Medieval Black Death mass grave discovered at Thornton Abbey



Excavations run by the University of Sheffield have revealed the presence of an extremely rare 14th-century Black Death burial at Thornton Abbey, Lincolnshire.

Sheffield Archaeology has been excavating at Thornton Abbey, Lincolnshire, under the direction of Dr Hugh Willmott since 2011. Although the initial focus of the project was the post-dissolution phase of the abbey precinct, a medieval mass grave has been a more recent focus of investigation. The grave, which contained at least 48 individuals, was located in the at the monastery’s hospital, and included the adult remains of both men and women as well as an unusually high proportion of children- 27, or 56% of the total buried.

Samples of teeth form a number of skeletons were sent to McMaster University, Canada where ancient DNA was successfully extracted from the tooth pulp. This revealed the presence of Yersinia pestis the bacteria known to have been cause of the Black Death that devastated European populations during the middle of the 14th century, and which is documented as having reached Lincolnshire in spring of 1349.

Excavating at Thornton Abbey

Reconstructing the mass grave

The presence of such a large burial of a normal mixed population at the monastic hospital seems show a local community overwhelmed by the plague and unable to cope with the numbers of dead. Ordinarily burial of the laity would be expected to take place in the local churchyard, just a mile away from the monastery, but the fact so many ordinary men, women and children were interred together within the monastic precinct seems to suggest the normal system of burial operating within the parish had broken down, and the population turned to the local monastic community for help.

As Dr Willmott from the Department of Archaeology who directed the excavations explains, the find is of national importance. “Despite the fact it is now estimated that up to half the population of England perished during the Black Death, multiple graves associated with the event are extremely rare in this country, and it seems local communities continued to dispose of their loved ones in as an ordinary way as possible. The only two previously identified 14th-century sites where Yersinia pestis has been identified are historically documented cemeteries in London, where the civic authorities were forced open new emergency burial grounds to cope with the very large numbers of the urban dead. The finding of a previously unknown and completely unexpected mass burial dating to this period in a quiet corner of rural Lincolnshire is thus far unique, and sheds light into the real difficulties faced by small community ill prepared to face such a devastating threat”.

The finding of a previously unknown and completely unexpected mass burial dating to this period in a quiet corner of rural Lincolnshire is thus far unique, and sheds light into the real difficulties faced by small community ill prepared to face such a devastating threat.

Dr Hugh Willmott, Director Thornton Abbey project


Research is continuing into the individuals buried in the grave and it is hoped that other aspects of their daily lives, before they met their tragic end, will be revealed.


More about the Thornton Abbey Project