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Stone Coffin, Smyrna

Stone Coffin, Smyrna

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Mellified man

A mellified man, or a human mummy confection, was a legendary medicinal substance created by steeping a human cadaver in honey. The concoction is detailed in Chinese medical sources, including the Bencao Gangmu of the 16th century. Relying on a second-hand account, the text reports a story that some elderly men in Arabia, nearing the end of their lives, would submit themselves to a process of mummification in honey to create a healing confection. [1]

This process differed from a simple body donation because of the aspect of self-sacrifice the mellification process would ideally start before death. The donor would stop eating any food other than honey, going as far as to bathe in the substance. Shortly, the donor's feces and even sweat would consist of honey. When this diet finally proved fatal, the donor's body would be placed in a stone coffin filled with honey. [2]

After a century or so, the contents would have turned into a sort of confection reputedly capable of healing broken limbs and other ailments. This confection would then be sold in street markets as a hard to find item with a hefty price. [ citation needed ]


The Coffin Stone is in Great Tottington Farm, [1] which is now used as a vineyard. [2] As of 2005, the site was not signposted, but could be reached via a stile along the Pilgrims' Way. [3] The Coffin Stone is situated about 400 metres (1,300 ft) north-west of Little Kit's Coty House. [3] It is also a short distance north of the Tottington springhead. [4]

The Early Neolithic was a revolutionary period of British history. Between 4500 and 3800 BCE, it saw a widespread change in lifestyle as the communities living in the British Isles adopted agriculture as their primary form of subsistence, abandoning the hunter-gatherer lifestyle that had characterised the preceding Mesolithic period. [5] This came about through contact with continental societies it is unclear to what extent this can be attributed to an influx of migrants or to indigenous Mesolithic Britons adopting agricultural technologies from continental Europe. [6] The region of modern Kent was a key area for the arrival of continental settlers and visitors, because of its position on the estuary of the River Thames and its proximity to the continent. [7]

Britain was largely forested in this period [8] widespread forest clearance did not occur in Kent until the Late Bronze Age (c.1000 to 700 BCE). [9] Environmental data from the vicinity of the White Horse Stone, a putatively prehistoric monolith near the River Medway, supports the idea that the area was still largely forested in the Early Neolithic, covered by a woodland of oak, ash, hazel/alder and Maloideae (apples and their allies). [10] Throughout most of Britain, there is little evidence of cereal grain farming or permanent dwellings from this period, leading archaeologists to believe that the Early Neolithic economy on the island was largely pastoral, relying on herding cattle, with people living a nomadic or semi-nomadic life. [11]

Medway Megaliths Edit

Across Western Europe, the Early Neolithic marked the first period in which humans built monumental structures. [12] These included chambered long barrows, rectangular or oval earthen tumuli that had a chamber built into one end. Some of these chambers were constructed out of timber, and others were built using large stones, now known as "megaliths". [13] Long barrows often served as tombs, housing the physical remains of the dead within their chamber. [14] Individuals were rarely buried alone in the Early Neolithic, instead being interred in collective burials with other members of their community. [15] Chambered tombs were built all along the Western European seaboard during the Early Neolithic, from southeastern Spain to southern Sweden, taking in most of the British Isles [16] the architectural tradition was introduced to Britain from continental Europe in the first half of the fourth millennium BCE. [17] There are stone buildings—like Göbekli Tepe in modern Turkey—that predate them, but the chambered long barrows constitute humanity's first widespread tradition of construction using stone. [18]

Although now all in a ruinous state and not retaining their original appearance, [19] at the time of construction the Medway Megaliths would have been some of the largest and most visually imposing Early Neolithic funerary monuments in Britain. [20] Grouped along the River Medway as it cuts through the North Downs, [21] they constitute the most southeasterly group of megalithic monuments in the British Isles, [22] and the only megalithic group in eastern England. [23] The archaeologists Brian Philp and Mike Dutto deemed the Medway Megaliths to be "some of the most interesting and well known" archaeological sites in Kent, [24] while the archaeologist Paul Ashbee described them as "the most grandiose and impressive structures of their kind in southern England". [25]

