8 Amazing Things Discovered During the Expansion of the London Underground

Crossrail
Crossrail

In 2009, the city of London embarked on a massive infrastructure project: a 73-mile underground railway network called the Elizabeth Line that will ultimately boost urban train capacity by 10 percent. Slated to be up and running by 2018, the undertaking allowed archaeologists to take an unprecedented peek at swathes of subterranean London, and yielded plenty of cool historic treasures from various periods. Here's a small sampling of the finds.

1. A GRAVEYARD CONTAINING VICTIMS OF THE BLACK DEATH

A skeleton belonging to a victim of the Black Plague, unearthed by archaeologists while expanding the London Underground.
Crossrail

While excavating London's Charterhouse Square in 2013, archaeologists unearthed dozens of skeletons. Scientists analyzed the remains and discovered that some of them belonged to victims of the Black Death—a.k.a. bubonic plague—who succumbed to pandemics that swept 14th- and 15th-century England.

Teeth contained traces of DNA from the plague bacterium Yersinia pestis, and radio-carbon dating indicated that the burial ground had been used during two outbreaks of plague, one from 1348 to 1350 and another during the 1430s. The skeletons also showed signs of poor diets and hard lifestyles, which might have been contributing factors for why Londoners were so susceptible to the plague.

But the so-called plague pit didn't just contain those who'd succumbed to disease. Not only were some bodies plague-free, "what they found was, not bodies tumbled together as they'd expected, but rather orderly burials with people laid in rows with their bodies orientated in one direction," historian Gillian Tindall told The Guardian. This suggests not all of them died due to plague but from other, more everyday causes.

2. AN 8000-YEAR-OLD STONE TOOL

An 8000-year-old piece of flint, discovered by archaeologists while expanding the London Underground.
Crossrail

While digging at North Woolrich, in southeast London, archaeologists discovered a Mesolithic-era site along the Thames where early humans are thought to have crafted tools around 8500 to 6000 years ago. The encampment had traces of campfires and flint scatters, and experts recovered 150 pieces of flint, including an 8000-year-old stone tool.

"This is a unique and exciting find that reveals evidence of humans returning to England and in particular the Thames Valley after a long hiatus during the Ice Age," Crossrail lead archaeologist Jay Carver said in a news release. "It is one of a handful of archaeology sites uncovered that confirms humans lived in the Thames Valley at this time. The concentration of flint pieces shows that this was an exceptionally important location for sourcing materials to make tools that were used by early Londoners who lived and hunted on Thames Estuary islands."

3. A VULGAR VICTORIAN CHAMBER POT

A bawdy Victorian chamber pot, discovered by archaeologists while excavating future London Underground sites.
Crossrail

While excavating the Stepney Green station in East London, archaeologists came across a 19th-century cesspit dating to sometime after 1850. The waste hole was filled with tobacco pipes and fragments of pots, including a raunchy Victorian chamber pot. It was once likely kept under a bed, and allowed for its owner to do their business in private during the evening hours.

The pot's bottom contains a cartoon of a grimacing man, encircled by the phrase "Oh what I see/I will not tell." Witty cursive lines once covered the exterior of the broken vessel. Archaeologists were able to decipher one line, which read "… when you in it want to p-s/ Remember they who gave you this."

4. A TUDOR ERA BOWLING BALL (OR SKITTLES BALL)

A Tudor-era bowling or skittles bowl, discovered by archaeologists while excavating future sites for the London Underground's expansion.
Crossrail

In addition to the aforementioned cesspit, excavations at Stepney Green also revealed a 15th-century Tudor manor house, complete with moat. Originally home to a rich family named Fenne, it was once called King John's Court or Palace, and later became known as the Worcester House after its owner the Marquis of Worcester.

In 2013, archaeologists excavated the home's foundations, moat, and boundary walls. Inside the moat they discovered a wooden ball made from willow, which was likely either used for bowling or skittles, a European lawn game. Other recovered items included fine glassware, tableware, and cooking and storage vessels, all of which were buried when the moat was either destroyed or filled in.

