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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Magi. The ancient word conjures intrigue. Who were these men? And most of all, what drove them to travel so far to pay homage to the newborn King?

Mosaic of the magi in Sant' Apollinare Nuovo in Raveena, Italy, 526 AD. Magi depicted in Persian clothing saved the church from being destroyed by the Persians in early 7th century.  Photo credit license: Nina Aldin Thune via Creative Commons
Mosaic of the magi in Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo in Raveena, Italy, 526 AD. Magi depicted in Persian clothing saved the church from being destroyed by the Persians in the early 7th century.
Photo credit license: Nina Aldin Thune via Creative Commons

The word magi, plural form of magos, is believed by many scholars to be Babylonian in origin. According to Strong’s Concordance, magi means “wise men, teachers, priests, physicians, astrologers, seers, interpreters of dreams, augurs, soothsayers, sorcerers etc.” Hence, it’s easy to see where the modern word magician comes from. The first time magi or magus was used was in the 6th century BC, in the Old Testament book of Daniel, when said wise men were called upon by King Nebuchadnezzar to interpret his dream. Recall that prior to this, King Nebuchadnezzar had seized Jerusalem and carried off the young educated men of Israel. Daniel and his three companions were cast among the magi. When no one could interpret his dream, Nebuchadnezzar ordered all the wise men be put to death. God provided Daniel the interpretation of the dream, not only saving him and his fellow Jewish companions, but the lives of all the wise men. Subsequently, the king placed Daniel in charge of the wise men, as well as over the entire province of Babylon (Daniel, chapter 2). Later we see Daniel continue to distinguish himself when King Darius set him up as a satrap (governor). This was typical of the additional duties magi performed, such as confirming the divine nature of the kingship, supervising the collection of land-taxes, and acting as judges.

 
Meanwhile, as these events with Daniel took place, there was a religious reformer named Zoroaster and his followers were called Zoroastrians. This group remained active throughout Babylonia for hundreds of years including during and after the time of Christ’s birth. In fact the King Vologeses I (51-80 AD) reinstated these magi at his court, and it was common practice for magi to visit and be accepted at court by other kings.

 
But could there be a deeper reason for their desire to pay homage? It turns out King Vologeses had family ties leading back to King Darius. Traditions and the passing on of knowledge is tantamount in keeping a religion alive. It is doubtful that the tales of Daniel and his God missed the magi’s notice. Whether they loved or hated him is not the point. The prophecy and dream interpretation made by Daniel (Chapters 2 through 7) was recorded not in Hebrew like the rest of the book, but switched to Aramaic, the language of the world. So at any time afterward, anyone could read how God granted that gift to Daniel, and that his prophecy of the Gentile world had all come true. The part in Aramaic also covers Daniel’s vision of the coming of the Son of man (Chapter 7). Couple this with the fact that the magi were trained to watch the skies for signs, as stars and comets were regarded as heralding the birth of kings.

 
Could it be that Daniel’s faithfulness in foreign captivity began a traditional teaching among the Zoroastrians and passed down through the generations of magi?

St Thaddeus Armenian Church, Iran. Constructed as Qara Kelissa in 68 AD in memory of St. Jude (Thaddeus)
St Thaddeus Armenian Church, Iran. Constructed as Qara Kelissa in 68 AD in memory of St. Jude (Thaddeus)

 
One more thing to note: After Jesus’ death and resurrection, the apostle Jude (also known as Thaddeus) went into Armenia and parts of Persia and in his mission work there ended up converting 3000 Zoroastrians to Christianity. Did he reference their homage to the newborn Jewish Messiah as the bridge to their salvation?

 

Whoever the magi were, they were certainly the first Gentiles with authority to recognize Christ as King.

 

Joy to the World!

 
Matthew 2:9b-11

and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. 11 And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

 

 

 

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King Richard died in 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth Field in Leicestershire, England, ending the 200 year rule of the Plantegents. He was killed by Henry Tudor thus ending the wars for the throne known as the Wars of the Roses. The Tudors reigned for the next 100 years.

