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Unusual medieval graves found in Poland


Ten monumental tombs discovered in Sasiny (Podlaskie), initially believed by archaeologists to contain Neolithic burials, were found to be less that 1,000 years old, and made by Christians.

Unusual medieval graves found in Poland
Excavations in Sasiny [Credit: M. Dzik]
The cemetery in Sasiny is located in the northeastern Poland. In the eleventh through to the thirteenth centuries, the area regularly changed hands between the Piast princes and the Rus princes.

"All members of the local community were buried in the study graveyard - both poor and rich, including the elite. Funeral rites were common to all. Each of the deceased was placed in a large burial structure, the edges of which was marked by big boulders," explained Dr. Michał Dzik from the Institute of Archaeology, University of Rzeszów, who heads the excavations in Sasiny.

The graves examined by archaeologists have almost rectangular outlines. The space surrounded by boulders, some of which weigh over half a ton, was filled with several layers of unworked stone, which covered the deceased, who was placed in a wooden coffin or covered with a shroud. Structures of this type have extensive size - on average 5 by 3.5 m.

According to Dr. Dzik, the cemetery served the local community and the unusual graves are the result of the evolution of the local burial customs. According another hypotheses, the form of these graves could have been introduced to the area by settlers from Mazovia, or by warriors of Scandinavian origin who came via Rus.

"Most of the tombs we discovered were partially destroyed, but research results turned out to be very interesting. The burials in their graves have not been disturbed," explained Dr. Dzik.

Unusual medieval graves found in Poland
Reconstruction of the tomb at the site of its discovery [Credit: M. Dzik]
The cemetery is unique because very few similar sites survived to our times. This happened because the local population in Mazovia and Podlasie (where they occurred) acquired stones from them for building material.

"It is also surprising that the Christians were buried here, although the form of graves could suggest otherwise - flat cemeteries with the pit graves dominated in Wielkopolska or Malopolska at that time," said Dr. Dzik.

According to the researcher, although Christianity had already been introduced in the Polish-Rus borderland in the eleventh/thirteenth centuries, many old pagan customs had still been retained. One of them could be the form of graves.

"In the second half of the eleventh century cremation was quickly becoming less common. At the same time, barrows with stone structures underneath were no longer built. We believe that the reason was the prohibitions introduced with the spread of Christianity. In the same period tombs in stone enclosures became popular, but without burial mounds," said the archaeologist.

During the examination of individual graves, archaeologists discovered traces of burial customs from pre-Christian times - such as bonfires made within the tomb before backfilling, or fragments of smashed vessels placed next to the deceased, possibly vessels used during the wakes.

Unusual medieval graves found in Poland
Selection of ornaments discovered in one of the graves of women [Credit: M. Dzik]
Dr. Dzik doubts that Christian priests were present during funeral ceremonies at similar cemteries, which could also contribute to the persistence of the old customs.

Numerous ornaments discovered next to the deceased caught the attention of archaeologists - including dozens of glass beads, silver and silver-plated temple rings, pendants in the form of a crescent moon with a cross (i.e. lunulae). Discovered items indicate that at least some of the dead were buried in a rich, probably festive attire.

"Some of the ornaments were made very precisely, using complex jewellery techniques. Some might find it surprising that the community considered to be living on the edge of the world had such a high material culture," noted the researcher.

Author: Szymon Zdziebłowski | Source: PAP - Science and Scholarship in Poland [October 17, 2016]
TANN

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