The Medway Megaliths can be divided into two separate clusters: one to the west of the River Medway and the other on Blue Bell Hill to the east, between 8 and 10 kilometres (5 and 6 miles) apart. [26] The western group includes Coldrum Long Barrow, Addington Long Barrow, and the Chestnuts Long Barrow. [27] The eastern group consists of Smythe's Megalith, Kit's Coty House, Little Kit's Coty House, and several other stones that might have once been parts of chambered tombs, most notably the White Horse Stone. [28] It is not known if they were all built at the same time, [29] and it is not known if they each served the same function or whether there was a hierarchy in their usage. [30]

The Medway long barrows all conformed to the same general design plan, [31] and are all aligned on an east to west axis. [31] Each had a stone chamber at the eastern end of the mound, and they each probably had a stone facade flanking the entrance. [31] They had internal heights of up to 3.0 metres (10 feet), making them taller than most other chambered long barrows in Britain. [32] The chambers were constructed from sarsen sandstone, a dense, hard, and durable stone that occurs naturally throughout Kent, having formed out of sand from the Eocene epoch. [33] Early Neolithic builders would have selected blocks from the local area, and then transported them to the site of the monument to be erected. [33]

These common architectural features among the Medway Megaliths indicate a strong regional cohesion with no direct parallels elsewhere in the British Isles. [34] Nevertheless, as with other regional groupings of Early Neolithic long barrows—such as the Cotswold-Severn group in south-western Britain—there are also various idiosyncrasies in the different monuments, such as Coldrum's rectilinear shape, the Chestnut Long Barrow's facade, and the long, thin mounds at Addington and Kit's Coty. [35] These variations might have been caused by the tombs being altered and adapted over the course of their use in this scenario, the monuments would be composite structures. [36]

The builders of these monuments were probably influenced by pre-existing tomb-shrines they were aware of. [37] Whether those people had grown up locally, or moved into the Medway area from elsewhere is not known. [37] Based on a stylistic analysis of their architecture, the archaeologist Stuart Piggott thought that the plan behind the Medway Megaliths had originated in the area around the Low Countries [38] Glyn Daniel thought their design derived from Scandinavia, [39] John H. Evans thought Germany, [40] and Ronald F. Jessup suggested an influence from the Cotswold-Severn group. [41] Ashbee found their close clustering reminiscent of the megalithic tomb-shrine traditions of continental Northern Europe, [25] and emphasised that the Medway Megaliths were a regional manifestation of a tradition widespread across Early Neolithic Europe. [42] He concluded that a precise place of origin was "impossible to indicate" with the available evidence. [43]

The Coffin Stone is a large rectangular slab. [3] In the 1870s, it was measured as being 4.42 metres (14 ft 6 in) in length, 2.59 metres (8 ft 6 in) in breadth, and about 0.61 metres (2 ft) in width. [44] [a] The archaeologist Timothy Champion suggested that "the Coffin Stone" was "an appropriate name" for the megalith given its appearance. [31] Given the size of the megalith, it is likely that—had this been part of a chamber—the chamber could have measured as much as 3.75 metres (12.3 ft) in height and would have been the largest of all the known Medway Megaliths. [45] There may have been a stone façade in front of the chamber, and if so, these may be the stones now found in the Tottington's western springhead. [46] At some point in the twentieth century, another large sarsen slab was placed on top of the Coffin Stone. [47]