Facial reconstruction of King Richard III Photo ©Getty Images
Facial reconstruction of King Richard III
Photo © Getty Images

In the Fall of 2012, King Richard’s remains were discovered buried under a parking lot in Leicester in the foundation of Grey Friars Church. Now that scientists and experts have had time to study his remains, some startling facts have emerged. Scientists extracted DNA from his teeth while historians tracked down a modern day descendant. The mitochondrial DNA, which is passed down through the female line, continued 17 generations and led to 2 descendants. Their DNA samples proved the connection and identified King Richard; only 1-2% of the population carries this close of a match.

Now King Richard is about to get the works, that is, have his entire genome sequenced. While it may prove interesting to learn more about his physical characteristics such as eye and hair color, there is a much bigger prospect afoot. It was obvious even at the dig site that he had scoliosis: a three-dimensional twisting of the spine. Studies of his bones revealed that he was not born with it but developed it between the ages of 10 and 13. There is no known cure for scoliosis but it is believed that genetics play a role.

One more startling fact is that the remains were found on the first day exactly where they started digging. It almost seems as if the king was meant to be found. Now computers and technology will allow sequencing of his DNA before he is finally laid to rest.

Controversy has surrounded him in both life and death, but perhaps his scurrilous legacy will be replaced by a more positive one, a cure for scoliosis.

For more: Visit The Richard III Society at http://www.richardiii.net

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Basically a club with a decorated head, a mace served as a cheap weapon that was simple to make. Maces date back to ancient times when the heads were made of stone, which easily broke. In the Middle Ages, maces were comprised of copper or bronze heads atop wooden shafts. The shape of the head could be starred or flanged, the point, literally, being to concentrate the blow into a small area. With the short points and wide base, the heads withstood the blows without breaking.

Metal mace with flanged head, 1500-1550
Metal mace with flanged head, 1500-1550

Used as early as the 11th century, maces rose in popularity as more plate armor was worn, but they proved effective against all types of armor. The crushing blows inflicted by a mace could break bones even through chain mail. Against plate armor it was less effective, serving to dent, damage, and deform or better yet, to penetrate the joints, all in hope of immobilizing the enemy.

Often used by clergy in the desire to avoid the shedding of blood, the mace evolved into an all-metal weapon. Perhaps due to the position of the clergy who wielded them, maces became a symbol of authority. Favored by kings, maces were constructed less as weapons and more as showpieces for royal ceremonies.

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The base of the skull showing the two potentially fatal injuries. A section of the skull has been sliced off.
The base of the skull showing the two potentially fatal injuries. A section of the skull has been sliced off. All images credit University of Leicester

This week, DNA test results confirmed skeletal remains discovered last Fall to be King Richard III. Investigators stated that the bones show he suffered 8 to 10 wounds, 2 inflicted to the head – either of which could have been fatal – and some “humiliation injuries” that likely occurred after he died and was stripped of his armor. (Armor, expensive as it was, was usually removed and given to the victor). While researching my book, I never once came across the term “humiliation injuries”, and recent searches of my resources came up empty. I believe this is a modern term, and here is why.

Medieval people were masters of torture and humiliation. These punishments were inflicted upon criminals, who were regarded as deserving scorn, derision, and mistreatment. All one need do is look up “hanged, drawn and quartered” – but I give WARNING – it’s not for the squeamish. The people would gather to witness these events as well as beheadings, stake burnings, and mocking parades of the guilty. It should be noted that kings were also paraded about so that the people witnessed and accepted their deaths, and succession could take place without uprising. The point is that in medieval times, death was a public event.

A likely scenario in King Richard III’s case is that the public saw him as a criminal, perhaps due to the missing princes, and mistreated his dead body. These humiliating injuries were never documented as such; the medieval people saw them as justified.

But were they? There is still debate over whether Richard was involved in killing the missing princes. Could it have been a smear campaign started by the Tudors to discredit Richard and his legitimacy to the throne? After defeating Richard on the battlefield, Henry Tudor became king, thus ending the War of the Roses and ushering in 118 years of reigning Tudor monarchs. But the mystery remains: who inflicted those wounds on King Richard and why?

I hope one day we find out.

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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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