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MP(If you think this needs a caption there is something missing in your life)

I read a very interesting paper this week about child burial in medieval Poland [1]. Now, I’ll be the first one to hold my hand up to the fact that my knowledge of Poland is very limited, both in the modern and medieval worlds. Despite this, I was fascinated by the paper, and the archaeological evidence it discussed – so much so that I decided to write about it. As seasoned readers will know by now, this blog is about early Anglo-Saxon England, with a wider focus that covers North-Western Europe in the period c. AD 400-1000 [2]. In considering these Polish burials, then, we are looking at the graves of children who lived some 1000 miles east of England, and several hundred years after our period of interest. But, as we shall see, taking a wider view of the past can be interesting.

The graves of children in medieval Poland that don’t fit the overall picture – those that deviate away from established burial customs – have frequently been interpreted as the burials of those feared by society. This can include deviancy in terms of burial orientation (e.g. the body is placed at a different angle to other burials), body position (e.g. crouched or flexed), grave goods (e.g. inclusion of actual or ceramic eggs), mutilation (e.g. smashed limbs) or the positioning of stones on the corpse. In Central Europe during the medieval period, such burials are often associated with vampires and a fear of the dead returning as revenants. This is something of a simplistic interpretation, though, and there are various nuances to burial rite which we cannot simply ‘read’ off of a skeleton. The inclusion of eggs, for example, could be symbolic of the child returning to the womb. Likewise, whilst it might be tempting to interpret the burial of a beheaded child as society expressing its fear of the returning dead, it is also plausible that the child was subject to an unfortunate attack.

Fam (The burial of an adult female, 4-5 year old infant and newborn baby from medieval Złota Pińczowska in Poland. They were buried like this some 900 years ago [3])

What I really liked about this article is how it questions the traditional approach. It can be tempting to play it safe when researching and publishing in a field, but the true academics are the ones that question established beliefs, and the nature of interpretation. This therefore lends itself to a reflection on the study of my period – the Dark Ages – and the extent to which we unquestioningly continue to pursue established interpretations. Now is not the time to go into that, but we might take some time to consider the benefits of taking a long view of the past.

Taking a wider chronological view when thinking about the past is not a new idea, and, in fact, has a catchy French phrase to make it official; la longue durée. The concept was developed by the Annales school of thought in the 1930s and has been an influential approach in the study of the past. I personally find it very useful to look at the bigger picture and identify broad similarities. Particularly when it comes to the grizzly stuff, like dead children and weird ritual practices, it is almost reassuring to discover that people appear to have always had strange ideas. This isn’t to create a dichotomy between past and present, though. Treating children in a gruesome or peculiar way is very much a part of the modern world as well – just look at 21st century Ugandan child sacrifice [4]. Acknowledging the interconnectedness of our human past is a good first step in understanding, though.

[1] Gardeła, L. and Duma, P. 2013. ‘Untimely death: atypical burials of children in early and late medieval Poland’. World Archaeology, 45:2. pp.314-32.

[2] Take a look at the links at the top of the blog, especially ‘About’.

[3] ©Leszek Gardeła and Paweł Duma, 2013. ‘Untimely death: atypical burials of children in early and late medieval Poland’. World Archaeology, 45:2, page 317 [reproduced from Miśkiewicz, M. 1967. ‘Cmentarzysko wczesnośredniowieczne w Złotej Pińczowskiej, pow. Pińczów.’ In J. Fellmann, A. Kempisty, M. Miśkiewicz, K. Paczek, A. Wiercińska and A. Wierciński (eds.). Metodyka naukowo-techniczna badań archeologicznych i antropologicznych: Rozprawy Zespołu Badań nad Polskim Średniowieczem Uniwersytetu Warszawskiego i Politechniki Warszawskiej 4. Warszawa: Państwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe, page 104].

[4] e.g. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Child_sacrifice_in_Uganda