In Evans' view, the nineteenth-century discovery of human remains at the site "strongly suggests" that the Coffin Stone was the remnant of a destroyed chambered long barrow. [48] Jessup agreed, suggesting that "in all probability" it was part of such a monument. [49] Some archaeologists have argued that evidence of a barrow could be visibly identified Ashbee noted that a mound was visible "in much reduced form until the 1950s but can today [2005] hardly be traced". [50] In 2007, Champion noted that the trace of the mound could still be seen. [31] Had this once been a long barrow then it may have been flanked by kerbstones various stones found nearby may have once been these. [46] Had there been a barrow, it is likely that ditches would have flanked its sides. [51] Archaeological investigation in the 2000s found no clear evidence of a chambered long barrow having stood on the site. [52]

Antiquarian descriptions Edit

The antiquarian William Stukeley made note of the Coffin Stone in his posthumously published 1776 work Itinerarium Curiosum. This book contained the first published illustration of the monument. [53] Stukeley had been alerted to the site by his friend Hercules Ayleway, who in a 1722 letter told Stukeley of "a large stone 15 foot long, called the coffin". [54] The site was next described by John Thorpe in his 1788 book Custumale Roffense he believed that it was Stukeley himself who had given it the name of the "coffin stone". [54] Thorpe visited the site and provided two illustrations of it one of these showed a spindly tree growing from around the stone. [54]

Circa 1840, the antiquarian Beale Poste visited the site and drew a sketch of it. [55] In his unpublished manuscript on Kentish antiquities, he reported that in 1838 or 1839 a sack full of human remains had been recovered close to the Coffin Stone. [56] In 1871, E. H. W. Dunkin provided an account of the site in The Reliquary. He related that as well as being known as "The Coffin", it was also called "The Table Stone". [57] He believed that it had once stood upright on that same spot, representing "a sepulchral memorial or mênhir of some ancient British chieftain". [57] Dunkin recorded that human remains—including two human skulls, other bones, and charcoal—had been found nearby during the 1836 removal of a hedge that "concealed more than one-half of the stone". [58] He also noted that fragments of Roman pottery had been found nearby, [57] and that local farmers had been moving sarsen blocks to the adjacent springhead "more than fifty blocks, large and small, lie about the yard". [59] In 1872, James Fergusson referenced the site in his Rude Stone Monuments in All Countries Their Age and Uses, referring to the presence of "two obelisks, known to country people as the coffin-stones—probably from their shape". [60]

In 1893, the antiquarian George Payne described the monument in his Collectanea Cantiana, noting that locally it was known as both the Coffin Stone and the General's Stone. [61] Ashbee later suggested that Payne was actually confusing the Coffin Stone with the General's Stone, which was a separate megalith found several hundred metres away, in the same field as Kit's Coty House. [60] In his 1924 publication dealing with Kent, the archaeologist O. G. S. Crawford, then working as the archaeological officer for the Ordnance Survey, listed the Coffin Stone alongside the other Medway Megaliths. [60] In his 1927 book In Kentish Pilgrimland, William Coles Finch included a plate of the Coffin Stone the photograph featured his son standing on it and shows various broken sarsens piled up at the monument's eastern end. Finch's plate was the first published photograph of the megalith, [60] and was likely also the last published depiction of it before another large sarsen was placed over it. [47] Finch measured the sarsen and found it to be wider than Thorpe had reported, also making note of plough damage and breakages. [60] In a 1946 article on the folklore involving the Medway Megaliths, Evans noted that the Coffin Stone, like several other megalithic features in the area, was associated with a burial following the fifth-century Battle of Aylesford. The idea that one or more of these monuments had been linked to the battle was first mooted by early modern antiquarians, before entering local folklore. [62]

Archaeological investigation Edit

In 2005, Ashbee noted that he had raised the issue of the site's preservation with English Heritage and that their representative had informed him that they would not consider according it legal protection because they thought it a natural feature. [50] The idea that the stone might have been natural had previously been voiced by the archaeologist Glyn Daniel on his visit to the site. [60] Ashbee commented that "it has, however, for long been manifest that English Heritage is more concerned with commercialisation than affording appropriate protection to our national monuments". [50]

