Capital Punishment and Prehistoric Burials March 19, 2011Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval, Prehistoric , trackback
You are a member of the minor nobility in some part of northern Europe found guilty of murder in the fifteenth century. After the capital sentence is passed you are thrown in the back of a cart and driven out to the local place of reckoning. However, as you are also interested in history you can’t help but wonder at the spot that has been chosen: for curiously, you are pulled to the top of a local tumulus where a nice-looking gentleman in a black mask is nursing something metallic and shining. You are just thinking about the possibility of a paper on ‘Prehistoric Barrows as Execution Sites’ (naturally in Latin) and imagining loud hurrahs from antiquarian circles, perhaps a knighthood and a place in the royal academy, when the priest, begins to mutter the offices of the dead and you remember why you are there…
Incredible as it may seem, there is a serious point behind this fantasy, which has been haunting Beachcombing all morning (the fantasy that is not the ‘point’). Many Europeans dispatched by the axe or the gallows in the Middle Ages and, indeed, in more recent times were executed on prehistoric barrows out beyond the village or the town where they had been sentenced or, in more baroque justice systems, near where the crime had been committed.
Research into this peculiar phenomenon has been fragmented geographically: because establishing where executions took place depends on a lot of spade work involving maps, placenames, archaeology (real spades) and textual references. But it would be, by now, uncontroversial to say that the custom was followed throughout Northern Europe from Scandinavia, to Germany, in the Lowlands and in England (think of the Walkington Wold Burials). Indeed, the whole ‘Germanic’ portion of Europe seems to have subscribed: though not apparently the Celtic fringes?
So why did our ancestors choose Prehistoric barrows to kill and display felons?
It is a nice question and a number of solutions have been dreamt up: Beachcombing enumerates them here from the least dramatic (1) to the most extraordinary (3).
(1) Prehistoric barrows typically stand in visible locations, often near routes or even crossroads, and, of course, are elevated. Executioners also demanded visibility, especially for the display of the body, and so the barrows were pragmatically reused.
(2) The prehistoric barrows that survived often lay on boundaries between settlements. The boundary place was a natural location for killing partly for reasons of visibility – two communities could enjoy the ‘lesson’, but also because these were liminal areas away from community life: the criminal had not only been killed by his neighbours but cast out of human society into the twilight where the fairies and demons dwelt.
(3) Prehistoric barrows sometimes included sacrifices and therefore the custom of medieval execution was an updated Christian form of sacrifice.
Beachcombing is reminded of similar debates about medieval meeting places outside settlements, meeting places that were often close to boundaries and likewise on elevated ground. Here too there have been arguments about whether the reasoning was purely pragmatic or whether there were ancestral memories of earlier customs, though all that jazz about liminal zones is a bit less convincing in the context of Dark Age talk shops.
Much as Beachcombing loves examples of bizarre continuity through the centuries – and the idea of bodies being displayed in the nineteenth century mimicking Neolithic killings is splendid, he personally would go no further than (2) and then only with reservations; the landscape and the barrows being reinterpreted by those who dwelt around them.
Any striking records of sacrifice or killing being associated with barrows? Drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com
19 March 2011: KMH makes an important point about the hollow nature of barrows. And, of course, many medieval executed bodies have been found in these hollows, often overlaying the original Neolithic body. ‘I favor the notion that barrows were a place where death was meted out, either for sacrifice or as a penalty for breaking the law. It is efficient to centralize the bloodletting around a publicly visible location such as a barrow. If the barrows had some hollow space in the interior and were used in ancient times as tombs then there might be an additional reason for ancient killing activities at the top – the bod(ies) might be entombed directly below, thus eliminating any need for further transportation. Continuing the custom would present no problem for Christianity other than the grounds for taking a life.’ Thanks KMH!
29 March 2011: Two more thought provoking emails. First from Cory P who brings an unexpected New World perspective to all this. ‘Having at one time lived about a mile away from the crossroads of Gallows Hill in the northeastern part of Bucks County, PA, I was struck by your entry on the association between executions and ancient barrows in northern Europe. The US Geological survey lists 11 towns, hills, and cemeteries in the eastern US with the Gallows Hill name, most of them in New England. They include a Gallows Hill Burying Ground in Litchfield, CT — an interesting redundancy, since the name Litchfield itself means a burying ground. This might suggest that the original intention was merely to carry out executions on elevated locations which would thus serve as a constant warning to potential malefactors. Or you might be right that the barrow association was deliberate, in which case the American colonists would have simply been doing their best to carry on the tradition in the absence of any actual barrows. Certainly a number of the hills in and around that part of Bucks County have a somewhat ‘spooky’ reputation, ranging from one popularly known as Ghost Mountain to one which the Pennsylvania Germans called Hexenkopf and where witches were said to gather on Walpurgisnacht.’ Then if this wasn’t fascinating enough Jonathan Jarrett over at A Corner of Tenth Century Europe offers the following: ‘Executions at barrows rang immediate bells as last term I set myself the mission of reading the final Sutton Hoo site report, and as you may or may not be aware the mounds were, post-conversion we can be pretty sure since they themselves span the conversion period, used as an execution site. My personal feeling is that by executing criminals (or whatever category one who was so dispatched fell into then) at such places they were condemning them to the demons as which Christianity had recast the pagan gods, and that there was no inherent conflict in believing that such supernatural powers continued to associate with the burials of pagans, though now ‘correctly’ identified by the learning of the Church. If you transgressed the Christian community’s limits enough, and churchyard burial was forbidden to you, this was the alternative… Interestingly, they found some empty pits in the execution cemeteries (though it’s hard to be sure because of what the soil there does to meat) and that suggests to me that some people were somehow saved from the final ignominy of damnation-by-burial and dragged off to be put somewhere nicer. I may be thinking too binarily however: the most recent work on such matters emphasises that conversion did not just switch off older practices, and that burial at older cemeteries alongside presumed pagans continued with apparently-Christian burials. Sutton Hoo, however, is a fairly special case. I wrote a long and rather morbid post, including some pictures of the bodies (which are one of the bizarrer things even you may have seen). All a bit earlier than you’re talking about, but probably more plausible as an explanation than continuing human sacrifice… Thanks Jonathan and Cory P!!
27 Sept 2014: Bruce writes ‘My grandfathers grandfather was regional hangman in the post-American Civil War era in the mid-Ohio River Valley. One of the important things we forget in these days of urbanization and mass entertainment, is how dull life could be for the 90% of the population that lived on the land. A public execution in those days, and I suspect in the UK, too, was a big event. Families would pack up the wagon and head to the county seat not only to see the execution, but to socialize and trade for a few days. As execution was the prime motivation for these gatherings, most towns worth their salt would have a “hanging” or”killing ground” where executions took place and the visiting locals could camp in the days leading up to the hanging. These places were generally on sections of ground that made it easy for the crowd to view the execution, and were on the outskirts of town, keeping the gathering crowds at a distance. I would suspect this why the barrows were used. The crowds around the gallows could easily watch Lord Bertie get his head lopped off and discuss the executioners swing and technique afterwards.’ Thanks, Bruce!