Deviant Burials in Early Medieval Ireland

Defining ‘deviant’ behavior in the past can be difficult. The term itself means departing from the norm. In modern societies or historic ones with text, deviance can easily be measured against the other forms of behavior or contemporary interpretations of it. The problem is how to interpret deviance when we haven’t defined a norm. For many ancient societies, the norm isn’t known due to a lack of archaeological or textual evidence, and we rely on a few samples to set the standard. For example, it isn’t well understood how Anglo-Saxon burial practices like the ship burials or bed burials relate to the more commonly seen practices of more basic cremation and inhumation. However, as burials become more standardized with the rise of Christianity, deviance can be more easily determined although the meaning behind it can remain elusive.

Farrell (2012) examines deviance from Christain burial standards in early medieval Ireland. By burying individuals in a manner that deviates from the standard burial, the community is solidifying a similar type of deviance that occurred in the person’s life or death. Behavior that acts against common social values is punished in death by setting the individual apart. Deviant individuals can include witches, criminals, suicides, disabled individuals, diseased individuals, or someone who suffered an unusual or violent deaths (Parker Pearson 1993). In Christain burial grounds deviance can also mean that they were un-baptized or broke some religious code by continuing pagan practices. A normal Christain burial means the body is oriented west to east, is in an extended or lightly flexed supine position, with no grave goods, and is simply inhumed rather than cremated.

Burial from Ireland, 8th c. with stone in mouth, via Daily Mail UK

Farrell (2012) identifies a number of treatments found in early medieval Ireland which could indicate deviance, including prone burials, decapitations, isolated burials or burials in unusual places, amputations, and stones placed on a grave or body. Removal of the head or another body part was believed to prevent the individual from rising on Judgement Day, and therefore removing the individual from those who will be saved. The removal of body parts can be seen as part of an execution or crime, with the loss relating to the crime committed such as thieves losing their hands. Stones can be found around the head of an individual, and are an indication of penance according to texts. However, placement of a large number of stones within the grave could be a sign of punishment or fear- a way to prevent the dead from rising or haunting. The placement of a rock within the mouth has often been linked to vampires or zombies, and was common during the 8th century in Ireland. Face down or prone burials are often interpreted as negative since the face is directly in the earth. The soul of the individual would be prevented from rising on Judgement Day, trapped within the body. A change in orientation is also related to this. Finally, isolated burials are signs of deviance due to their placement outside of sacred burial grounds. They may have been specifically isolate or buried in a hurry in a convenient area such as a ditch.

Farrell (2012) finds evidence for all these types of burial archaeologically, and argues they all represent deviance. Each deviates from the standard Christian burial, and may have different meaning. Most are related to religion and the prevention of rising during Judgement Day. While she does a thorough job of understanding the negative connotations, it is also important to recognize that deviance is not always negative. Many burials that are dissimilar are actually elite burials. Deviance can be a positive thing. Individuals who lived extraordinary lives may have extraordinary burials. Those from an elite or ruling class, while a minority population, may have burials that are very different. Difference can also be due to different religious beliefs, ethnic background or special position within society.

We also need to be careful that we aren’t too heavily relying on a small number of texts, a small sample population or modern interpretations. Especially for the population examined by Farrell (2012) it is important to recognize that the symbolism behind these burials may change drastically over time. Burials from the 5th century may have been deviant if they displayed more Christian associations, but at the end of the 12th century the reverse would be true of pagan associations. We need to be careful that we examine each ‘deviant’ burial within the appropriate cultural and temporal context, rather than just broadly looking at Christian versus everything else. Our own understanding of what makes a Christian burial has changed, and our modern perceptions can strongly bias us. Deviance is interesting, but must be approached carefully in the past.

Works Cited

Farrell, M 2012. Prone, stoned, and losing the head: Deviant burials in early medieval Ireland in the 5th to 12th centuries. In Trowel, Vol 13. AIYA Proceedings. Electronic Document:

9 responses to “Deviant Burials in Early Medieval Ireland

  1. Hi Katy

    very interesting post

    There is an error in the link, the link is for another of the articles in this journal issue (about Afghanistan), not the article cited

    The link for this issue:

    There is tails of a documentary about these Irish burials in youtube, i have put these on a Embded-viewer in a post from my blog:

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  4. ” Face down or prone burials are often interpreted as negative since the face is directly in the earth. The soul of the individual would be prevented from rising on Judgement Day, trapped within the body.”

    Is that the conventional way it’s read by archaeologists? What I know about this I largely know from John Blair’s work on it and one or two other individual burials’ publications, and the impression I’d got from that was that the concern was not with Judgement Day (when presumably everybody will be raised because no-one gets left out of the Final Judgement surely!) but with the lifetimes of those carrying out the burial. That is to say, this was meant to stop the dead walking, or so I’d understood. Have you met that explanation, and if so, have you decided against it? Thanks for any discussion, and of course also for the interesting post!

    • It really depends on when we’re talking about judgement day and who’s beliefs they are. How we are raised and whether we are raised is very regionally and temporally specific. So yes, some groups think everyone will rise. Others think that those who aren’t face up and facing east will be unable to be judged. The face down burial was rarely meant to stop the dead from rising like zombies, and would be more likely in Caribbean cultures where zombies existed. Zombies weren’t a thing in the western Christian cultures, so we’d need to look for alternative explanations. It may also just been a sign a general disrespect, obviously putting someone face down in the dirt isn’t a very respectful burial!

      • Zombies weren’t a thing in the western Christian cultures

        You say? I could give you two references at least that say different, and not jokers either:
        Nancy Caciola, “Wraiths, Revenants and Ritual in Medieval Culture”, Past and Present 152 (Oxford 1996), pp. 3-45;
        John Blair, “The Dangerous Dead in Early Medieval England”, in Early Medieval Studies in Memory of Patrick Wormald, edd. Stephen Baxter, Catherine E. Karkov, Janet L. Nelson & David Pelteret (Aldershot 2009), pp. 539-560.

        This is kind of why I raised the question, our training seems to have trained us differently here.

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