Welcome to the macabre world of ‘execution site archaeology'

The burial grounds beneath old gallows and scaffolds tend to be ignored by scientists. But owing to the work of a new breed of archaeologist, we're learning more about the horrific ways medieval prisoners were tortured and killed — and how the executioners lived.

News of this latest trend comes to us by virtue of a recent Der Spiegel article describing the work of execution site archaeologists Marita Genesis and Jost Auler.

Welcome to the macabre world of ‘execution site archaeology'

Indeed, there are plenty of worthwhile sites to investigate in Europe. Later this year, the archaeologists plan to dig-up the remains beneath an executioner’s scaffold in the southeastern Austrian state of Styria and investigate the gallows in the Bavarian town of Pottenstein.

By meticulously sifting through these ancient burial sites and studying the remains of executed prisoners, these scientists are uncovering a surprising amount of historical information, much of it not found in the surviving texts.

For example:

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.

Welcome to the macabre world of ‘execution site archaeology'

They’re also learning about the executioners themselves:

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.

Be sure to read the entire article at Der Spiegel as there’s much more, including the ways in which witches and potential vampires were treated.

Image: Der Spiegel.