Face-down and Other Medieval Burial Oddities Sept 25, 2020 16:34:06 GMT -5
Post by Graveyardbride on Sept 25, 2020 16:34:06 GMT -5
Face-down and Other Medieval Burial Oddities
A medieval skeleton bearing signs of multiple stabs to the sternum lying face-down in a shallow grave is unnerving, even to experienced archaeologists. It is presumed the male skeleton uncovered in Sicily was a criminal who was likely executed and separated from civilized society even in death.
Nevertheless, burial in a face-down position was unusual in the Middle Ages, which, depending on the location, began in the 5th century and continued to the 15th century, comprising less than 1 percent of burials excavated thus far.
The reasons for such burials varied. Between around 950 and 1300, some nobles and priests were buried prostate – in a “pious” position – as a sign of humility before God, despite their fine attire and jewels. Other skeletons in a prone position have been discovered at the edge of burial grounds, clearly separated from other graves, indicating they were criminals or other outcasts. “In some cases it may be accidental, especially if the burial was in a coffin which had been clumsily handled,” observed Sam Lucy, Ph.D., a Newnham College archaeologist of Roman and Anglo-Saxon Britain who specializes in burials. “In other cases, it might have specific significance attached to it.”
“I suggest that they... represent reactions to local, small-scale events and result from personal or individual experiences and emotions towards anomalous events, such as illnesses and epidemics.” wrote University of Turku archaeologist Ulla Moilanem, of burials in medieval Finland.
Of such burials in Poland, Leszek Cardela, an archaeologist at the National Museum of Denmark, said, “They may have been burials of criminals or various social deviants [or] some instances they could have perhaps signaled a religious and postmortem act of penance.”
Face-down burials became more common toward the end of the Dark Ages when devastating plagues swept through Europe. Researchers at the University of Bern recently surveyed burial sites in Switzerland, Germany and Austria, noting that – beginning in the 14th century – a higher percentage of burials were in the prone position. They theorized the macabre sight and grotesque sounds associated with multiple decomposing corpses instilled fear of the supernatural, particularly the walking dead. As corpses decay, muscles sometimes move and moans or smacks are audible as trapped air escapes. Additionally, as the skin recedes, nails appear to grow longer and to the untrained, it may seem the corpse is becoming reanimated.
It is possible Europeans in some locations may have buried certain members of their community face-down do they wouldn’t rise from the grave and haunt, or possibly feed on, the living.
As fewer died in plagues and science gradually replaced superstition, prone burials became less frequent.
But strange burial customs didn’t end with the Middle Ages. In Norway, there is evidence that as recently as the 15th century, heads were buried in a half-circle, facing southeast; decapitated bodies were interred with their heads between their thighs and their feet removed; and bodies and heads were buried separately. Archaeologists contend this was the manner in which the populace ensured criminals and other evil individuals received the punishment they deserved on Earth as well as in the heareafter.
Such skeletons have been excavated during the last 20 years in Skien, a town southwest of Oslo. According to researchers, this was one of the first Christian burial grounds, which later became a place of interment for executed outlaws.
Between 1010 and 1040, Hakastein Church, which may have been Norway’s first, was erected in the area where the half-circle of skulls was discovered. There was a consecrated Christian graveyard adjacent to the church until 1400 when the Catholic Church deconsecrated the location, likely because of the Black Death.
The dead person with the skull between the thighs and other skeletons that had been decapitated with their skulls buried upside down, were interred in this deconsecrated ground around the year 1500. Of note, there was a gallows nearby, as evidenced by the name of a nearby hill, Galgebakken (literally “Gallows Hill”).
“There is very strong symbolism involved in being buried face down,” explained Gaute Reitan, an adviser in Rescue Archaeology at the University of Oslo’s Museum of Cultural History. It was Reitan who unearthed the decapitated skeletons with the face-down skulls. “That means you can’t see the sunlight in the eastern sky on the day you rise again. The message is clear: This man should not go to a good place in the hereafter. And if your feet have been chopped off, it probably means that someone wants to guarantee that you don’t come back as a ghost to visit.”
Burial sites for executed criminals are common in several locations and the dead are usually buried east-to-west, the opposite of normal burials. In these burial grounds, body parts may have been chopped off and buried in a different place. More importantly, however, is the fact these people weren’t laid to rest with other Christians.
Today we are quite certain the dead are dead, but this wasn’t the case in the Middle Ages and for a long time thereafter. The distinction between life and death and body and soul were unclear. The life one lived on Earth was perceived by most as a short and often brutal prelude to the eternal life one would live in Heaven ... or Hell. “Heaven and Hell were living realities for people during that period in a way that we can scarcely imagine today,” said Arne Bugge Amundsen, a theologian and cultural historian at the University of Oslo. “People knew what both places looked like. Just think of the Christian artwork from the Middle Ages and later. No one had any doubt about what it meant if you went to Hell.”
Furthermore, not everyone in the Middle Ages was convinced St. Peter would be able to keep track of who should, and shouldn’t, be admitted through the Pearly Gates. This meant society had to come up with a system to back up St. Peter in order to make sure those destined for Hell actually went there. “Where people were buried in Norway was carefully regulated by both laws and regulations, from the early Christian times until well after the Reformation in the 1500s,” Amundsen added. “It was simply not permitted for criminals to be buried in consecrated church land.” People who committed suicide and unbaptized children were also forbidden burial in consecrated ground. This was the way society sent a clear message as to where people should spend their time in the hereafter, he continued.
Anne Irene Riisøy, a medieval historian at University College of Southeast Norway in Drammen, is also interested in the history of criminals and burials in Norway. In the Middle Ages, she explained, being denied a burial in consecrated ground was seen as a second punishment for a crime. “It was considered double punishment and something that many people would try to avoid.” She is of the opinion the threat of burial in unconsecrated ground might have been a deterrent to potential criminals at that time. It might also have had a deterrent effect on potential suicides, she observed.
Amundsen has recently looked into what happened to dead criminals after Norway transitioned from Catholic to Protestant in the early 1500s. Initially, not much changed. For example, Jørgen Eriksen, superintendent of the Lutheran Church at the time, who oversaw a 1578 funeral made it clear “wicked people” will not be buried with “God’s chosen children,” but in a place where they can be eaten by birds and animals. However, just a little more than two decades later, in 1604, the authorities issued a clarification on burials that Amundsen believes more clearly reflects what Protestant Norway thought about Heaven and Hell, i.e., that graveyards will be available to “any honest man.” And in keeping with the teachings of Reformation leader Martin Luther, that faith is the only way to salvation, the clarification emphasizing that a place in the burial ground did not in itself guarantee salvation. This also indicated that burial outside the designated graveyard no longer guaranteed the contrary.
Sources: Ross Pomeroy, Real Clear Science, September 21, 2020; and Nancy Bazilchuk, Science Norway, March 31, 2017.