Ashbee noted that any evidence for a chambered tomb at the site might be ascertained through geophysics or excavation. [60] Led by the archaeologist Paul Garwood, a programme of field surveys, geophysical research, and excavations took place at the site as part of the Medway Valley Prehistoric Landscapes Project during 2008 and 2009. This found evidence for prehistoric activity in the vicinity of the megalith but was unable to accurately date these archaeological features. The investigators established that there was no evidence that a chambered long barrow had once stood there. [52] They determined that the stone had been moved to its present location at some point in the post-medieval period (1450 to 1600). There was a large hollow in the chalk nearby which was akin to that found by excavators near to the Cuckoo Stone in Wiltshire the archaeologists interpreted this as an extraction hollow, suggesting that the Coffin Stone had once stood upright at that spot. [52]

Fully dressed and preserved 350-year-old corpse of French noblewoman found

French archaeologists have uncovered the well-preserved body of a noblewoman who died 350 years ago – along with the clothes in which she was buried, including her cap and shoes, still intact.

The corpse of Louise de Quengo, a widow from an aristocratic family from Brittany, was discovered in an hermetically sealed lead coffin placed in a stone tomb at a convent chapel in the western city of Rennes.

Four other lead coffins dating from the 17th century were also found at the site of the Saint-Joseph chapel, as well as 800 other graves containing skeletons.

Researchers expected to find little but dust and bones when they opened the fifth coffin and were astonished to discover the nearly intact body of De Quengo, Lady of Brefeillac, who died in 1656, some time in her 60s. They were able to identify the 1.45 m (5ft) body because of inscriptions on a relic containing the heart of her husband, Toussaint de Perrien, Knight of Brefeillac, who died in 1649.

Archaeologist Rozenn Colleter, of the Institute National de Recherches Archaeologiques Préventive (National Institute for Preventative Archaeological Research), was present when De Quengo’s coffin was opened.

“It was a very beautiful discovery,” Colleter told the Guardian.

“We saw at once there was not just a well-preserved corpse but a mass of material that was still supple and humid, and shoes. Because the coffin was completely sealed it had kept everything preserved.

“But we had to move quickly because once the coffin was opened it sets off the decomposition process again after 350 years. We had 72 hours to bring the body down to four degrees to preserve everything.”

The body being scanned. Photograph: Rozenn Colleter/AFP/Getty Images

A postmortem examination revealed the woman had kidney stones and what radiologist and medical examiner Fabrice Dedouit said were “lung adhesions”. He said De Quengo’s heart had been taken out with “real surgical mastery”.

“With Louise we had surprise after surprise,” Dedouit said.

The lead coffin was spotted under one of the convent’s supporting walls two years earlier but could not be removed without damaging the building. It was only last March that the archaeological teams were able to take it out.

De Quengo was dressed in simple religious vestments: a cape, chasuble, a brown habit in coarse wool, a plain linen shirt, woollen leg warmers, and leather shoes with cork soles. A devotional scapular was wrapped around her right arm and her hands were joined and holding a crucifix.

Her face was covered with a shroud, two bonnets and a hood. Researchers, who included specialists from the national Molecular Anthropological Laboratory, say it is possible the noblewoman entered the monastery after becoming a widow.

The corpse, uncovered in 2014, will be reburied in Rennes later in 2015, archaeologists have said. De Quengo’s clothes and shoes have been restored and are expected to be put on display.

Colleter said: “As archaeologists we are used to finding interesting things, but this is the sort of find that happened once in a career. It’s a dream to find something so exceptional, so unusual.”

This article was amended on 4 June 2015 because de Quengo was wearing woollen leg warmers, not wooden leg warmers as an earlier version said.

A Brief History of Coffins

Honouring the dead has been important throughout history. But how did our ancestors bury their loved ones, what has changed and what has stayed the same? Find out in our brief history of coffins.

