The Black Death (~1347 to 1352) was bad. How bad was it? We don’t actually know, but a new study suggests it might have been much worse than previously thought. The findings were published in the journal Antiquity. 

Archaeologist Carenza Lewis is a professor at the UK’s University of Lincoln. “The true scale of devastation wrought by the Black Death in England during the ‘calamitous’ fourteenth century has been a topic of much debate among historians and archaeologists,” she said in a press statement. “Recent studies have led to mortality estimates being revised upwards but the discussion remains hampered by a lack of consistent, reliable and scalable population data for the period.” 

Rather than trying to locate actual evidence of deaths, Lewis decided to focus on evidence of life—and where it vanished. From 2005 to 2014, Lewis helped oversee a project in which volunteers in 55 rural areas in eastern England conducted miniature “test-site” digs of just one square meter. 

Image credit: Lewis, 2016

The residents and archaeologists were looking not for human remains but for broken pieces of pottery, which are a pretty good indicator that there were people around. 

“Medieval ceramic vessels were easily broken and difficult to mend,” Lewis writes in her report, “and therefore frequently discarded; sherds are taphonomically durable in most archaeological contexts, relatively easy to see during excavation and sieving, and datable without incurring prohibitive costs.” 

Nearly 2000 test pits have been excavated and their contents catalogued and dated. Volunteer excavators recovered pottery pieces from the 12th to 16th centuries. Previous studies indicated that one piece of buried pottery could be a coincidence, but two is likely proof that people lived there. So Lewis set her minimum at two pieces, and compared the number of pits that contained pre-plague pottery with those that held pottery from after the plague. 

The results were gruesome. If two pieces of pottery indicated a population, then the population of these regions took a 45 percent hit in the centuries following the Black Death.

“These are just a few examples of the devastation evident on an eye-watering scale within settlements that have previously been considered the ‘successful’ survivors,” Lewis wrote, “calculated using an index that may be producing conservative estimates.” 

While the results are certainly grim, Lewis is sanguine. As a researcher, she believes her potsherd-counting model has a lot to offer: “this new research suggests there is an almost unlimited reservoir of new evidence capable of revealing change in settlement and demography still surviving beneath today’s rural parishes, towns and villages—anyone could excavate, anywhere in the UK, Europe, or even beyond, and discover how their community fared in the aftermath of the Black Death.”