Why Were Some People Buried Face-Down in Medieval Europe?

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Even a thousand years later, it's an unsettling sight: A medieval man's skeleton, bearing signs of repeated stabs to the sternum, lying face-down in a shallow grave. Who was this man buried in Sicily? And why was his body arranged in such a deviant manner?

Archaeologists' best guess is that he was an exiled outlaw. Even in death, which was apparently by execution, he was to be separated from the rest of civil society. Thus, the prone positioning while others had their bodies oriented skyward.

Face-down burial in medieval Europe was exceedingly rare. During the Middle Ages, which stretched from roughly the 5th to 15th centuries, less than one percent of all burials were in the prone position.

The reasons for this rare arrangement of remains varied widely. Between 950 and 1300, some high ranking nobles and priests were apparently buried prostrate as a sign of humility before God, their "pious" positions somewhat undercut by the presence of fine clothes and jewels placed alongside them. Other prone burials were found towards the edge of cemetaries separated from the bulk of graves. Most were shallow and lacked coffins. The people laid to rest in this manner may have been outcasts, criminals, or seen as cursed. Still, some remains were found in prone positions within coffins buried alongside many normal, upward-facing skeletons.

Dr Sam Lucy, a Newnham College archaeologist of Roman and Anglo-Saxon Britain who specializes in burials, had this to say on those seemingly unremarkable prone gravesites: "In some cases it may be accidental, especially if the burial was in a coffin which had been clumsily handled. In other cases it might have specific significance attached to it."

That significance could vary by family, town, or regional culture.

"I suggest that they... represent reactions to local, small-scale events and result from personal or individual experiences and emotions towards anomalous events, such as illnesses and epidemics." University of Turku archaeologist Ulla Moilanen wrote of face-down burials in medieval Finland.

"They may have been burials of criminals or various social deviants [or] some instances they could have perhaps signalled a religious and post-mortem act of penance," Leszek Gardeła, an archaeologist at the National Museum of Denmark said of Polish prone burials.

Face-down burials grew more common towards the end of the Middle Ages, when devastating plagues began to terrorize Europe. Researchers with the University of Bern recently surveyed burial sites in Switzerland, Germany, and Austria and noticed that – starting in the 14th century – a higher percentage of burials were in the prone position. They theorized that the macabre sights and grotesque sounds of so many decomposing corpses sparked fears of the supernatural, particularly revenants – the walking dead. As dead bodies decay, muscles can sometimes move, moans or smacks can be heard as trapped air escapes, and nails appear to grow as skin recedes. It can seem as if the corpse is becoming reanimated.

Europeans may have viewed a face-down burial as a way to prevent buried remains from rising out of the grave, the researchers suggest.

Over time, as plagues eased and superstition was supplanted by science, prone burials receded from a rare practice to become an academic curiosity.

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