Friday, September 22, 2006

18th Century Execution Burials

As part of my research into Late 1st Millennium central places in Östergötland, I'm trawling through the excellent on-line catalogue of the Museum of National Antiquities in Stockholm. It's got a rough classification into Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age, Middle Ages and post-Reformation, so it gets rid of a lot of irrelevant stuff for me automatically. But it doesn't differentiate between the Early and Late Iron Age (either side of AD 400), and sometimes the museum curators have misdated a find entirely. So I get to look at a lot of cool (and heaps of not-so-cool) finds that have nothing to do with what I'm really after.

This way, I've run into two funny post-Reformation burials, both probably 18th century. One was at Galgbacken near the town of Skänninge. The other was in the rural prehistoric cemetery of Smörkullen in Västra Tollstad parish, famous for its rich Roman Period inhumations. The first thing to note about these burials is that neither site has ever had a church, and that in 18th century Sweden burial anywhere but in a churchyard was extremely rare. These people were clearly victims of execution or freelance murder.

The name Galgbacken ("Gallows' Hill") provides an instant explanation for one burial. Skänninge's town gallows were moved to the site in about 1670. Times were rough: the sentence of a man executed there in 1672 states that "the general public of this town requests that this evil thief might finally be gotten rid of, as they can never feel safe for his thieving ways".

A Medieval execution cemetery outside the nearby town of Vadstena was excavated in 2005, as mentioned here before.

Bror Schnittger reports that the body he excavated at Skänninge had been buried on its back in a shallow grave, legs tightly folded at the knees with the feet below the left hip, probably to cram the body into a very short grave cut. (One can imagine the hangman's assistant jumping on the body to force it into place.) Remains of a woollen female dress with hook-and-eye fastenings in the back were found, and at the right knee (that is, at one end of the cut) were small iron nails and remains of birch bark, possibly from a little casket. Beside the grave was a rectangular stone pavement without sign of any burial, and a stone-covered skeleton had been found on an earlier occasion during gravel extraction at the site.

The Smörkullen grave looks more like a clandestine affair, possibly a murder victim. This guy was buried with his fine coat and shoes on and with a brass snuff box still in his pocket. Still, the body was placed in a prehistoric inhumation cemetery, which indicates that the people disposing of it gave some thought to where they put it. Perhaps this is another (rather affluent) execution victim, laid to rest among pagans. The fact that the body wasn't stripped suggests that it was considered unclean in some way, perhaps due to a transgression so vile that not even the poor wanted the man's gear. Bestiality was for instance commonly punished by death, sometimes taking the form of joint public execution of both the mammals involved in the forbidden act. But we may note that no coins were found. Pecunia non olet.

The 18th century has a good historical record even in backward Sweden. It is possible to find detailed documentation, if not for these individual deaths, then at least for similar ones and generally about capital punishment at the time. I've got to follow this lead one day out of sheer morbid curiosity.

SHM 15694. Ög, Allhelgona sn, Lagmansberga, Karlsborg, Galgbacken.
SHM 14273. Ög, Västra Tollstad, Alvastra, Smörkullen, grave 32.

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Blogger Malin Sandström said...

Oh, cool. I had no idea such a database existed! I can actually look at everything found in and around Mjölby (where I grew up) - and the ones that are classified/catalogued by Riksantikvarieämbetet I can see on a map. History kind of becomes much more real when you find out it "happened" close to your best friends house...

22 September, 2006 23:35  
Anonymous Andrew O'Hara said...

Very interesting and well thought out conclusions.

22 September, 2006 23:44  

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