Stone Age burials

Neanderthals living in Eurasia 600,000 years ago buried their dead in shallow graves with a few personal mementos such as tools. These burials were very simple and usually served as a way to deter scavengers. Recent discoveries show later Neanderthals performed ancient burial rites. A 50,000-year-old skeleton discovered in a cave in France has lead scientists to believe that people would ceremoniously bury their dead even as far back as the Stone Age. Some Neanderthals decorated themselves with homemade jewellery consisting of various pigments, feathers and shells.

Ancient Egyptians

The Egyptians were experts at mummifying everything, from humans to crocodiles. They held a strong belief that death was merely an obstacle to the afterlife and they preserved the body so the spirit of "Ka" could guide them to paradise. Apart from the heart, which was required for the Hall of Judgement, all organs were taken out and the body was embalmed and wrapped in linen. Much like today, there were a variety of 'mummification packages' so that everyone from the very wealthy to the underprivileged could mummify their loved ones and ensure they had a safe journey to the afterlife.

Medieval coffin making

We'll never know how popular wooden coffins were during Medieval times due to the simple fact that most of them have disintegrated. Coffins made of lead and stone were reserved for the very wealthy or very important. The shape of these varied wildly from today's coffins they were a rectangular-shaped alcove carved into stone, with a rounded circle at the top for the head - the perfect shape for a person. An example of this can be found in the Greyfriars graveyard in Leicester, where Richard III was discovered. The lead coffin encased by a larger stone coffin contained the body of an old woman, who was said to be an important benefactor of Greyfriars between the 1200s and 1400s.

American Civil War

Although the French were the first to coin the term 'coffin', taken from the Greek term for 'basket,' it wasn't until the American Civil War began in 1861 that coffins were widely used. Using them to transport dead soldiers safely and securely, Americans started to mass produce the coffin we know today. American Civil War coffins were commonly created from old wooden furniture as they were needed. The original coffins soon simplified into 'caskets' - the difference being that coffins have six sides and caskets have four sides.

Victorian coffins

The first coffin factory museum opened recently in Birmingham. Formerly one of Britain's most famous coffin makers, the Newman Brothers Coffin Furniture Factory catered for the Victorians' 'obsession' with death. In the Victorian era, funerals were a huge event and people would spend a lot of money on the event - including trimmings such as brass handles, burial shrouds, breastplates and grave ornaments. Burial vaults were particularly popular and the coffins destined for the vaults consisted of three layers - one of which was lead. It wasn't uncommon for these coffins to weigh up to a quarter of a tonne.

Coffins today

Modern funerals are seen as an opportunity to celebrate life and a chance to give the person a send-off that suits their style and character. Today, over 75% of people are cremated, but even in a cremation, the coffin is an important way to reflect and remember the personality of the deceased. Whether it's a smart gloss-black coffin or a coffin inspired by the individual's favourite football club -- there is a huge variety of options available to families. There is also a rising number of people opting for eco-friendly coffins and even 'organic burial pods' where your loved one's remains will support the growth of a tree.

Golden Charter has a network of over 3,000 independent funeral directors who can help you choose the perfect coffin. To find out how we can help you with all your later life planning needs, request a free info pack, or call us on 0808 169 4534.

Golden Charter

Smart Planning for Later Life

Golden Charter has one of the largest networks of independent funeral directors in the UK. Many are long-standing, family-run businesses and all provide a compassionate and professional service.

Find out more about how you can plan for your funeral with one of the funeral directors in our network.

Archaeologists Set to Remove Lid from Stone Coffin found on Grey Friars

Archaeologists are preparing to remove the lid from a stone coffin that has remained intact over centuries in the ruins of Greyfriars, the monastery where King Richard III was buried. The occupant of the coffin is unknown but historians suspect it will be the medieval knight, Sir William de Moton of Peckleton, or one of two high-status friars – Peter Swynsfeld or William of Nottingham.

