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.


Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.

Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.