The Justinianic Plague in England: archaeological contexts and consequences

Professor John Hines
Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1J 0BE



The ‘First Pandemic’, an outbreak of bubonic plague which struck Constantinople in the late spring of AD 542, was relatively well recorded by some contemporary writers. It soon spread across Europe to Britain and Ireland, although the annalistic records here are inevitably imprecise and questionable. In recent years, however, archaeogeneticists have succeeded in identifying the Yersinia pestis bacterium responsible for the disease, particularly from human skeletal remains at the Early Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Edix Hill, Cambridgeshire.

The Byzantine historical sources should make this a precisely dated horizon in any archaeological site, yet several graves in which Yersinia pestis was identified at Edix Hill seemed to imply an outbreak earlier than AD 542. Although most of the radiocarbon evidence from continental Europe is consistent with a terminus post quem of AD 542, there are also anomalies there which would be consistent with earlier cases.

Carefully targeted radiocarbon dating at Edix Hill supported by a British Academy Small Research Grant has nonetheless confirmed the historically expected terminus post quem. The apparent anomaly proves to be explicable from two angles, both of them of considerable significance. Statistically, it can be shown that there is an inbuilt variability in the precision of radiocarbon results which, against a precisely dated boundary line such as this, can produce a misleading impression. Within England, meanwhile, comparative examination of grave-assemblage sequences in Cambridgeshire and neighbouring East Anglia reveals a stronger disjunction between the patterns there than previously recognized.

That disjunction, however, cannot be a consequence of the pandemic; it must have preceded it. Explanations of that may, then, like in evolutionary ‘processes’ in cultural practice, and/or have been catalysed by the crisis of the severe climatic downturn in the years from AD 536. At present, Edix Hill is the only site from Britain where the quantity and quality of the evidence could enable us to investigate these impacts at a detailed, communal level.