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.

 
 
 
 

To see how a city embraces remote work, look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”

Katie Bishop is a freelance writer based in Oxford.