Weird funerary archaeology (some more)

Gentles all, though I know for a fact that you are all well-spoken well-mannered people of clean minds and pure interests, all the same nothing I have ever posted on this blog has got me as many hits as that story I more or less stole from somewhere else about the man buried with a sheep. Every now and then some German forum (mostly) stumbles on it and I get another few hundred clicks as people there go “OMG WTF” auf Deutsch and crack the same gags as everyone else. And, you know, I posted it, I’m not in a position to judge, but in the end we did get some actual archaeological chatter in the comments which clarified things a bit.

Archaeological site at Staraya Russa, nr. Novgorod

Archaeological site at Staraya Russa, nr. Novgorod

Well, it seems to be the time of year again. Firstly, Melissa Snell has pointed us to a burial at Staraya Russa, near Novgorod, where for about eighty years between the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries the cemetery users appear to have buried horses as well as people. No answers yet as to why this might have been…

Then, not involving animals but perhaps rather weirder, at Tahluj in Iran a cemetery has come to light where several of the bodies were buried with accompanying iron nails, “one nail beside their knees, one nail beside their left shoulders, and bunch of nails over and under their heads and feet”. (A hat tip to the Heroic Age blog for this one.) These are early Islamic-period graves, seventh century I guess, but whether that’s in any way an Islamic practice, or a Sassanian one like the burial style they were using, well, who knows?

A burial from the dig at Tahluj, Iran

A burial from the dig at Tahluj, Iran

As with the sheep post, this Corner of Tenth-Century Europe is open to your suggestions…

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8 responses to “Weird funerary archaeology (some more)

  1. I am dying to know about those nails.

  2. highlyeccentric

    Well, it seems to be the time of year again. Firstly, Melissa Snell has pointed us to a burial at Staraya Russa, near Novgorod, where for about eighty years between the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries the cemetery users appear to have buried horses as well as people. No answers yet as to why this might have been…

    At a GUESS, I’d say horses were status items you might need in the afterlife?

    I really want to know about the nails, though, that’s *weird*.

  3. Highly, I can see the justification for horses a priori, and we get similar things in Anglo-Saxon England as you may know; they unearthed a warrior and his horse just down the road from me a few years back. The thing about that is, it’s exceptional, and it’s not such a short period as this; we’ve no reason to suppose it wasn’t standard practice for someone of such status until the conversion. Here, on the other hand, we’ve got a maximum of three generations who do bury horses, so what starts them off and what stops them? Some particularly charismatic mad preacher? Some tribe-saving event in which the horses alerted them to imminent disaster like Rome’s Capitoline geese? I want answers that the archaeology isn’t going to be able to supply dammit.

    Also, I agree entirely that the nails thing is just weird. I’d suggest some crucifixion allegory but the nails aren’t disposed right for it, and anyway why would you do that for the body after death? You’d hope the torment was over then. The other thing that occurs to me is that iron can sometimes function as currency; but firstly except in the most iron-poor areas, a bag of nails isn’t going to have been worth much, and secondly that wouldn’t explain the disposition around the graves either… Someone else with some ideas? Henrik, Henrik, where are you?

  4. highlyeccentric

    Huh, that IS weird. Although three generations is long enough for a cultural phase to come and go, I guess…

    Can’t be crucifixtion- you wouldn’t BOTHER giving someone you’ve executed a proper burial, surely?

  5. If we were in some very very ascetic Christian monastic area I might just wonder if it were imitatio Christi taken to absurd and horrible lengths, which is what I was getting at – but this is either Muslim or Zoroastrian territory so in sum, I don’t have a scooby.

  6. Iron and nails did have magical/mythical linkages, so perhaps the nails were some sort of funerary talisman.
    As for horses–perhaps they were particularly high quality warhorses? My mind goes blank there.

  7. I’ve not heard of such significances for nails before. Where would one find such things, can you say?

  8. For a level of scholarship usable in journals, probably folklore/archeology/anthropology research.
    However, to give fair warnings
    1) the vague memories of this all seem to be linked to Europe, and nothing further west than Russia and Turkey
    2) the books in which I read of such things are either long buried in my closet or given away, so I can’t provide any details.

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