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New research sheds light on burial customs in Medieval Corsica

Over the last twenty years or so, the increasing number of archaeological excavations in Corsica has led to the discovery of a considerable number of burials around the religious buildings of the Middle Ages (5th - 15th centuries).

New research sheds light on burial customs in Medieval Corsica
Two different types of burial in the Medieval cemetery of Sagone illustrate the persistence 
of ancient funerary practices [Credit: CNRS]
Anne-Gaelle Corbara has been working on a doctoral thesis at the University of Aix-Marseille, in conjunction with the University of Cagliari, where she has just won the Accademia Corsa de Nice prize. This work is part of the operations carried out by Daniel Istria (CNRS-LA3M) on the power centres of the bishops based in Ajaccio, Mariana and Sagone.

The objective of this research was to provide a global thematic study of the world of the dead in Corsica in the Middle Ages based on data from the most recent excavations. Its challenges were based on several levels of assessment: the analysis of burial sites and funeral practices, the study of the biological characteristics and health status of buried populations, and the examination of the organization of cemeteries.

More generally, it is a deeper understanding of the relationship with death during the Middle Ages that guided this work, as well as the understanding of people's biological, cultural and social dimensions.

This first synthesis of the Corsican funeral contexts revealed a relative homogeneity of funeral practices and settlements throughout the Middle Ages. The funeral practices, without being very different from the rest of the north-western Mediterranean basin, are quite diverse.

This diversity is particularly evident in the architectural form of the tombs and the materials used, where original characteristics stand out that seem to reflect different traditions and influences, sometimes revealing a true island identity.

For example, the use of tiled tombs, an ancient type of tomb, persists until the middle of the latter Middle Ages and, in another category, the permanence of the rite of the refrigerium, which involves the consumption of meals on tombs made in commemoration of the dead.

The persistence of this practice until the mid-Medieval period is quite exceptional in the north-western Mediterranean. With regard to the method of depositing bodies, individual burial is the most common practice, but some burials have been reused and contain several individuals.

These groups are most often intentional, perhaps involving family groups. Biological studies of buried individuals show that these cemeteries were composed of a majority of adults of both sexes and mature age (30-59 years of age). Children, especially the youngest children (between 0 and 4 years of age), are poorly represented.

As infant mortality was very high during these historical periods, this is somewhat of an anomaly, which is very often encountered in medieval and modern settings, but it is not possible to better quantify the data for Corsica.

The approach to the health status of individuals generally reflects relatively healthy living conditions, far from the image narrated in Giovanni della Grossa's chronicles describing populations killed by famine and epidemics.

The most common pathologies are mainly degenerative bone lesions, such as osteoarthritis, and dental injuries (scarring and wear and tear of teeth), which are fairly common for older, mature populations that lived in mainly rural areas.

Finally, an examination of the organization of these funerary groups shows that they are located in and around the first religious buildings built in the early Middle Ages on the ruins of ancient settlements or necropolises.

Nevertheless, the first centuries of the Middle Ages were characterized by a strong diversification of burials, as the church did not yet participate in the collection of the dead. It was only between the end of the 10th century and the 12th century that real cemeteries began to form around the places of worship, and first and foremost around the cathedrals.

But far from being fixed in a linear scheme over the long period, these funerary sites present periods of occupation contrasting between the 5th and 15th centuries, notably with a hiatus during the late Middle Ages (7th-9th centuries), which the current level of archaeological research cannot yet explain.

The results obtained during this research have provided an initial synthesis of knowledge on the subject in the light of the most recent excavations and laid the foundations for future research. The continuation of archaeological investigations and the deepening of biological studies are already underway.

Source: Corse-Matin [November 08, 2017]

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