5. A 55-MILLION-YEAR-OLD PIECE OF AMBER

55-million-year-old amber, retrieved by engineers while expanding the London Underground
Crossrail

Slated to open in late 2018, London's new Canary Wharf business district station is located deep below a mixed-use development called Crossrail Place. While tunneling at Canary Wharf was too deep to disturb any buried relics, engineers were still able to retrieve a piece of 55-million-year-old amber from nearly 50 feet below the site's dock bed before construction began. It's the oldest amber to have ever been found in London, and is also notable considering that amber isn't often found in the UK to begin with.

Amber, or fossilized tree resin, takes millions of years and proper burial conditions to form. These preserved relics often contain prehistoric plants and creatures, suspended in the clear material. Experts said they plan to analyze the Canary Wharf amber to learn more about prehistoric environmental conditions and vegetation. The fossil also contained bubbles of trapped gas, which scientists said might yield new scientific insights about global warming.

6. A RARE ROMAN MEDALLION

A rare Roman medallion dating back to 245 CE, found by archaeologists during the London Underground expansion.
Crossrail

Archaeologists excavating Crossrail's Liverpool Street site discovered more than 100 mostly-copper Roman coins, along with a handful of silver currency. They ranged in date from 43 CE, during the reign of Emperor Claudius, to 348 CE.

One of the most exciting discoveries among these coins was a rare bronze medallion that was issued to mark the New Year in 245 CE. Presented by Emperor Phillip I (also called Philip the Arab) to a high-ranking government official, it's only the second example of its kind that's ever been found, according to The Guardian.

"You wonder how it got there, who brought it with them, and then how did they lose it—were they heartbroken?" speculated Jackie Keily, a curator at the Museum of London who organized an exhibition of 500 Crossrail artifacts in 2017.

7. A CLUSTER OF ROMAN SKULLS

A Roman skull, uncovered by archaeologists during the expansion of the London Underground.
Crossrail

In 2013, Crossrail workers found Roman pottery and around 20 Roman skulls while working on the Liverpool Street station site. Other Roman skulls had been found in the area, along the historic River Walbrook, and some speculated that they belonged to rebels led by the Iceni warrior-queen Boudicca, who revolted against the Roman Empire during the 1st century CE. But since the newly unearthed skulls were found in sediment that had accumulated in a bend of the river, archaeologists believe that they likely washed out of an eroded Roman cemetery long ago. Moreover, the skulls appear to date to after the uprising.

8. HEADSTONES OF VICTIMS OF THE GREAT PLAGUE

The gravestone of plague victim Mary Godfree, discovered at Liverpool Street in London during the Crossrail excavations.
Crossrail

On September 2, 1665, a girl named Mary Godfree succumbed to the plague—one of 95 people from the same church parish who died from the disease that day. She was remembered solely by a line in a burial register until October 2015, when archaeologists discovered her limestone burial stone while excavating the new Liverpool Street Crossrail station site.

The area was originally home to the historic New Churchyard burial ground, also called the Bedlam burial ground. There, archaeologists discovered a mass grave, along with the remnants of 10 stone markers. Godfree's headstone didn't mark the presence of her actual grave, as the headstone had been removed sometime during the 18th century and reused in the foundation of a wall. Still, it revealed new insights into how and where the rediscovered Londoner was buried, and what burial conditions were like during the Great Plague.

Stegosaurus Tracks Discovered on Scotland’s Isle of Skye

Warpaintcobra, iStock via Getty Images
Warpaintcobra, iStock via Getty Images

Today, Scotland's Isle of Skye is a picturesque tourist destination. But 170 million years ago, it was home to one of the most iconic dinosaurs to ever roam the Earth. As The Guardian reports, paleontologists have found prehistoric footprints on the island that are believed to have come from a stegosaurus.

As researchers from the University of Edinburgh note in their new study published in the journal Plos One, the discovery marks the first evidence of stegosaurus on the Isle of Skye. The tracks, which were found in sedimentary rock on the east side of the island, are roughly the size of grapefruits. They follow a line stretching several feet, with a right-left sequence reflecting the gait of a four-legged animal. The shape of the prints themselves—larger, triangular back feet and slightly smaller front ones—match the skeleton of the armor-plated stegosaurus. If they do belong to stegosaurus, the 170-million-year-old find "represents one of the oldest fossil records of this major dinosaur group from anywhere in the world," the researchers write.

