The Hangman's Tale Archaeologists Dig into History of Execution

For years, few were interested in unearthing what lay beneath old gallows and scaffolds. But, in Germany, growing interest in "execution site archaeology" is throwing much light on how the executed died and the executors lived.

Her interests initially focused on fashion, but then they migrated to murder and decay. Marita Genesis, 42, worked as a runway model for Escada after graduating from secondary school. Later, she studied ancient and early history, and learned about criminal law.

Now, the archaeologist is surrounded by criminals. She is standing in a storeroom belonging to the Thuringia State Office for the Preservation of Monuments and pointing at a number of bones. These are the remains of thieves, sodomites and child murderers.

The skeletons were found near Alkersleben, not far from the eastern German city of Erfurt, where the counts of Kevernburg punished criminals over 700 years ago.

On a hill directly overlooking the trade route to Nuremberg, visible far and wide, the executioner went about his grim business. He kept his head covered with a hood -- not out of repugnance, but to protect himself from the "evil eye" of the condemned.

Researchers have unearthed the remains of some 70 people, which are now undergoing an anthropological evaluation. One of the dead was tied up, another lay next to an iron strangulation chain. A third had been buried along with a sharp blade. "It could be the murder weapon," says Genesis.

The native of Potsdam, outside Berlin, has just completed her dissertation on this execution site. She is one of many hard-nosed researchers hunting for secrets under old gallows and scaffolds.

The latest astonishing findings show that a chaotic jumble of bones lies inside the mounds. "Some outlaws were hung so long by their necks that they decayed and fell down. Then they were contemptuously disposed of in unhallowed ground," explains Jost Auler, a historian from the western German town of Dormagen. "There is no mention of this in any of the old documents."

Auler, celebrated as Germany's "gallows king," is widely viewed as the pioneer of the movement. He has published three volumes on "execution site archaeology." In his most recent book, released last November, nearly 40 fellow colleagues report on "beheading sites," "tumbrels" (the vehicles used to carry the condemned to the execution site) and the trade in corpses destined for physicians' dissecting tables.

A Messy Job

Epileptics reportedly collected and drank the blood of Schinderhannes, the famous German outlaw sometimes compared to Robin Hood, in the belief that it would heal them. It's said that the head of German pirate Klaus Störtebeker was impaled on a spike along the banks of the Elbe River.

But is this true? How did our forefathers actually dispense justice? The old "eyesores" were largely ignored for many years, Auler says in reference to execution sites, "and yet they were just as much a part of the scenery as windmills."

Now, there is renewed interest in these gruesome places. An executioner's scaffold rises seven meters (23 feet) into the air in the southeastern Austrian state of Styria, where an archaeological dig is to begin this spring. Farther north, in the Bavarian town of Pottenstein, a team is also investigating the decaying ruins of the local gallows.

The evidence they find testifies to the brutality of the Middle Ages. The archaeologists often discover scattered remains. Many cities allowed miscreants to hang in the wind for years. Ravens pecked away at their flesh and pulled the corpses apart. At one point in time, 30 criminals were rotting together on the gallows in Augsburg, near Munich. Afterwards, they were tossed into small pits like garbage. Such perfunctory burials in unconsecrated ground were common.

It was hardly any more appetizing for those who were broken on the wheel. This was the most ignominious of all punishments. The torturer broke the offender's ribs and extremities before weaving him or her onto a wheel, which was then attached to a pole to allow the condemned to be raised into the air and placed on display. "There were individuals who survived this torture and were pardoned," says Auler.

Would-be assassin Robert François Damiens, who dared to attack King Louis XV, suffered even more. Bailiffs used sulfur to burn the hand that held the dagger. Pincers were used to tear flesh from his arms, breast and thighs, and molten lead was poured in the wounds.

His subsequent drawing and quartering initially failed, even though six horses were used. It was only possible to tear the unfortunate man apart after the sinews in his shoulders and hips had been bloodily severed.

It was rather rare, however, that audiences were treated to such extravagant public orgies of torture. Instead, the archaeological evidence suggests that decapitation was a very common form of execution. The condemned had to kneel down, whereupon he or she received a massive blow from behind with a sword. In the 17th century, axes and chopping blocks came into fashion.

Young executioners, of course, had to pass tests to show that they had the requisite skills. Despite practicing on heads of cabbage, they often missed their mark and only hit the delinquent's back or skull. This can also be proven based on the remains that have been discovered.

Still, archaeologists remain puzzled by a woman's skeleton that was found on the site of the new Berlin Brandenburg Airport. The corpse was unearthed in a ditch near the village of Selchow, 15 kilometers (nine miles) from the nearest execution site. The skull was lying on a lower leg bone, indicating that she had been decapitated.

But where is her neck? Nearly all of her cervical vertebrae are missing.

Atonement and Deterrence

Executioners tortured and maimed their victims, often toiling in a cloud of putrefaction. It's no wonder others shunned them. Their profession was viewed as "disreputable," and innkeepers often refused to serve them. Executioner families only married among themselves.

Yet executioners had other, more useful duties. They rendered animal corpses, castrated dogs and cleaned prisons. And they were well versed in the healing arts and surgery.

Indeed, since executioners could neatly remove the feet of poachers, the hands of thieves and the fingers of perjurers, they were also skillful at removing diseased body parts. When branding criminals, they had to work expertly with a glowing-hot piece of iron and later rub gunpowder into the wound.

Despite their useful anatomical knowledge, executioners retained a sinister reputation. And though praised for doing "God's work" in the "Sachsenspiegel" ("Mirror of the Saxons"), a legal code drafted in the 13th century, most executioners were ostracized by society. They wore gloves because no one wanted to touch them.

What's more, they had no qualms about making sordid deals with body parts. They sold human fat and traded in pubic hairs, fingers and brain tissue as a basis for magic remedies. But their main job remained hanging. "Most death sentences were carried out with the noose," says Auler.

Hanging went like this: A greased rope was placed around the criminal's neck and he was shoved from a ladder. That was rarely enough to break his neck, though, because the drop wasn't big enough. Instead, the rope constricted the neck arteries. At best, the fall would abruptly cut off the blood supply to the brain, causing a loss of consciousness after about five seconds. At worst, people would wriggle and choke until they asphyxiated.

That is how they died, the sinners of the past: tortured, clubbed and strangulated. "At the time, no one thought of resocialization," says Auler. "It was all about atonement and deterrence."

But that wasn't always enough for medieval proponents of torture and execution. To be on the safe side, witches were burned until nothing but ashes remained.

Near the eastern German town of Alkersleben, a skeleton was discovered buried under a thick layer of stones. The man had apparently been weighed down to make it impossible for him to escape the grave.

Perhaps he was a vampire.

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen