Supervisor: Prof Dawn Hadley
Profiling the dead: demographic characterisation of mass fatality incidents in the past and the present
The aim of this project is to apply new theory and methods recently developed in palaeodemography to gain a deeper understanding of mass fatality incidents. Most of our evidence concerning past population structure is obtained from cemeteries representing the time-averaged attritional deaths in local populations, in which deaths occur incrementally and result in normative, individual funerary rites.
However, deaths resulting from catastrophic mortality may also have contributed substantially to mortality in past populations, although the social disruption caused by such events may militate against structured burial of the dead, and as a consequence, deaths from catastrophic mortality are likely to be much less salient in the archaeological record.
Studies using historical demographic data have identified the distinctive demographic signatures of episodes of pandemic disease, natural disasters, and civilian and combatant victims of armed conflict. This research project will build on these findings by recording and analysing demographic data from archaeological examples in order to distinguish the natural and social factors determining mortality profiles in ancient mass fatality events.
The current focus of this project is identifying the ‘lost’ plague victims from Medieval England. During the 1348-49 winter outbreak of the Black Death in England, and through subsequent outbreaks during the later 14th and 15th centuries, hundreds of thousands, if not millions of individuals died. The sheer number of the dead, relative to those who survived, would have had an impact on burial practices. The discovery of mass graves, such as those at the Royal Mint site in London, attests to this eventuality. Yet, for all of those dead, to date we have identified very few of them in the archaeological record.
It is theorised that in addition to the use of mass graves, the structured burial of the dead with normative burial practices also occurred following episodes of mass mortality. This led to mixed-mortality assemblages (attritional and catastrophic) that to date have been un- or mis-identified in the archaeological record. By combining demographic data from archaeological examples, along with evidence from contemporary documentary sources, and a multi-disciplinary approach, this research will aim to identify episodes of mass mortality as a result of the Black Death in Medieval England and discuss changes to burial practices and funerary rights during and after the Black Death.