The stegosaurus made up just part of the recent Isle of Skye discoveries. Paleontologists also found prints with three-toes and claws from theropods (the group of carnivores that included T. Rex), and stubby three-toed tracks potentially belonging to ornithopods like duck-billed dinosaurs. Altogether, 50 new footprint fossils were found.

The Isle of Skye has long been known as a hotspot for dinosaur remains. During the Middle Jurassic period, the area had a swampy, subtropical climate that supported a vibrant wildlife population. The location where these latest tracks were discovered was a mudflat fringing a lagoon 170 million years ago. The mudflats were likely only around for a brief time before they were overtaken by the lagoon, indicating the species making up the batch of prints occupied the area around the same time. The researchers write, "As a result of this diversity, we can infer that a thriving community of dinosaurs lived in and near the subtropical lagoons of Middle Jurassic Scotland."

[h/t The Guardian]

Tiny, Bird-Like Skull Found in Amber Could Belong to the Mesozoic Era's Smallest Known Dinosaur

The skull of Oculudentavis khaungraae preserved in 99-million-year-old amber.
The skull of Oculudentavis khaungraae preserved in 99-million-year-old amber.
Lida Xing

Scientists recently discovered the skull of an extremely tiny, bird-like dinosaur that could be the smallest known species of the Mesozoic era—the period in which giant dinos like brachiosaurus, stegosaurus, and allosaurus evolved.

The specimen is preserved in a lump of 99-million-year-old amber from northern Myanmar and measures just 7.1 millimeters long, suggesting that the entire animal might have been even smaller than the bee hummingbird, which, at about 2.25 inches, is the smallest bird in existence. Very small fossils like this one are rarely found because layers of silt and rock usually destroy the delicate tissues. Amber preserves them intact.

Jingmai O’Connor, the paleontologist at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing who discovered the skull within the amber, and her colleagues found that the jaws contained more than 100 teeth—implying that, despite its size, the creature was a predator, possibly feasting on insects. However, since its eye sockets face the side, it probably didn’t have binocular vision, which gives many other predators the depth perception needed to catch prey. The conical shape of the bones in those eye sockets indicates that the animal had rather small pupils and was likely active during the day. The findings were published in the journal Nature.

sketch of Oculudentavis khaungraae
The tiny dinosaur targets an unsuspecting insect.
Nature, YouTube

Because of its defining eyes and teeth, the researchers named the new species Oculudentavis khaungraae. Oculudentavis comes from the Latin words for eye (oculus), teeth (dentes), and bird (avis), and khaungraae derives from Khuang Ra, who had originally donated the amber to China’s Hupoge Amber Museum.

While scientists have unearthed quite a few fossils of large dinosaurs from the Mesozoic era—and pop culture like the Jurassic Park franchise likes to capitalize upon the public’s endless obsession with enormous animals—not as much is known about the era’s most diminutive dinosaurs.

“People focus on how big dinosaurs were,” O’Connor tells Mental Floss. “Now we know they were also really tiny.”

Amber, tree resin that has hardened over millions of years, might be our best hope for learning more.

“When you have an animal preserved in amber, it looks like it just died yesterday. All the soft tissue in place, trapped in this little window into an ancient time,” O’Connor explains in the video above.

The researchers are publishing their full study in the science journal Nature, but there are still plenty of questions to answer.

“This paper is just scratching the surface of the information preserved. Is the skull petrified or is it the original material unaltered, preserved in the amber? Mummified, if you will? What color was it, and can we use isotopes to figure out exactly what it ate; can we reconstruct the brain better?” O’Connor says. “We need the young, tech-savvy generation to develop new methods for extracting data from amber specimens in a non-destructive manner to get at these questions.”

In the meantime, dig into these 26 fascinating facts about fossils.

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