WARNING – Not for the squeamish.
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.
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.