In the mid-to-late 19th century, just as Scandy (and thus, it’s fair to say, world) archaeology was making its first big breakthroughs, a lot of furnished 11th century female burials unexpectedly turned up in the churchyards of Gotland. The chain of events that led to this windfall of new data is convoluted and, in my opinion, quite fascinating.

Gotland is a large limestone island in the Baltic and a province of Sweden. Its first organised Christian congregations came together in the early 11th century, and they had some rather unusual burial customs. They had already practiced inhumation as pagans for two centuries. When they left the pagan cemeteries and started new Christian ones, many congregations continued to furnish the graves. (I wrote about this at length in my PhD thesis, vol. 2, ch. 4). The new cemeteries were gender segregated, so that women were buried to the left (north) when one faced the altar, and men to the right (south). Furnished burial petered out in the early 12th century, but gender segregation continued for some time longer.

These people had very concrete and literal ideas about Resurrection. On Judgement Day, their Maker would appear in the morning sky, and they would rise bodily from their graves to greet him. Thus everybody was buried with their feet toward the east for convenience. In the 13th century, the Gotlanders suddenly stopped using the northern halves of their churchyards. Some authors maintain that this was because the female, sinister side had become connected to ideas about bad luck and evil spirits in a rather vague way. But others point to writings of the time that suggest that when the angel sounds the trumpet on Judgement Day, then all churches will collapse, and they will collapse northward. This will make it very hard for anyone buried there to get out from under the pile of rubble to meet their Maker.

Christian churchyards are very unsafe places for anyone who wishes to enjoy eternal rest. Whereas a pagan cemetery can expand in all directions with impunity, a Christian one has a wall around its hallowed ground, a wall outside of which only suicides and unchristened babies may be buried. Thus churchyards tend to get crowded really quickly, and soon need an ossuary to store all the bones that surface when new graves are dug into old ones. For this reason, 11th century male graves are almost unknown from the churchyards of Gotland: they were all destroyed by grave digging in the Middle Ages. But the coeval female graves lay undisturbed in the shady northern part of the cemeteries — until the dramatic population expansion of the 19th century.

Man of letters, bishop etc. Esaias Tegnér famously explained this expansion with reference to “peace, vaccine and potatoes”. Sweden has had peace since 1814, smallpox vaccination came into widespread use in 1801, and the Swedes finally did learn to eat the potatoes instead of making vodka from them. This meant, with time, that the churchyards of Gotland became so crowded that something had to be done. In many parishes, what people did was to break the six centuries old taboo on burial north of the church. And so their Viking Period great-great-great grandmothers’ rest finally began to be disturbed.

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Comments

  1. #1 Greg Laden
    April 28, 2008

    Hey, have you read “The Far Traveller”?

  2. #2 Martin R
    April 28, 2008

    No, is it good? Seems like historical fiction to me.

  3. #3 bob koepp
    April 28, 2008

    Martin – Fascinating! I really like the way you provide historical and cultural context for what would otherwise just be odd facts. Imagine how hard it would be to make sense of such odd facts if you didn’t have good historical records to establish context.

  4. #4 PalMD
    April 28, 2008

    Damn, i love archaeology. Thanks for bringing it to us.

  5. #5 Larry Ayers
    April 28, 2008

    Great summary, Martin! I have peasant Swedish ancestors and your posts are a view into Swedish archaeology which I wouldn’t otherwise have. A family legend has it that we have a genealogical connection of some sort with Queen Christina (Descarte’s bane) but I have my doubts…

  6. #6 windy
    April 28, 2008

    A family legend has it that we have a genealogical connection of some sort with Queen Christina (Descarte’s bane) but I have my doubts…

    The childless queen Christina? :) Even if the family legend does not claim direct descent, it’s hard to have a connection with just her, without being related to most of European royalty.

  7. #7 Martin R
    April 29, 2008

    Thanks guys! It’s one of my favourite archaeostories.

