In the mid-to-late 19th century, just as Scandy (and thus, it’s fair to say, world) archaeology was making its first big breakthroughs, a lot of furnished 11th century female burials unexpectedly turned up in the churchyards of Gotland. The chain of events that led to this windfall of new data is convoluted and, in my opinion, quite fascinating.
Gotland is a large limestone island in the Baltic and a province of Sweden. Its first organised Christian congregations came together in the early 11th century, and they had some rather unusual burial customs. They had already practiced inhumation as pagans for two centuries. When they left the pagan cemeteries and started new Christian ones, many congregations continued to furnish the graves. (I wrote about this at length in my PhD thesis, vol. 2, ch. 4). The new cemeteries were gender segregated, so that women were buried to the left (north) when one faced the altar, and men to the right (south). Furnished burial petered out in the early 12th century, but gender segregation continued for some time longer.
These people had very concrete and literal ideas about Resurrection. On Judgement Day, their Maker would appear in the morning sky, and they would rise bodily from their graves to greet him. Thus everybody was buried with their feet toward the east for convenience. In the 13th century, the Gotlanders suddenly stopped using the northern halves of their churchyards. Some authors maintain that this was because the female, sinister side had become connected to ideas about bad luck and evil spirits in a rather vague way. But others point to writings of the time that suggest that when the angel sounds the trumpet on Judgement Day, then all churches will collapse, and they will collapse northward. This will make it very hard for anyone buried there to get out from under the pile of rubble to meet their Maker.
Christian churchyards are very unsafe places for anyone who wishes to enjoy eternal rest. Whereas a pagan cemetery can expand in all directions with impunity, a Christian one has a wall around its hallowed ground, a wall outside of which only suicides and unchristened babies may be buried. Thus churchyards tend to get crowded really quickly, and soon need an ossuary to store all the bones that surface when new graves are dug into old ones. For this reason, 11th century male graves are almost unknown from the churchyards of Gotland: they were all destroyed by grave digging in the Middle Ages. But the coeval female graves lay undisturbed in the shady northern part of the cemeteries — until the dramatic population expansion of the 19th century.
Man of letters, bishop etc. Esaias Tegnér famously explained this expansion with reference to “peace, vaccine and potatoes”. Sweden has had peace since 1814, smallpox vaccination came into widespread use in 1801, and the Swedes finally did learn to eat the potatoes instead of making vodka from them. This meant, with time, that the churchyards of Gotland became so crowded that something had to be done. In many parishes, what people did was to break the six centuries old taboo on burial north of the church. And so their Viking Period great-great-great grandmothers’ rest finally began to be disturbed.
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