Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, March 20, 2023

Grave matters

It's easy to scoff at the superstitious beliefs of the past.  I've certainly been known to do it myself.  But it bears keeping in mind that although, to more scientific minds, some of the rituals and practices seem kind of ridiculous, sometimes they had a strange underlying logic to them.

Take, for example, the strange case of JB55.  Archaeologists excavating a site near Griswold, Connecticut in 1990 found a nineteenth-century wooden coffin with brass tacks hammered into the surface that spelled out "JB55" -- according to the practice of the time, the initials of the deceased and the age at which (s)he died.  Inside were the bones of a man -- but they had been rearranged after death into a "skull-and-crossbones" orientation.

This seems like an odd thing to do, and raised the obvious question of why anyone would rearrange a dead person's remains.  There was speculation that it was part of some kind of magical ritual intended to prevent him from coming back from the dead; in the mid-1800s, the region around Griswold was known for rampant belief in vampirism.  The reason seems to have been an epidemic of tuberculosis, which (among other things) causes pale skin, swollen eyes, and coughing up blood; there are known cases where the bodies of disease victims were exhumed and either burned and reinterred, or else rearranged much as JB55's were.

The explanation in this specific case gained credence when an examination of JB55's bones showed tuberculosis lesions.  Further, an analysis of the Y DNA from the bones allowed them to identify the individual's last name as Barber -- and sure enough, there was a John Barber living in Griswold who would have been of the right age to be JB55.

It's amazing how widespread these sorts of practices are.  In 2018 a skeleton of a ten-year-old child was unearthed in Umbria, Italy.  The skeleton dated from the fifth century C.E., and she seems to have died during a terrible epidemic of malaria that hit the area during the last years of the Roman Empire.  Before burial, the child had a rock placed in her mouth -- thought to be part of a ritual to prevent her spirit from rising from the dead and spreading the disease.  In 2022, a skeleton was uncovered in PiĆ©n, Poland, dating from the seventeenth century -- it was of an adult woman, and had a sickle placed across her neck and a padlock on her left big toe.  The reason was probably similar to the aforementioned cases -- to keep her in her grave where she belonged.

The reason this comes up is a paper this week in Antiquity about another interesting burial -- this one in Sagalossos, in western Turkey.  Archaeologists found evidence of a funeral pyre dating to the second century C.E., but unlike the usual practice at the time -- in which the burned remains were taken elsewhere to be buried -- here, the pyre and the remains were simply covered up with a layer of lime and brick tiles.  Most interestingly, scattered over the surface of the tiles were dozens of bent iron nails.

Iron and iron-bearing minerals have been thought from antiquity to have magical properties; Neanderthals were using hematite to anoint the dead fifty thousand years ago.  Here, both the iron in the nails and the angles at which they were bent probably were thought to play a role in their power.

The authors write:

The placement of nails in proximity to the deceased's remains might suggest the first of these two hypotheses.  The fixing qualities of nails, however, may also have been used to pin the spirits of the restless dead (so-called revenants) to their final resting place, so that they could not return from the afterlife...  Aside from the application of nails to symbolically fix the spirit, heavy weights were also used in an attempt to immobilise the physical remains of a potential revenant.

I do have to wonder how the idea of revenants got started in the first place.  Surely all of them can't be from the symptoms of tuberculosis, like in JB55's case.  And since the number of people who have actually returned from the dead is, um, statistically insignificant, it's not like they had lots of data to work from. 

Perhaps much of it was simply fear.  Death is a big scary unknown, and most of us aren't eager to experience it; even the ultra-Christian types who are completely certain they're heading to an afterlife of eternal heavenly bliss look both ways before they cross the road.  But like many superstitions, these all seem so... specific.  How did someone become convinced that nails weren't enough, they had to be bent nails?  And that a padlock on the left big toe would keep the woman in Poland from rising from the dead, but that it wouldn't work if it had been around, say, her right thumb?

Curious stuff.  But I guess if you try something, and lo, the dead guy stays dead, you place that in the "Win" column and do it again next time. 

It's like the story of the guy in Ohio who had a friend who'd come to visit, and whenever he'd walk into the guy's house, he'd raise both hands, close his eyes, and say, "May this house be safe from tigers."

After doing this a few times, the guy said, "Dude.  Why do you say that every time?  This is Ohio.  There's not a tiger within a thousand miles of here."

And the friend gave him a knowing smile and said, "It works well, doesn't it?"


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