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Lead mortuary crosses, England, 1300s and 1600s

How did graveyards and cemeteries cope with the vast number of burials during epidemics such as the Black Death? Most often bodies were piled in mass burial pits deep underground. Found during the excavation of a London cemetery, these lead crosses were said to have lain with victims of the Black Death outbreak of 1348-53. What were they for? Do they represent faith at a time of fear and crisis? Or were they used simply as markers? Experts say that medieval burial crosses were believed to protect the bodily remains. These ones are pretty basic in design and production – undecorated, with irregular edges and a battered surface. Were they made in a hurry because of the rapid burial of plague victims? Archaeologists Barney Sloane and Bruce Watson offer another explanation. Reviewing the evidence, they observed that the crosses were not found in mass burial pits but in smaller shafts suggestive of an institutional system of burial. They concluded that the bodies were most likely prisoners from nearby Newgate Gaol who had died of ‘gaol distemper’, or typhus, in the 1700s. And the crosses? Since no other lead burial crosses of this date have been reported, and documentary evidence is not yet found, Sloane and Watson can only speculate. Made by unskilled hands, perhaps the prisoners produced them for dying inmates, or themselves? We may never know the details of the makers or the recipients, but it’s certain that each cross will have its own unique story.

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Glossary: mortuary cross

small cross made of lead used in England during the Great Plague of 1348, to denote a plague death

Glossary: plague

An acute contagious fever with high levels of mortality. Both the 'Black Death' that swept Europe in the 1340s and the Great Plague of London in 1665 are believed to have been bubonic plague.