The Greyfriars Friary in Leicester was built in the 12th century and was home to the Friars Minor, also known as Grey Friars after the colour of their habits. The friary was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1538 during the Protestant Reformation, soon after which it was demolished and became virtually lost to history.

The discovery of the coffin is significant as it is the only intact stone coffin found so far in Leicester. It was uncovered during a dig beneath a parking lot in Leicester last year which revealed the the body of Richard III, the last king of the House of York who ruled England from 1483 to 1485 and who was hastily buried at Greyfriars after his defeater, Henry Tudor, ascended to the throne.

"Stone coffins are unusual in Leicester — and this is the first time we have found a fully intact stone coffin during all our excavations of medieval sites in the city," site director Mathew Morris, of the University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS), said.

Archaeologists believe the coffin was placed in the ground about 100 years before Richard III was buried there. It will be privately opened in the days ahead, away from the view of an enthusiastic media who are anticipating a significant find.


April Holloway is a Co-Owner, Editor and Writer of Ancient Origins. For privacy reasons, she has previously written on Ancient Origins under the pen name April Holloway, but is now choosing to use her real name, Joanna Gillan.

The Black Stone Sarcophagus is Open and Investigators Found More Than They Bargained For!

Rumors have been rolling about since the 27-ton (59,500 lb.) black granite sarcophagus was uncovered three weeks ago in Alexandria, Egypt. One of the more interesting suggestions was that the massive stone sarcophagus was the final resting place of Alexander the Great. But there were also warnings against opening the tomb due to worries of a mummy’s curse.

Despite the concerns by some, the impressive sarcophagus has been opened, and as Mostafa Waziri, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, said, “We've opened it and, thank God, the world has not fallen into darkness. I was the first to put my whole head inside the sarcophagus. and here I stand before you . I am fine."

It probably took some effort to be that close to the open tomb, as BBC News reports the stench that leaked out upon opening the lid by just 5cm (2 inches) was enough to clear the site. Egyptian military engineers were called in to help pry the sarcophagus open and see what lay inside.

Waziri described the contents : “We found the bones of three people, in what looks like a family burial. Unfortunately, the mummies inside were not in the best condition and only the bones remain.” Well, the bones and some stinking red-brown sewage water.

The black sarcophagus was found to contain three skeletons and lots of sewage. ( Ministry of Antiquities )

The mummies were probably decomposed by that sewage water, which had seeped into the stone coffin, leaving only the skeletons behind. The officials say that their initial examination of the bodies suggests they were probably soldiers from the early Ptolemaic period. One of the skulls shows cracks from a possible arrow injury.

The tomb was unearthed by archaeologists present at the beginning of a construction project in Alexandria's Sidi Gaber neighborhood. This is a common practice before any building can commence in the area and occasionally sarcophagi have been found, though they have often been looted before the archaeologists have had a chance to study them. In this case, they made an unparalleled discovery - a black granite coffin which stands at approximately 6 feet (1.83 meters) tall and over 5. 5 feet (1.65 meters) wide. Waziri said it may be the largest ever found in Alexandria.

The black sarcophagus may be the largest ever found in Alexandria . ( Ministry of Antiquities )

No inscriptions, art, or grave goods were found on or in the sarcophagus alongside the skeletons after the coffin was opened, but it is unclear if anything had been buried inside and decomposed. The officials say the mortar shows the sarcophagus had not been opened before they chose to do so, so at least looting seems unlikely.

Nonetheless, an alabaster bust was found at the grave site when it was first uncovered. The bust has deteriorated and the features of the face cannot be made out springing hope for a time that it showed a Macedonian or a Greek male of high social status (i.e. perhaps Alexander the Great).

