The Burial Pit as Bio-historical Archive

  • Lukas Engelmann
Part of the Medicine and Biomedical Sciences in Modern History book series (MBSMH)


Recent historical research on the bubonic plague has been heavily impacted by historical biological data. Ancient DNA, the technology to trace bacteria in human remains, has turned burial grounds from places reminiscent of epidemic disasters into resourceful biohistorical archives. Mobilizing the tools of retrospective diagnostics, the burial pit has become a popular site to apply scientific methods and standards to the writing of the historical narratives of plague over the centuries. This chapter will interrogate the methodological underpinnings of the hereby intended ‘validation’ of history through science. Addressing the burial pit as a bio-historical archive allows us to critically evaluate the making of plague history and plague biology as an entangled endeavor. To this end, this chapter seeks to connect existing controversies regarding plague’s historiography to long-established debates over presentism and historical epistemology in the history of science to argue for a renewed understanding of biohistory.


Research leading to this chapter was funded by a European Research Council Starting Grant (under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme/ERC grant agreement no 336564) for the project Visual Representations of the Third Plague Pandemic.

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of EdinburghEdinburghUK

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