Sharon DeWitte

Black Death detective

Researcher Sharon DeWitte is among the world's pre-eminent authorities on medieval plague

Imagine a disease killing half the people living in a major world city today and 30 percent of the surrounding continent in a swift four years. That’s exactly what happened in 14th-century London and Europe when the initial wave of the Black Death — caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis — struck from 1347 to 1351.

Anthropologist and McCausland Fellow Sharon DeWitte thinks about it every time she opens a 3-foot-by-1-foot cardboard box containing one of the skeletons of the men, women and children who died in medieval England. 

The heavier the box, the more complete the skeleton. And, the more secrets revealed about human vulnerability to disease and clues for avoiding the calamity of a modern-day epidemic.


I’ve been thinking about what archaeologists in the future might learn about my life if they excavate my skeleton.

Sharon DeWitte

DeWitte, one of the world’s pre-eminent scholars on Black Death, has spent nearly 15 years studying thousands of skeletons excavated from a handful of well documented London cemeteries and archived at the Museum of London.

We caught up with DeWitte who is in England. This month the College of Arts and Sciences resesearcher begins a new 3-year research project funded by the National Science Foundation and Research Council UK, leading a team of researchers who are creating a new approach for studying and understanding the factors that render populations susceptible to death during a disease epidemic. 

Q: “Black death” and “the plague” are gripping terms to describe mass death in 14th-century Europe. How did you, a native of northern California, become interested in the topic?

A: My initial interest in the Black Death was sparked when I was a kid. I saw references to medieval plague in movies like Monte Python and the Holy Grail and learned a bit about it in school.  I’m not alone in being interested in it. The Black Death was so extraordinary that everyone I’ve ever talked to is at least a little fascinated. There are references to the Black Death in so many aspects of popular culture and the arts that I actually think being interested in it is normal.

My own interest is from an anthropological perspective that probably stems from having had surgery as a teenager to correct scoliosis. I’ve had a metal rod in my spine for almost 30 years, so for a really long time, I’ve been thinking about what archaeologists in the future might learn about my life if they excavate my skeleton. When I went to college and took anthropology courses, I realized that there’s so much more about our lives that get recorded in our bones and teeth than I had ever imagined. Studying the Black Death using skeletal material allowed me to combine so many interests. I could actually do the things I imagined future archaeologists doing with my bones. But I get to work with a sample of people who died in one of the most devastating, transformative epidemics that our species has ever faced. 

Q: How will what you learn from the diet, demographics, gender and general health of people at the time of the Black Death help predict a future health crisis?

A: Relatively recently, and resulting from work by Black feminist scholars, people in public health, anthropology and other fields have been increasingly aware of the ways in which different social categories might interact to produce variation in experiences and vulnerabilities. For example, the experience of a low status woman might be different from that of a low status man. What I’m hoping to do is integrate data on age, sex (as a proxy for gender), status, diet and migration and apply an intersectional perspective to assess how risks of death in the medieval period have varied under a variety of mortality conditions.

This approach might reveal categories of vulnerability that aren’t apparent when we lump people together into larger categories such as when we look just at differences between the sexes without also considering social status. Ideally, this project will reveal the ways in which intersections of social categories affect health outcomes. I think we can use evidence from the period of the Black Death, which most people are really interested in, to educate people about variation in risk among living populations. 

Q: You are creating a new approach to studying crisis death events through this NSF grant. Why is that important?

A: What I’ll be doing with my collaborators Julia Beaumont from University of Bradford and Janet Montgomery from Durham University is combining paleodemographic, paleopathological and isotopic data on a scale that has not been done before. In bioarchaeology, we have the ability to produce amazing lines of evidence about life in the past: data on age-at-death, biological sex, evidence of growth disruption during childhood, lesions that form during disease episodes, isotopes that indicate diet and starvation and isotopes that reveal patterns of migration. But these various lines of evidence aren’t often combined, particularly with large sample sizes of hundreds of individuals.

Putting all this evidence together using a large sample might allow us to really get at the underlying mechanisms driving apparent changes in health and demography in the medieval period in England. Integrating multiple lines of evidence might allow us to get at some of the important variation in the past population of London that is invisible using conventional bioarchaeological approaches, and hopefully by doing this we can identify clear patterns that might have modern parallels that are either informative of what might happen in the face of future crises or even better, might give us tools for reducing risks of death for people in the future.

Q: Will you be working with London’s archival skeleton collections from medieval cemeteries?

A: For this project, I’ll be incorporating all of the data I’ve collected from medieval London skeletons over the last 13 years, so that includes age, sex, long bone length to get at adult stature, evidence of tooth enamel growth disruption and abnormal formation of bone, which occurs in response to disease or trauma. I'll also be collecting these data from a rural site called Thornton Abbey. This is a site from Lincolnshire, and is housed at the University of Sheffield. It includes a mass burial that might provide a good rural counterpart to the East Smithfield Black Death cemetery in London that I’ve studied in past projects.

In addition to this demographic and paleopathological data, my collaborators will assess isotopes indicative of diet and nutritional stress (carbon and nitrogen) and of migration (strontium, oxygen and lead) from several hundred medieval skeletons. In general, we’ll be studying changes in diet, migration, demography and health in the time period before the Black Death, how diet and migration affected risks of mortality during the Black Death and how these all changed after the Black Death when standards of living, as far as we know from historical documents, improved.

Q: Will undergraduate students be involved in the research?

A: Absolutely! Part of my NSF grant will fund an undergrad research assistant for each year of the project, so I will be working closely with our students and mentoring them through the process of collecting, analyzing, interpreting and presenting data. They also will attend professional conferences. One of my larger goals is to increase our students' awareness of the relevance of anthropology, and I think this project provides a great opportunity for that. It not only will improve our understanding of crises in the past and in living populations, but it gives our students an opportunity to be part of the production and dissemination of knowledge." 

Clues DeWitte looks for when examining skeletal remains

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