16th and 17th centuries. The site around the eastern ticket hall alone is estimated to contain around 3,000 skeletons.

The burial ground was non-religious, which means it was used by those who couldn’t afford church burials, or those who were opposed to them for religious or political reasons. During plague outbreaks, it was also used as an “overflow” cemetery to keep up with demand. This means the site has important value for researchers interested in plague bacteria and how they evolved over time. 

The planned eastern ticket hall will be buried 40-odd metres below ground, which means diggers will need to smash through the burial ground (plus Victorian sewer systems and part of a Roman road) to reach it. This cross-section shows the below-ground makeup of the area:

To keep the dead appeased, Crossrail has contracted the London Archaeology Museum to excavate and test the skeletons in a lab, then move them to a different consecrated burial site. About 60 staff are currently working on the archaeological site marked out in the diagram above. Here’s one of them now, hanging out with a friend:

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Meanwhile, volunteers have compiled a database of those buried in the cemetery. Apparently, the majority died of plague or consumption. Cheerful stuff.

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