We interviewed the man who found 4,000 plague-riddled skeletons under a Crossrail station

I see dead people. One of the graves at Liverpool Street Crossrail station. Image: Crossrail.

The discovery of a mass grave at an east London Crossrail site was headline news last week. With around 4,000 skeletons interred there, the find was significant for its sheer size, but also because the most likely suspect is one of Europe’s all-time deadliest killers – the black death.

The 1665-6 plague outbreak in London, called the Great Plague, killed an estimated 100,000 people, around a quarter of the city's population. If the Crossrail skeletons do turn out to be from that time, the dig could end up being a groundbreaking one, both for historians, and for virologists working on the virus today.

When I call Crossrail’s lead archaeologist Jay Carver to ask more, he seems exceptionally calm for a man managing the hand excavation of several thousand bodies.

"The whole process is quite methodological," he tells me. "This particular discovery had a very obvious edge from it from the first days when we arrived at that level. It’s a case of very carefully lifting each individual skeleton out, defining its coffin edges as you go."

Finding a plague pit where you’re attempting to lay building foundations may at first sound a bit unfortunate, to put it mildly. Actually, though, the find is a lucky one.

"We know, right across London, there’s many, many, many former burial grounds and areas identified as specific burial grounds for plague victims. A lot of those are mapped.

"But of course, most of the time we try utterly to avoid disturbing them. It’s only this coincidence — the Crossrail ticket hall has to go in this particular location, to line up with the rest of the lines — that means we’ve really had to excavate the site."

Understandably, people can be a little sensitive about graves being disturbed: there are stories of tube station tunnels stopping dead where their builders rerouted them around burial sites. One historian even claims the Piccadilly line curves so much between Knightsbridge and South Kensington because 19th century tunnellers couldn’t get through the mass jumble of bone under Hyde Park.

"Coffins only came in in the 17th century, really. Prior to that you were more likely to be buried in a shroud."

This find is slightly more organised. Carver tells me that layout of the grave at Liverpool Street differs from what historical accounts, and the popular imagination, might lead us to expect. "We know that there was a great deal of panic during those plague years. Accounts of the time describe huge piles of corpses being loaded into pits."

Here, though, "everyone’s buried in a coffin. Which would suggest there was time to properly inter these people, as their relatives would no doubt expect. Perhaps London was better prepared to cope with something like the Great Plague – perhaps they were simply more able to cope with the number of dead".

The fact the skeletons have been interred in this way also helps date them. "Coffins only came in in the 17th century, really. Prior to that you were more likely to be buried in a shroud. We think this particular find dates from the latter half of the century."

There seem to have been a lot of these finds in London recently. Would this be the case in any European city, I ask Carver? Or is there something specific about London?

"No, not really," he replies. If anything, we have a morbid obsession with the events of 1665-6, precisely because it stands out as unusual. "The Great Plague of London has a place in the history books, particularly the school books, because it was really the last major outbreak of what was then described as plague.

"We’ve been looking for something like this: a very obvious, catastrophic grave, where multiple burials have been made on the same day. That points to the classic moment in the summer of 1665, where so many people were dying."

"Well, doctor, I've felt better." Image: Crossrail.

So what happens now? "The thing is to do the tests. This is the best candidate for a plague pit, but of course we don’t know precisely the date of these burials yet". It will take up to twelve months for carbon dating and the sequencing of the human bone to reveal the exact date, "but in terms of where we found these things, it should be then".

It’s not just historians who are excited about the find. The Crossrail archeologists also hand over samples — taken from the teeth of the dead – to scientists working on the history of disease, and the way that bacterial genomes have evolved. "Each new sample we give them helps determine how the bacteria developed over thousands of years," Carver explains. "And what potential mutations it may make in the future."

This means the skeletons found at Crossrail could help scientists who are working on the plague today. Those of us schooled in England tend to associate the plague with rats stowed on ships, jars of vinegar and a certain Monty Python sketch, but the disease hasn’t been eradicated. Outbreaks of plague have occurred in Africa, India and Madagascar in the recent past; several people contract it every year in the US. The large sample in this find could help determine whether this was the result of a single pathogen, or whether the bacteria has mutated.

In the meantime, though, the team has to clear the site. This is standard practice for historic burial grounds – "people don't accept mass machine excavation" – but it’s still a huge task. As we speak, the skeletons are currently being lifted up, bone by bone, shovelful of soil by shovelful of soil, into buckets, to be moved from where the ticket hall will stand.

By 2018, when Crossrail opens, this won't be a grave at all – and we may be a little closer to understanding one of the worst pandemics in historical memory.


In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.