During a recent excavation beneath the streets of London, archaeologists found a total of 1,500 human bodies, many buried hastily in a wave of epidemics that struck the quickly expanding city more than 150 years ago.
In one coffin, archaeologists came across a grisly mix of bones from at least eight human bodies, many of them cut up and showing evidence of autopsy. But nine of the bone fragments were decidedly not human. They were walrus.
"It came as something of a shock," said Phil Emery, an archaeologist with a company called Ramboll UK, who led the excavation. The nine bone fragments came from a Pacific walrus that was likely 13 feet long, Emery told LiveScience.
Behold the walrus
The bodies came from the old burial ground of St Pancras Church, and were interred there between 1822 and 1854, Emery said. During this time, London cemeteries were overwhelmed by the dead from a series of cholera, typhus and smallpox epidemics; the church and its burial ground, once outside greater London, have recently been engulfed by the burgeoning metropolis, he added. (8 Grisly Archaeological Discoveries)
Before 1822, the cemetery was characterized by small plots, as seen in most ordinary burial grounds, Emery said. But thereafter, ceremony fell to the wayside as the cemetery was overwhelmed — plots were replaced with mass graves, he said.
From 1822 to 1854, a total of 44,000 burials took place there, Emery said. "Under such conditions, one can understand that standards of decency and hygiene were difficult to maintain, to put it lightly," he explained.
Blame the med students
But how did a tusked beast the weight of a small car make its way from the North Pacific to a cemetery in foggy London? Emery and his team can only guess how the walrus was brought there from its native lands, but they suspect the animal was dissected by curious medical students.