Before abandoning their settlement, a medieval community in England tore down an elaborate entrance gate and buried a 15-year-old girl in its place. And in a final act marking her as different, they likely bound her ankles and interred her face down, a new analysis reveals.
The girl's unusual burial on the boundary of the settlement is an expression of "otherness," archaeologists noted.
"We will probably never know exactly how this young woman was viewed by the community she grew up in, but the way she was buried tells us she was almost certainly seen as different," Don Walker, a senior human osteologist (bone specialist) at the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA), said in a statement released Monday (Aug. 14). "Her burial rites may have reflected the nature of her death, or her social identity or that of her family."
It's even possible that the community bound the girl's ankles due to a belief that her corpse might rise from the grave and harm the living.
"As well as being buried face down on a boundary, the position of her ankles suggests they may have been tied together," Walker noted. "This implies that the community took extra measures to ensure she could not 'return' from the grave."
The girl's remains, which were buried between A.D. 680 and 880 near the village of Conington in Cambridgeshire, show she experienced many hardships during her short life: Her teeth carry evidence of malnutrition, and her back reveals she had a spinal joint disease that was exacerbated by hard manual labor.
These clues suggest the teenager had a low social status. Her skeleton doesn't have signs of long-lasting illness, so it's possible the girl died in a sudden or unexpected way, archaeologists said in the statement.
Archaeologists unearthed the girl's remains between 2016 and 2018, during excavation work ahead of a construction project. Now, scientists at MOLA Headland Infrastructure have studied the teenager's skeleton and burial site in more detail.
The girl's face-down position is unusual, as most deceased people in early medieval England were buried face up.
Archaeologists had previously found another face-down burial from early medieval England. About 30 miles (50 kilometers) away at Higham Ferrers, Northamptonshire, a woman buried in the late eighth or early ninth century was interred face-down in a ditch at the edge of the settlement. This woman was buried without her arms, head, neck and fourth lumbar, indicating that she was an execution victim.
It's possible that medieval face-down burials were purposefully located at a settlement's border or boundary, the archaeologists said. They noted that when the teenager's community pulled out a large wooden post at the settlement's entrance, the leftover pit may have conveniently provided a ready-made grave.
The girl died between the late seventh and late ninth centuries, radiocarbon dating revealed, whereas activity at the settlement dates to the eighth and ninth centuries. The settlement served as one of the administrative centers for Mercia, a powerful kingdom in Anglo-Saxon England. But when the kingdom began to lose power, the settlement was abandoned.
If the girl's burial coincided with the settlement's abandonment — as the removal of the gate post that serves as her burial spot suggests — it's likely one of the last things her community did before moving on.
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Laura is the archaeology and Life's Little Mysteries editor at Live Science. She also reports on general science, including paleontology. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Scholastic, Popular Science and Spectrum, a site on autism research. She has won multiple awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association for her reporting at a weekly newspaper near Seattle. Laura holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and psychology from Washington University in St. Louis and a master's degree in science writing from NYU.
Honest opinion, nothing more... She should have stayed a virgin, maybe... She had "bound ankles" - means she should've kept them closed. "face down" - she was buried in shame and disgrace after she was executed... I don't even want to think how they buried the boy! ...Medieval times, meh... catholic church driven madness, ubsurdities and superstitions...Reply
In my opinion she was brought there because she was trying to keep something out of the village and to prove that they were already in that thought they built the gate for her to recognize that they didn't need her doing what she was doing to keep people out of the village which was most likely having sex with an animal like a snake.Reply
Leave your disgusting, racist, and anti-science comments out of an education site.... You are actually making up bs as you go along and not all of us were even catholic, there were pagans and even atheists in early medieval England as well as better actual scientists superior to you. I love my ancestors and you clearly hate white people. Shame and humiliation on YOU!!!void said:Honest opinion, nothing more... She should have stayed a virgin, maybe... She had "bound ankles" - means she should've kept them closed. "face down" - she was buried in shame and disgrace after she was executed... I don't even want to think how they buried the boy! ...Medieval times, meh... catholic church driven madness, ubsurdities and superstitions...
You won't even reply back because you know what a sack-o-s you are!!🤡💩void said:Honest opinion, nothing more... She should have stayed a virgin, maybe... She had "bound ankles" - means she should've kept them closed. "face down" - she was buried in shame and disgrace after she was executed... I don't even want to think how they buried the boy! ...Medieval times, meh... catholic church driven madness, ubsurdities and superstitions...
OK, leaving aside the modernist anxieties around sex, race, and gender-appropriate behavior; reflecting that people in this region didn't get murderously tense about premarital or extramarital sex until sexually-transmitted diseases had done a number on Victorian-era peoples, a thousand years later; and that being sexually active was, to the contrary, an important social & survival characteristic, unlike now & unlike Northern Med & some (not all) Asian areas back then...Reply
Securing the feet is a very old method of keeping a dead person's spirit in place, literally preventing the dead from walking. Burial face-down is traditionally meant to confuse the ghost so they can't find the living, based on the understanding that our eyes are on the front of our heads and the dead aren't flexible or clever.
These people *murdered and secured* this person (who was considered an adult at the time) and dismantled & abandoned their settlement. This is *so bad.* I mean, we fuss about having to pack our stuff up, but we don't have to take down our houses when we move!
There were so many horrible things going on at this point -- invasions, Viking raids (which were a lot more horrible and a lot less sexy than TV might make you think), drought, floods, and absolutely relentless famine; and Mercia was right in the thick of it -- that it looks like something horrible hit the village and they picked her as a scapegoat.
* Maybe she brought a virulent illness; plague existed in an early form then.
* Maybe she was already an outcast, and convenient to blame.
* Maybe she told raiders where to find her village in an outburst of adolescent angst, and reported back in a fit of remorse or was found out. Traitors are never popular at home.
* Maybe she was just a mean, ghastly person, seen as capable of great evil. Some people are!
Given the times and the situation, the villagers went to extreme lengths to remove themselves and secure that person to that spot after death. Something awful happened and they felt justified in laying the blame on her, before they took down the village and disappeared. I'd be fascinated to find out why.