Stabbed in the Back and Buried Face-Down: A Deviant Medieval Burial Found in Sicily
Researchers have announced a grisly find in Sicily, Italy. They have discovered a bizarre 1000-year-old Medieval grave. It contained the skeleton of a man who met a violent death and was buried face-down. His burial, known as a ‘deviant burial,’ is the first of its kind found on the Italian island and it is providing experts with a better understanding of Sicily during a period of bloody change.
A team of archaeologists led by Roberto Miccichè from the University of Palermo in Italy made the discovery in Piazza Armerina , in the south-east of Sicily. They found a shallow grave with a complete skeleton that was in a prone position. The team was surprised by the find as it did not correspond to any other Medieval burials on the island .
Piazza Armerina, Enna, Sicily, Italy. (Mattis/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
The human remains were examined “using bioarchaeological and forensic anthropology methods”, reports the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology . It was established that the man died about 1000 AD. This was a very important time in the history of Sicily when the Arabs, who had successfully ruled the island for over two centuries, were ruthlessly expelled by the Normans. This led to big social, religious, and political changes on the island. The skeleton was that of a mature man aged between 30 and 40. The experts used computer simulations and 3-D modeling to understand the cause of his death.
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They discovered that the man had been stabbed to death and in a particular way. LiveScience reports that “there was evidence of six cuts on the individual's sternum (breastbone) that were indicative of stab wounds likely inflicted by a knife or dagger ”. Part of the breastbone was damaged, possibly during the removal of the knife. The skeleton shows no other wounds that would indicate that he was involved in a struggle or a battle.
Example of a dagger called a misericorde. This weapon was used in the High Middle Ages of Europe to deliver a death stroke (or mercy stroke), usually to a seriously wounded knight. ( Public Domain )
LiveScience quotes the leader of the archaeologists as stating that, “the assailant likely knew human anatomy very well”. This would indicate that the man’s killer was trained and experienced, possibly an executioner, assassin, or a soldier. The nature of the cuts was such that they indicate the victim was tied up before he died.
After further investigations using computer simulations, the team was able to establish that the man was probably kneeling when he died, and this would strongly suggest that he was executed. Based on the cuts to the bones, it appears the killer thrust the knife through the thorax, piercing the victim’s vital organs. It seems likely that the man who was found buried faced down died very quickly.
A Deviant Medieval Burial
The experts were amazed by the way that the man had been placed in his grave. The victim was found face down and this was strange for the time. At the time of the man’s death, the island of Sicily was very wealthy and diverse and was home to Jews, Arabs, and Greek-speaking Christians. The burial is not typical of any of these three groups, who had co-existed on the island for centuries. Moreover, the victim was interred without any grave goods, something most unusual in the Middle Ages.
San Giovanni degli Eremiti, a Sicilian church showing elements of Byzantine, Arabic, and Norman architecture. (Sibeaster/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
The burial has been categorized as a deviant burial - a burial that did not conform to the religious and social standards of a society at a given period. This can tell us a lot about the person who was stabbed to death a millennia ago. His unusual burial would indicate that he was viewed in his life as someone who had not conformed to the social order.
It seems likely that he was a criminal or some form of social deviant, for example, someone who was suspected of being a sorcerer. His atypical burial was possibly designed to deny him the prospect of salvation, as a punishment for his life and sins. It was widely believed that those who had died violently often remained on earth as ghosts in the Middle Ages. The man may have been buried face down so that he would not return to haunt the living, especially those responsible for his death.
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Medieval ghost. (Gallowglass/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
Times of Struggle
The fact that this is the only deviant burial in Sicily tells us much about the times. The first half of the 11th century saw the collapse of the Muslim Emirate of Sicily into near anarchy. Then, after the 1060s, the Normans invaded the island and after a 30-year struggle they conquered the island and ruled it for over a century. The find of a deviant burial would indicate that there was much violence and even social breakdown in Sicily in the 11th century.
‘Roger I of Sicily at the Battle of Cerami in 1063’ (circa 1860) by Prosper Lafaye. ( Public Domain )
The identity of the victim is not known but he could have been a Jew, Norman, Greek, or Muslim. More research is being carried out to discover what kind of weapon killed the man. This could add to our knowledge of the death of this man and about the violent times in which he lived.
Top image: This deviant burial is a Medieval murder mystery. Source: Emanuele Canzonieri; Roberto Micciche. et al.
By Ed Whelan