What Remains by Robin Fleming
Improper burials tell a story of social change in medieval Britain
The outlines of a medieval village near Braunston, Northamptonshire. Photograph: Adrian Warren / Last Refuge Ltd.
While investigating Stonehenge in the late 1920s, archaeologists came across a body buried at the center of the complex. They assumed that it dated, like the megaliths themselves, to the Neolithic period, but radiocarbon dating showed that it most probably dated to the eighth century. The remains were of a short adult male about 30 years of age. He had something called Schmorl’s nodes on his vertebrae, a lesion common in people who performed hard, physical labor as children. The muscle insertions for his upper limbs suggest that he was powerfully built and provide further evidence that this was a man who had done back-breaking work. He had periostitis, too, marked by plaque on the outer surface of his bones, so he suffered from some kind of chronic, low-grade infection. In sum, we have a small, muscled, not very healthy man, who worked hard most of his life. He died, however, neither from disease nor from exhaustion, but because he had been decapitated with a single sword blow from behind. He was probably kneeling when it happened: It looks like an execution.
This man’s burial was clearly an anomaly, not least because it was carried out at the center of perhaps the most uncanny site in Britain. It deviated from standard burial customs in other ways. The vast majority of people in eighth-century Britain were buried with their kith and kin, in well-dug graves, and they were placed in the ground with care. Our man lay alone in this eerie landscape, having been dumped into an indecently shallow, horrifyingly short hole in the ground. His ribs may have been broken post mortem, when his corpse was stuffed into its inadequate grave. The burial, moreover, took place in a kind of no man’s land. Stonehenge, by the 11th century, lay on the border of two administrative districts known as hundreds, and many scholars have argued that it marked an important territorial boundary even earlier. It would have been a site known to everyone in the region but inhabited by no one.