Skeletons found buried in foundations of 11th c. castle

The excavation of Břeclav Castle in the Czech Republic, has unearthed the skeletal remains of three people in the medieval foundations, possibly the victims of ritual sacrifice. The individuals were found under the 11th century walls discovered last year. They had been placed next to each other over the first layer of stone of the rampart and their positions suggest they may have been tied together. An iron object a foot and a half long was placed over them. It is tapered on one end, but the object is too corroded to be identified.

“These unfortunates seem to have fallen victim to some drastic pagan practice, or murder”, explains [archaeologist Miroslav] Dejmal. “It is hard to imagine that all three died at the same time by accident. And most importantly, placing them on the first layer of stones of the newly rampart and the position of the bodies, suggests they were in fact sacrificed.” […]

“Next week, together with anthropologists, we will try to learn more about the dead. We’ll see if we can find out if they were related or whether they were ‘locals’. It has been suggested that they might be slaves, possibly prisoners of war, who were used to build the walls and then perhaps sacrificed or executed. Even though the rampart builders had been converted to Christianity by around 1050, many, often harsh, pagan practices still survived.”

I would hesitate to chalk this up to the work of crypto-pagans. The builder of the castle, Bretislav I, Duke of Bohemia, was Christian, as was his father, his father before him and so on all the way back to the first Duke of Bohemia, Bořivoj I, in the 9th century. The Přemyslid dynasty includes two saints, Ludmila and her grandson Wenceslaus of Christmas carol fame. Christianity was well-established by the early 11th century, two denominations of it (Slavic Orthodox and Roman Catholic), no less. If the trio was indeed sacrificed for the good of the castle, you can’t assume Bretislav and/or his subordinates didn’t have knowledge of it or even a hand in it. It certainly couldn’t have been done without people on site being aware of it.

Foundation sacrifice stories abound in the folklore of many cultures around the world. Numerous countries in Eastern Europe — Serbia, Albania, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary — have folk songs dedicated to a legendary foundation sacrifice. The Walled-Up Wife and its many variants tell of masons building a castle whose work is magically dismantled every night. They learn that they must wall up the first woman who visits the next day in order to break the nefarious spell and finish construction. The architect’s wife turns out to be the unfortunate victim.

Folklorists beginning with Jacob Grimm, the elder of the fairy tale-collecting brothers, have hypothesized that the foundation sacrifice stories originate with pre-Christian rituals dedicated to appeasing deities/spirits of the landscape angered by people building things on their turfs. Want to build a bridge over a river? Better give the river god some recompense for all the future drowning victims he’s going to miss out on.

The New Statistical Account of Scotland (1845) recounts that no less Christian a figure than St. Columba, the Irish missionary who evangelized the Scots in the 6th century, buried his best friend in the foundations of the monastery of Iona.

When Columba first attempted to build on lona, the walls, it is said, by the operation of some evil spirit, fell down as fast as they were erected. Columba received supernatural information that they would never stand unless a human victim was buried alive. According to one account, the lot fell on Oran, the companion of the saint, as the victim that was demanded for the success of the undertaking. Others pretend that Oran voluntarily devoted himself, and was interred accordingly. At the end of three days Columba had the curiosity to take a farewell look at his old friend, and caused the earth to be removed. Oran raised his swimming eyes, and said, “There is no wonder in death, and hell is not as it is reported.” The saint  was so shocked at this impiety that he instantly ordered the earth to be flung in again, uttering the words, “Uir! Uir!  air beal Orain ma’n labhair e tuile comh’radh,” that is, “Earth! Earth! on the mouth of Oran that he may blab no more.”

The author shares the juicy story but doubts its veracity, accusing the “druids” of having made it all up to slander Columba and Christianity “especially as the savage rite imputed to him was only practised by the heathens.” 

7 thoughts on “Skeletons found buried in foundations of 11th c. castle

  1. I guess there is a lot of educated guessing with archeological studies. Imagine if sacrificing someone when you want to build a house now adays…

  2. With every facelift of the kitchen floor, it is probably never a mistake to afterwards do a quick headcount.

    What nowadays is referred to as ‘Ehrenbürg’ is a double-peaked hill in Upper Franconia and a settlement site from the early Neolithic (appr. 4000 BCE). The Prussians, for example, were pagan still in late medieval times, and maybe those –presumably even Christian– skeletons had as priests been slain elsewhere.

    Back to the ‘Ehrenbürg’: “Archaeological finds indicate that during the Hallstatt and La Tène periods, the hill was the site of human sacrifices, possibly including cannibalism. Some human bones, such as a woman’s skeleton which was unnaturally bent and buried under boulders, appear to be sacrifices for the luck of a building; some skulls have been cut up and had holes bored in them for use as amulettes; the armless and legless skeleton of a baby, and discarded fragments of human bones with cut marks, both suggest cannibalism.”

    However, from the pictures that I remember, that lady had been cut in half and only the upper bit was found. Also the bits of that baby were deliberately distributed. Neither of them clearly suggest cannibalism, but instead indeed economical use of sacrifice underneath of particular small “cellars”, several of which the remains were geophysically detected.

    PS: The locals refer to the ‘Ehrenbürg’ in Frankish dialect as “Walberla”, which stands for St. Walburga, an Anglo-Saxon missionary to the Frankish Empire, (or otherwise known from “Sankt Walpurgisnacht”, or Mayday), and there even is a chapel dedicated to her on that hill. Walpurga was not slain at all and became a nun in the Heidenheim monastery, founded by her brother Willibald, where she died ‘piecefully’.

  3. Maybe there was plague, and instead of staying home one family went for a picnic at the construction site, to enjoy the views. Construction sites are dangerous places, and a pile of stone slipped and crushed the family.

    So take care folks, stay away from any wall building involving folks with guns.

  4. Unless GIFs allude to the late twentieth-century American TV masterpiece The Brady Bunch :chicken:

  5. Trevor – you’re right! OSHA will be on the general contractor in no time flat. Those nail and screw guns can do some serious damage if handled improperly.

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