Another Strange Old-Time Pagan Burial Custom

In this reconstruction, the Mesolithic man, who died in his 50s, wears a wild boar skin. (Image credit: Oscar Nilsson)

If you read something about “a head on a stake,” you probably imagine someone’s head — on a stake — outside the camp of the colorful but violent ancestors. This is different.

About eight thousand years ago in southern Sweden, several people were “buried,” that is to say, placed underwater and their bodies staked down — yet this was done respectfully?

Archaeologists discovered the man’s skull, as well as the remains of at least 10 other Stone Age adults and an infant, in 2012 at the bottom of what used to be a small lake in what is now Motala, a municipality in eastern-central Sweden. However, only one of the adults had a jaw; the rest were jawless, and two of the skulls had been placed on stakes sticking out from the lake’s surface.

The skulls of the dead showed wounds, but also signs of healing. And there were lots of animal bones in with them.

The discovery of a burial containing 8,000-year-old battered human skulls, including two that still have pointed wooden stakes through them, has left archaeologists baffled, according to a new study from Sweden.

It’s hard to make heads or tails of the finding: During the Stone Age, the grave would have sat at the bottom of a small lake, meaning that the skulls would have been placed underwater. Moreover, of the remains of at least 11 adults placed on top of the grave, only one had a jawbone, the researchers said.

The burial did contain other jawbones, although none of them, except for an infant’s, were human. While excavating the site, archaeologists found various animal bones, including dismembered jawbones and arms and legs (all from the right side of the body), said study co-lead researcher Fredrik Hallgren, an archaeologist at the Cultural Heritage Foundation in Västerås, Sweden. [See Images from the Mysterious Burial Found in Sweden]

You can watch the reconstruction of one man’s skull in here. The work is done by Oscar Nilsson, a Swedish forensic artist, who has reconstructed the appearance of a number of ancient people.

A bear’s jawbone, with scrapes from the butchering process indicated. (Image credit: Sara Gummesson; Antiquity 2018)

Here is a photo gallery of images from the site.

Seven of the adults, including two of the females, showed signs of “blunt-force trauma” on their skulls, the researchers wrote in the study. But this trauma didn’t kill them, at least not immediately, because all of the skulls showed signs of healing, [Swedish archaeologist Fredrik] Hallgren said.

So we have people who have been clubbed in the head laid to rest in the lake — but maybe not immediately after they were injured, since some showed signs of healing. For an unknown reason, their lower jaws are missing.

Were they “us” or “them”?

Some hunter-gatherer people are known to deposit animal bones in lakes to encourage their rebirth — you can think of the lake as a womb or perhaps a gateway to the Underworld. And there are traditions of throwing weapons, personal ornaments, and other items into lakes as well.

You could speculate, therefore, that these were “us” — members of that group who were returned to the “womb,” even as the hunters want the animals to be re-born.

On the other hand, heads sticking up on stakes above the water are . . . trophies? guardians? something else?

In an article that I am preparing for the next issue of The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies,1)Free downloads all summer! Diane Purkiss of Oxford University writes,

In creating anodyne and harmless religions, we risk creating powerless religions, religions that cannot address the overpowering emotions that accompany human life. By contrast, our Pagan ancestors understood only too well just how vicious and uncomfortable the relation between the self, time, and nature truly is.

The old-time people had multiple and creative responses to death, we can say that much.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Free downloads all summer!

2 thoughts on “Another Strange Old-Time Pagan Burial Custom

  1. “On the other hand, heads sticking up on stakes above the water are . . . trophies? guardians? something else?”

    This reminds me of part of the Mabinogion in which Bran the Blessed, after a battle tells “the survivors to cut off his head and to return it to Britain. For seven years the seven survivors stay in Harlech, where they are entertained by Bran’s head, which continues to speak. They later move on to Gwales (often identified with Grassholm Island off Dyfed) where they live for eighty years without perceiving the passing of time. Eventually, Heilyn fab Gwyn opens the door of the hall facing Cornwall and the sorrow of what had befallen them returns. As instructed they take the now silent head to the Gwynfryn, the “White Hill” (thought to be the location where the Tower of London now stands), where they bury it facing France so as to ward off invasion. The imagery of the talking head is widely considered to derive from the ancient Celtic “cult of the head”; the head was considered the home of the soul.” (from Wikipedia)

    Also, the Daily Mail had this article about Iron Age Celts rubbing oil into heads before displaying them as trophies: https : // www . dailymail . co . uk / sciencetech / article-6659293 / Iron-Age-Celts-rubbed-OIL-severed-heads-victims-preserve-them . html

    So maybe the heads on stakes were trophies?

    • Also, there’s this article from Discover Magazine regarding the same practice by Iron Age Celts: https : // www . discovermagazine . com / planet-earth / ancient-celts-decapitated-their-enemies-and-saved-their-heads-archaeologists-say

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