Medieval pandemics spawned fears of the undead, burials reveal
An analysis of graves shows a spike in people buried face-down as plagues ravaged German-speaking Europe. What were the living trying to achieve?
In 2014, Swiss anthropologist Amelie Alterauge was just a few days into her new job at Bern University’s Institute of Forensic Medicine in Switzerland when she was called to investigate an odd burial in a centuries-old cemetery that was being excavated ahead of a construction project. Of some 340 burials in the cemetery, one stood out: a middle-aged man, interred face-down in a neglected corner of the churchyard. “I had never seen such a burial in real life before,” says Alterauge.
Excavators found an iron knife and purse full of coins in the crook of his arm, positioned as though they had once been concealed under his clothes. The coins helped archaeologists date the body to between 1630 and 1650,