The archaeology of a global disease vector


  • Dr David Orton

    University of York

Project summary

The black rat is a major pest and disease vector, most famously implicated in the Black Death in the 14th century. In temperate climates, it is dependent on dense, generally urban settlements. Despite their significance, little is known about the history of rats in Europe. They originated in sub-tropical Asia and reached Europe by the Roman period, but their role in disease in medieval times is poorly documented, and their distribution during the 6th century Justinian plague remains obscure. Archaeological remains are the key resource for clarifying the historical biogeography of the rat.

We will convene a network of leading experts from multiple disciplines, evaluate current knowledge and identify key questions. We will obtain proof of concept for future zooarchaeological/archaeogenetic research. Activities will include: an initial expert workshop; quantitative synthesis of existing archaeological data; targeted zooarchaeological research in under-studied areas; and pilot archaeogenetic research on rats and pathogen aDNA.

Results will be disseminated at an international zooarchaeology conference and in a position paper, forming the basis for a future research programme.