WARNING – Not for the squeamish.

Photo: Public domain
Photo: Public domain

Imagine stumbling across an 800 year old gravesite. An amazing find to be sure, but even more startling, the skeleton is completely intact except for the head which is resting on the legs. Or how about a skull with a brick jammed into its mouth, skeletons with feet and hands lopped off, leg bones broken, or actually staked to the ground?

Ever since I learned of humiliation wounds inflicted on King Richard III after his death, I’ve been wondering if such behavior was rare or the norm. As I’ve stated before, in the Middle Ages death was a public spectacle. And it appears that public opinion mattered to an enormous extent.

Archeologist Caroline Arcini of Sweden’s National Heritage Board has documented over 600 burials all over the world where corpses were found buried face-down. She’s of the opinion that “shaming the dead is a deep-rooted human trait.” This echoes other scientists’ opinions of corpses in Europe found in the prone position, that these people lived some type of deviant life, for example witches, rule-breakers, prisoners, and the like, and hence deserved a burial that deviated from the normal practices.

Normal Christian burial meant the body was laid to rest face-up with feet to the East and head to the West. The arms rested at the sides or perhaps crossed over the chest. The majority of the face-down gravesites were found outside sanctioned church yards.

Photo © National Geographic Television
Photo © National Geographic Television

But these latest deviant burials add a whole new level of bizarre. Why would the living do this to the dead?

Recent text discoveries prove the manifestation of superstition and the grip it had on medieval society. At that time bacteria and infection passing from person to person was not understood, nor how disease could spread from place to place. Deaths that came on suddenly or tragically led to the belief that the departed souls would not pass onto the next world. Overcome with fear of the unknown, medieval society tried to find answers. So, when someone died in a disturbing way, they wanted to be certain these people never rose up again to torment them. Laying their fears to rest made them feel better, feel safe. Hence, they buried these bodies dismembered or staked into the ground to be sure the dead stayed dead.

Deviant burials appear to trail off during the 1200s when the Church spread its influence to create more civilized communities and provide localized support.

But even with this understanding of the medieval mindset, it’s still really creepy.

For more: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2009/06/090623-facedown-burials.html

 

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I’m starting to wonder: every time a shovel digs down into English soil, does it hit treasure or skeletons? Three years ago, the University of Durham in northeast UK planned a new extension to the library but came up instead with a huge archaeological find: two mass graves appearing to date back to 1650.

They are believed to be the final resting place of Scottish soldiers who’d fought against Oliver Cromwell at the Battle of Dunbar. Afterward, many of the Scots fell ill and died, and more along the way as Cromwell marched the prisoners to the former monastery at Durham, which later became the University. The story of the 3000 able-bodied young men was well documented but the actual gravesites were unknown.

Durham Castle and Cathedral Photo available via Wikimedia Commons
Durham Castle and Cathedral
Photo available via Wikimedia Commons

The relatively small mass graves hold skeletons piled one on top of another. If the historical estimate is accurate, the number could reach sixteen hundred. Foreign bodies within the graves have already been discovered, likely a few Dutchmen who had fought alongside the Scots.

Imprisoning large groups was rare in medieval days. Lords captured were often ransomed, but usually the vanquished were either executed or enslaved. It was much more common for whole towns and villages to be enslaved to the conquering army. But in this case, Cromwell could not allow the Scots to continue to fight against him for their choice to the throne, King Charles II. Yet, Cromwell agonized over their suffering and demise, explaining in a letter to his peers that everything was being done for the soldiers. The officers fared better, as did the Highlanders, but they still succumbed up to 100 a day. Scientists now believe that the Scots were suffering not from dysentery but refeeding syndrome. They had gone without food for 3 days prior to the battle, and by the time they reached Durham, they had not eaten properly for 8 days.

One hundred and fifty Scottish soldiers who survived this ordeal were put on a ship bound for the English Colonies. Fulfilling Cromwell’s original intent, they were sent to work in the lumber industry and iron works in support of English ship-building. Eventually, the Scots earned their freedom and many chose to remain in New England.

For more info on the dig:

http://www.livescience.com/54827-skeletons-from-battle-of-dunbar-photos.html

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The Great Plague, the Black Plague, the Black Death – call it what you will, it was the greatest scourge the Medieval World had ever seen. It arrived in Sicily on disease-riddled ships in 1347, and swept through European cities and countries wiping out one-third to one-half of the entire population, killing 20 million people in its wake.

Illustration of bubonic plague in the Bible (1411). US public domain - copyright expired.
Illustration of bubonic plague in the Bible (1411).
US public domain – copyright expired.

People’s rapid demise coupled with the mystery of contagion added to the horror. While it was observed that being in contact with infected people, their clothing or houses was a factor in catching the disease, the idea of contagion was incomprehensible at that time. Physicians were more likely to blame the position of the planets. Meanwhile, the young, old, and every age in between died in droves, so quickly that pits became massive gravesites. Rarely did anyone survive, but some did.
Did the plague discriminate or was everyone susceptible? Sharon DeWitte, a bioarchaeologist, is trying to discover just that. She spends her summers in London studying the bones of Black Death victims. She’s recorded metadata on each of the 2000 skeletons she’s studied so far, looking for clues.
People of the Middle Ages were a few inches shorter in stature than people today, i.e. the average male was 5’ 7” (170 cm) and female 5’ 2” (157.5 cm). Did their stunted stature mean there was less to eat? It is possible due to the Little Ice Age; after a long warming stretch, temperatures began to cool rapidly around 1300 and continued to drop until the late 1700s. During those previous long years of warming, plants and farming flourished in more places and so did the people, increasing the population. When temperatures cooled, many places that had once sustained growth were now unable to, and hence masses of people had less and less to eat. While it may seem obvious that the aristocrats were immune because they had money for food, it doesn’t necessarily follow that there was food to be had.
Professor DeWitte’s research shows that those who suffered malnutrition earlier in their lives were more susceptible to the Black Death. And while it is true that aristocrats also fell victim, her conclusion is that the poor died in greater numbers, and this mainly due to lack of nutrition earlier in their lives.

For more info: http://www.newsobserver.com/2014/06/22/3943477/black-deaths-silver-lining.html

 

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Portrait of Richard III of England, painted c. 1520
Portrait of Richard III of England, painted c. 1520

A dead body discovered in digging up a modern day parking lot. Ancient records show the burial was beneath an old friary. The skull, severely fractured, and a metal arrowhead still embedded in the spine. But these are not just any skeletal remains, but possibly those of a king.

Sounds like the latest BBC Mystery, but this is a real life one. And the remains are being tested to determine if it is the body of King Richard III, who ruled for only 2 short years and died at the age of 32 in the Battle of Bosworth on August, 22 1485. Historic accounts state he died from a violent blow to the head by a poleaxe or halberd, driving his helmet into his skull. His body was carried to a local friary and, by one account, buried beneath the choir floor.

Whether that part is true or not, it begs the question – did the good friars fear people might desecrate the grave? Absolutely. Historical accounts tell of how two young princes mysteriously disappeared from the Tower of London (the Royal residence at the time) following their being declared illegitimate heirs, thus making Richard III king of England. Many believed Richard had the boys executed, although there is considerable debate about their fate. But if many people at the time believed Richard of foul play, the friars placed his body where no one would have an easy time finding it. And thus it remained, until now.

King Richard III was the last English king to be killed in battle.

Fascinating.

For the rest of the story: National Geographic: Body Under British Parking Lot May Be King Richard III.

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