Bones in the Backyard German Archaeologists Uncover Long History of Executions

Some contemporary German backyards served as gallows sites hundreds of years ago. Germans have long come across skeletons accidentally, but now archaeologists are actively seeking them out.

Kurt Bachmann and his son Uwe had barely begun to dig when they hit something hard. They stopped short. Then the two dug a little more, and were astounded at what they saw. Bones lay just under the turf, exactly where they were planning to lay the foundation for their new summer cabin in Hessisch Lichtenau, a town in central Germany.

It was a human skeleton. It lay stretched out, arms crossed tidily over the torso. The strangest part was that the head was no longer attached to the neck, but rested between the skeleton's knees.

The Bachmanns called the local history association and an archaeological work group professionally salvaged some of the bones. Until, that is, the cabin was ready to be laid atop the foundation. The diggers didn't unearth the feet quite in time. They still lie under the floor of the cabin.

Every City Executed Criminals

It quickly became clear what Kurt and Uwe Bachmann had found in their garden. Their neighborhood is known as "gallows hill" and "gallows knoll." The misplaced head is the latest proof: the skeleton in the garden almost certainly died by a blow from a sword.

Carbon dating set the time of death between 1256 and 1388. The Bachmann's plot of land apparently lies on a site once used for executions.

Archaeologist Jost Auler specializes in places of execution, and considers the Bachmann case to be exemplary. "Medieval and early modern gallows and execution sites are long since forgotten, and covered in dense housing complexes," he said. Auler wants to change all that.

"No one has systematically dealt with execution sites up to now. They always lie outside towns, in open fields -- and so simply didn't belong to the repertoire of urban archaeologists."

So far researchers have studied some 50 sites -- a tiny fraction of the toal, considering that every state and town once had their own execution grounds where they punished criminals. In most cases there were not one but two sites for bloody punishments. The first would be the gallows, the second a stone on which executioners beheaded criminals with swords or axes. People called these pedestals "raven stones" after the black scavengers who circled above the execution sites, waiting for the onlookers to disperse and leave them to their feast.

For a beheading, executioners required only a raised surface, whereas gallows were often enormous structures up to four meters high. After executions, corpses would hang on gallows until decay and gravity pulled individual body parts to the ground -- the suspension arrangement had to offer room for a number of bodies. The execution sites were a very visible symbol for how severely towns would punish criminals.

Crushed, Smashed, Wrecked

Execution sites mostly lie along major roads. If a stranger wanted to near a dominion, he first had to pass the gallows -- a clear warning to behave themselves.

Auler and his colleagues are still researching these and other facts. By now they are able to reconstruct the imposing gallows and to retrace the daily life of executioners. In addition to killing, part of their job was to arrange and display the corpses in as gruesome a manner as possible. A discovery in Langenfeld in the Rhine region demonstrated that the areas around execution sites would be set up in gruesome fashion. An excavator discovered the skull of a young woman that still bore remains of a hood with expensive brocade lace. An iron nail almost a half meter long was pierced through the entire skull. The executioner had used the nail to fix her severed head onto a post.

It looked similar to the famous skull found in 1878 in Hamburg, often attributed to the pirate Klaus Störtebeker or his crony Gödeke Michels. The post the skull hung on had rotted away and left stains in the ground, so-called "post holes."

Of course, convicts might also have suffered by way of the notorious "wheel." This punishment was reserved for the worst of all crimes, murder or treason. Using the wheel involved pegging the convict down on the ground with his or her extremities spread wide. Then the executioner would repeatedly drop an iron-mounted wheel onto the victim.

A skeleton from Friedlandburg near Göttingen demonstrates what kind of mess this brutal procedure produced. The ribs are shattered, lower legs and forearms broken, the skull's left temple shattered.

The Dreaded Wheel

Those lucky enough to have a merciful judge might hope for a wheel "from above." That way the first blows would hit the head or neck. Then the convict would not feel the rest of the orgy of violence.

There was also a punishment involving the wheel "from below." The executioner delivered blow after blow to each of the extremities. When the body was crushed, it was spiked through with the spokes of the wheel and displayed at the execution site. Sometimes the convicts would live for hours through these punishments. The bodies were then left to the weather, decomposition and scavengers. The longest documented exposure time on a wheel was for three years.

Aside from mauled remains of skeletons and bits of posts, the archaeologists find a lot of animal bones at execution sites. "Executioners weren't very well-paid in that period," said Auler. "So the state also allowed them to be responsible for disposing of animal cadavers."

Executioners didn't always bring the dead animals to the same bone yard as humans. They often ended up under the gallows, in shared mass graves with the executed, as they did in the Swiss town of Emmenbrücke. Archaeologists digging there found a thick tangle of people and horse bodies, hastily buried -- or "holed" as the jargon has it.

The person killed at Hessisch Lichtenau was lucky, then. He could rest for centuries with his head between his knees, neatly arranged in the earth. But what will be done with his bones remains uncertain. No museum wants them. And a reinternment? Should the remains of a presumptive criminal seven centuries after his death finally be buried in consecrated ground?

The archaeologist is against it. "The bones belong in the storeroom of the proper archaeological site," said Auler. He argues this is the only way to allow later research.

Uwe Bachmann, the property owner, put the remains in a crate for now. And he left the feet to rest in peace under his new cabin.


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