The recent story of a 13-year-old girl who was buried face down in a medieval grave in Italy has led us to look into what unusual things happen to the dead in the Middle Ages. From piles of bones to embalmed hearts, with stories about mass graves and sleeping for hundreds of years, here is our top 10 list of strange things done with the medieval dead.
1) Dargavs – City of the Dead
Just outside the village of Dargavs in North Ossetia lies a complex of 99 different tombs and crypts. Historians believe that it dates back to the 12th or 14th century, and for hundreds of years it has served as the burial ground for the villagers. Local myths and legends include stories of how entire families, infected by the plague, would go into a crypt and await death.
2. Santa María de Wamba
In the northern Spanish town of Wamba, a monastery was established in the 10th century. Over the centuries, thousands of people were buried around it, but sometime between the 15th and 17th century the monastery decided to dig up the cemetery. They took all the bones and put them into huge piles inside a shrine. At the entrance to the shrine one can read this epitaph: “As you see yourself, I saw myself too. As you see me, you will see yourself. Everything ends in this. Think about it and you won’t fall into sin.”
3. Sedlec Ossuary
This small chapel in the Czech Republic contains the skeletons of between 40,000 and 70,000 people, whose bones have in many cases been arranged to form decorations and furnishings for the chapel.
By the end of the 13th century this chapel had become a popular site with people from around the region wanting to be buried here. In the 16th century the monks began using the bones as decorations, including creating a chandelier.
4. Deviant Burials
This is one of two skeletons discovered in 2011 near the Irish lake of Lough Key. One was an elderly man and the other a young adult male, and both were buried in the 8th century. They also both had large rocks jammed into their mouths. Scholars believe that those who buried the men feared they might rise from the dead as revenants.
5. Vampire skeletons
Many other examples exist of ‘vampire’ skeletons have been found throughout Europe. Bricks or rocks were often thrust into their mouth, under the belief that this would prevent the corpse from rising from the dead. The video above is of a Venetian woman, whose corpse was found buried with plague victims from the 16th century. Some parts of Europe had their own local traditions – one 800-year-old skeleton found in Bulgaria was stabbed through the chest with iron rod.
6. Viking Mass Grave
In 2010 construction workers building a road near the English town of Ridgeway uncovered a bone. The archaeologists came and began digging – and soon found dozens of bodies, all beheaded. Eventually 51 skulls were found – scientific tests determined they were from Denmark and lived between 972 and 1025 AD. The research suggests these men were brought to pits here, stripped, and then executed, but the mystery remains on why these men were killed.
7. Richard the Lionheart’s embalmed heart
During the High Middle Ages, the practice of dissecting corpses and embalming their remains was popular for royalty and other high ranking members of society. When King Richard I was killed during a siege in 1199, his body was opened up and had its internal organs removed and buried in a coffin near the site he died. Meanwhile, his heart was taken separately and sent to a church in Normandy, and the rest of his body was transported to Fontevraud Abbey to be buried close to his father Henry II.
8. Head of John the Baptist
One of the most revered relics in the Christian and Islamic religions is the head of John the Baptist. It is so popular that there are several claims to who possesses the head. The Papacy states the head on display in San Silvestro in Capite in Rome is that of John the Baptist, but you can also find John’s head at Amiens Cathedral in France. Meanwhile, Islamic tradition states that head was placed in what is now the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. This hasn’t stopped several others from claiming to possess or to have recently found his head.
9. Relics and Reliquaries
Relics of saints, including their bodies and body parts were very important in medieval religion. Ornate reliquaries were built to house these relics, and many of them were shaped to look like the body parts they carried. Arm reliquaries were very popular, as they were useful as a liturgical prop.
10. The Seven Sleepers
There are several medieval legends about people, including kings such as Arthur and Charlemagne, who will one day return from the dead. One of the most famous stories is that of The Seven Sleepers: how a group of young Christians hid in a cave to escape Roman persecution in the third century. They then woke up 180 years later to find that the world had changed.
Medieval Irish had their own ways to stop the undead
Death on the Dorset Ridgeway: a Viking Murder Mystery
The embalmed heart of Richard the Lionheart (1199 A.D.): a biological and anthropological analysis
Magic for the dead? The archaeology of magic in later medieval burials
The Culture of Death in late Medieval and early Renaissance Italy
The Anonymous Old English Legend of the Seven Sleepers and its Latin Source