  8. #8 christina
    April 29, 2008

    INTERESTING!

  9. #9 kai
    April 29, 2008

    What does “furnished” mean in this context, that they had grave offerings with them?

    I am also curious about how they reconciled digging up bones and storing them in a jumble somewhere with the idea that resurrected bodies will have problems already just digging through the rubble of a fallen church. (As if clawing yourself through two metres of soil wouldn’t be difficult enough.) Was it just that they didn’t care about distant ancestors, let them manage best they can?

  10. #10 Martin R
    April 29, 2008

    Here, “furnished” means that the women were buried in full finery with bronze jewellery, bead necklaces and stuff. Very strictly speaking, grave furnishings may be taken as anything deposited in the grave that is not part of the dress. But since early Christian burials usually contained nothing more than a corpse and a winding sheet, the term seems apt in the context.

    I don’t know how the ossuary people justified their actions. Only that burials from time immemorial tend to receive far less respectful treatment than those whose family still remember them.

  11. #11 Christina
    April 30, 2008

    I agree with my namesake, that this is interesting, indeed. I am not sure if the laws have changed since I lived in Sweden, so does anyone know what the laws concerning this is today? Is the church not allowed to “reuse” a burial plot if the original “inhabitant” has no living relatives today, or those living relatives do not care to upkeep the grave of the person buried there, once a certain number of years have passed since the burial took place?
    We recently had a big to-do when the janitor at the church where my dad is buried backed over Dad’s grave marker with the ride-on lawn mower. The church then removed the cross to have it repaired, but oops! They forgot to tell my mom. She never even realized, but my cousin, who is religious and visits the grave, despite not having any contact with my mother or I, came to leave flowers, only to find a huge gaping hole in the ground. Well, she raised a stink in the newspaper about this, rather than contacting any of us. I learned then, that in actuality, the church had done nothing wrong (other than forgetting to tell Mom), since the care and maintenance of Dad’s grave is entirely between the church and my mother. When she dies, it’ll be between myself, my brother and the church, then between my kids and my brother’s kids and the church and so on. At some point in time, however, because there is “no room at the inn” for new corpses, one of our descendants will get a letter asking if they still want to maintin and pay for the burial plot of their great great great-something (i.e. my dad). I know that much, because we recently got such a request from a church, inquiring about som long dead relative on my dad’s side, that we didn’t even know we were related to, and who’d been dead for something like 100 years. So, I guess what I am saying is, that some churchyards still are unsafe places for those dead ones…

  12. #12 Martin R
    April 30, 2008

    I didn’t say that churchyards were unsafe: they still are. In highly organised countries, you get that letter. In most countries, they simply remove the marker, wait a few years, and if nobody complains, they reuse the plot.

  13. #13 Johan
    April 30, 2008

    “These people had very concrete and literal ideas about Resurrection. On Judgement Day, their Maker would appear in the morning sky, and they would rise bodily from their graves to greet him. Thus everybody was buried with their feet toward the east for convenience. In the 13th century, the Gotlanders suddenly stopped using the northern halves of their churchyards. Some authors maintain that this was because the female, sinister side had become connected to ideas about bad luck and evil spirits in a rather vague way. But others point to writings of the time that suggest that when the angel sounds the trumpet on Judgement Day, then all churches will collapse, and they will collapse northward. This will make it very hard for anyone buried there to get out from under the pile of rubble to meet their Maker.”

    Haha. Best thing I’ve read so far this week.

    //JJ

  14. #14 Christina
    April 30, 2008

    Yes, I know, I was just agreeing with you, and wondering if anyone knew what the current idea is, of how much time must lapse before it’s OK to reuse a plot.

  15. #15 Cobalt
    May 3, 2008

    Very very interesting. Thanks for this post!

  16. #16 Mikael
    May 5, 2008

    This sure is a blog of my liking, hope you don’t mind if I add it to my links?

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