Execution Archaeology

Posted on April 13, 2013


Now there’s an arresting notion.

A story from the online English-language edition of the German news magazine Der Spiegel tells us that “Germany sees rising interest in execution site archaeology:

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

the story begins.

Apparently, German archaeologists have begun to systematically explore the human remains left behind where medieval cities used capital punishment to discipline their populace. The article describes the pioneer of this movement, Jost Auler, as the author or editor of multiple books on “execution archaeology”. He is quoted as saying that these sites were “just as much a part of the scenery as windmills.”  The article describes multiple examples of gallows in states of decay that have become the focus of this new archaeological specialty.

Obviously, to the extent that public executions were an integral part of social life in these towns, leaving them out of consideration makes for an incomplete vision of the past.

But at the same time, the story gave me pause.

I wondered how much this work– or at least the framing of it as a coherent movement within archaeology– is due to the popularity of the Hangman’s Daughter novels, published starting in 2008 by German author Oliver Pötzsch, whose books gain an aura of authenticity from his identification of a family history traced back to specialists in execution? We often talk about the popular culture of archaeology; there is somewhat less reflection on how popular culture might shape the practice of archaeology.

Is it possible to think about this newly self-conscious specialization from the same perspective that we might bring to bear when talking about the ethics and pragmatics of exhuming bodies in the cross-cutting disciplines of mortuary archaeology, bioarchaeology, and forensic anthropology– the topic of a seminar in which I took part last year at the School for Advanced Research, co-organized with Zoe Crossland?

We argued that in forensic anthropology, there are “responsibilities that exist because participants are working with the dead in relation to the living”, which foregrounds “the ‘personhood’ of the dead and the reciprocal shaping of the personhood of the living, including the anthropologist”.

We wrote that

contemporary forensic anthropologists are, by definition, working on evidence of the shared human capacity for violence, and yet there is potential for their findings to be framed as exceptional, or even insignificant, compared to a largely peaceful present. What the bioarchaeological perspective on violence brings to our discussions is a reminder that interpersonal violence is something that can be seen throughout human history.

Yet we did not fully come to terms with the special situation of archaeologists investigating the bodily remains of people who had been victims of state violence in the distant past– as if our forensic and bioarchaeological categories were somehow very separate.

I am particularly interested in how archaeologists think about past human subjects– what happens when the subjects are understood by the archaeologist to be criminals? Are the challenges like those faced by ethnographers dealing with unsympathetic subjects– who we can easily do injustice due to a lack of empathy?

And then there is the empirical question: how real is the claim that there is an emerging subfield of execution archaeology?

A quick search of Anthropology Plus, a database that includes a wide range of archaeological publications, produced a handful of articles starting in the late 1990s. An early, general contribution was a 1996 article in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology by Tony Waldron. Titled “Legalized Trauma”, it defined how one might recognize victims of execution.

The majority of the articles were based on German research, including work by Jost Auler, or concerned British medieval sites.

The circumstances that created sites like the German gallows hills described by Der Spiegel are bound to be historically specific. They may be shared in both of the medieval traditions that appear to explicitly concern execution sites, so that we might hope that the way the British publications treat these sites will also be reflected in the scholarly publications of German research.

There are apparently a large number of known and investigated sites from the Anglo-Saxon period in Britain. A Smithsonian.com magazine article published in 2010 mentioned in passing that

British archaeologists have discovered some 20 “execution cemeteries” across the country—testifying to a harsh penal code that claimed the lives of up to 3 percent of the male population.

In 2007, one such site, the Chesterton Lane Corner cemetery, was described in an article by Craig Cessford, Natasha Dodwell, Alison Dickens, and Andrew Reynolds. They framed their discussion in terms of “the relationship between justice and central places”, a focus that avoids my unease about possible sensationalism in focusing on the bodies of those killed through judicial violence.

Reynolds subsequently included the site in a more comprehensive discussion of crime and punishment in Anglo-Saxon Britain. In a broader article about secular power, taking a landscape approach, Reynolds describes what he characterizes as a “dynamic” judicial landscape in which the accused moved throughout a territory while being held and tried, finally going to execution sites on the boundaries of political territories. Reynolds was able to estimate the frequency of capital punishment at about once every ten years, giving a much less bloody impression than Der Spiegel’s account of the new German work. Still, Reynolds notes that an Anglo-Saxon moving from Old Sarum to Winchester

would have passed at least five places of execution, an average of one every 6km, leaving no doubt about the extent of royal power in the landscape…While one person may have read the message of the gallows as one of royal protection and a clear sign of the king’s concern for public security, others may equally have found the spectacle of heads on stakes and rotting corpses, potentially of children as young as 12, hanging from gallows an intimidating and depressing manifestation of an overbearing moralising state.

This seems just about the right way to confront what execution cemeteries have to tell us; acknowledging that they can serve as unequivocal archaeological signs of the exercise of power, but insisting on reflecting on the probable human impact of the carefully located exercise of mortal state violence.

There may not actually be an emerging subdiscipline of execution archaeology. But if there is, we can hope that it adopts this ethically troubled posture, avoiding becoming a kind of scientific analogue to the troubling exhibition of prepared human bodies (themselves notoriously derived from Chinese prisoners) that has become an accepted part of contemporary popular culture.