Archaeology: Magic In Burial Context

In late medieval burials (between the 11th and the 15th centuries), in Britain, archaeologist found a couple of objects and materials which might give us a hint of magical rituals for the dead still held during these periods.

Healing charms, protective amulets, objects linked to the occult and practices that may have been associated with the demonic magic of divination or sorcery. All the sort of exciting things an archaeologist might come about on an archaeological intervention, which might help us to understand the mind of our ancestors and how it changed through the course of history.

It is known that the placement of amulets and charms with the dead was something common in christian belief, with the intention to protect the dead body and the soul. These kind of magical objects have a clear connection with folk magic, mostly performed by women and drawing on knowledge of earlier traditions.

Things don’t change from one day to another. It takes time to bury the traditions of the past and welcome the new ones. So it’s perfectly normal that popular magic remained for a long while even in the christian world and during the process of the adaptation of the masses to the new religious reality. Christianity in some places tolerated local magical traditions, in a way to appease the populations so that the drastic changes wouldn’t make the people riot against the clergy and it would be fairly easy to convert pagans to christians slowly and safe. However, if we think about the christian beliefs, it is very important to protect the body and leave it intact, to ensure the corpse reanimation on judgment day just the way a person was before death. Cremation came to an end with the coming of christianity, because the body was supposed to remain intact till the journey through purgatory and to appear before god with our body unspoiled by decay. But people knew that the body on earth, even wrapped in a sudarium, would eventually decay and rot away, and that was a major problem in the mind of the christians and it actually caused panic and fear. So, tolerating the old pagan beliefs in placing charms and protective amulets on the dead, was a sort of way to ensure that the body was protected from all evil and to ensure it reached the judgment day intact.

Archaeologists are always reluctant in explaining what they have found by comparing it with folklore, spiritual and magical beliefs. Unlike what people might think (and trust me, I’m an archaeologist in the making) the occult most of the time is left behind because society is more concerned with the scientific material rather than a folkloric explanation. But truth be told, the spiritual beliefs of our ancestors are just as important as a scientific explanation. We cannot dissociate one thing from the other, because if we understand the way of thinking of our ancestors, we will better understand what we find on an archaeological context, especially when it comes to deal with death (and trust me – again – in archaeology there is a lot of death). There are a lot of questions  when dealing with different kinds of burials from different periods of history. Why the body was disposed in such a way for instance, or why are there certain objects on a grave or why the post-mortem factors, and so on. To understand the spiritual beliefs of our ancestors, is to understand what we have found and it will just enhance our explanation of the findings

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