A deteriorated alabaster bust of a man was found with the coffin. ( Ministry of Antiquities )

The opening of the black granite sarcophagus may have solved a couple of mysteries, but it has also led to many new questions, such as: Who were the three people? How did they die? Why were they placed in such an elaborate and massive coffin? Had they been buried with any grave goods? What can the alabaster bust say about the grave and was it a depiction of one of the deceased? If so, why were the other two people buried alongside that person?

There is hope that at least some of these questions will be answered by continuing analysis of the skeletons, which are now on their way to the National Museum of Alexandria, and the sarcophagus, which will follow after it has been repaired and prepared for transport.

Top Image: The immense black stone sarcophagus found in Alexandria still holds more mysteries . Source: Ministry of Antiquities


Alicia McDermott holds degrees in Anthropology, Psychology, and International Development Studies and has worked in various fields such as education, anthropology, and tourism. Ever since she was a child Alicia has had a passion for writing and she has written. Read More


In late medieval times a population increase and an expansion of church building took place in Great Britain inevitably encroaching on the territories of existing mother churches or minsters. Demands for autonomy from outlying settlements made minster officials feel that their authority was waning, as were their revenues, so they instituted corpse roads connecting outlying locations and their mother churches (at the heart of parishes) that alone held burial rights. For some parishioners, this decision meant that corpses had to be transported long distances, sometimes through difficult terrain: usually a corpse had to be carried unless the departed was a wealthy individual. An example would be the funeral way that runs from Rydal to Ambleside in the Lake District where a coffin stone (illustrated above right), on which the coffin was placed while the parishioners rested, still exists. [2] Many of the 'new' churches were eventually granted burial rights and corpse roads ceased to be used as such.

Many of the corpse roads have long disappeared, while the original purposes of those that still survive as footpaths have been largely forgotten, especially if features such as coffin stones or crosses no longer exist. Fields crossed by church-way paths often had names like "Church-way" or "Kirk-way Field", and today it is sometimes possible to plot the course of some lost church-ways by the sequence of old field names, local knowledge of churches, local legends and lost features of the landscape marked on old maps, etc. One of the oldest superstitions is that any land over which a corpse is carried becomes a public right of way. [3]

An example of a corpse road or way is that of the church of St Peter and Paul at Blockley, in Gloucestershire, which held the burial right to the inhabitants of the hamlets Stretton-on-Fosse in Warwickshire, where there was a chapel which became a rectory in the 12th century, and Aston Magna, where there was a chapel which was merely a chantry. All 'tithes' and 'mortuaries', however, came to the parish church of Blockley, to which church the people of Stretton and Aston were committed to carry their deceased for burial. The corpse road from Aston to Blockley churchyard is over two miles (3 km) long and crosses three small streams en route. The corpse road from Stretton to Blockley runs for some four miles (6 km) and crosses two streams. [4]

The spirits of the dead Edit

The essence of deep-rooted spirit lore is that supposed spirits of one kind or another – spirits of the dead, phantasms of the living, wraiths, or nature entities like fairies move through the physical landscape along special routes. In their ideal, pristine form, at least, such routes are conceived of as being straight, having something in common with ley lines. By the same token, convoluted or non-linear features hinder spirit movement i.e. labyrinths and mazes.

Spirits or ghosts were said to fly along on a direct course close to the ground, so a straight line connecting two places was kept clear of fences, walls, and buildings to avoid obstructing the flitting spectres. [5] The paths would run in a straight line over mountains and valleys and through marshes. In towns, they would pass the houses closely or go right through them. The paths end or originate at a cemetery therefore, such a path or road was believed to have the same characteristics as a cemetery, where spirits of the deceased thrive.

The corpse roads or ways were left unploughed and it was considered very bad luck if for any reason a different route had to be taken. [6]

Corpse candles and other related phenomena Edit

A corpse candle or light is a flame or ball of light, often blue, that is seen to travel just above the ground on the route from the cemetery to the dying person's house and back again, and is particularly associated with Wales. [7] A corpse fire is very similar as the name comes from lights appearing specifically within graveyards where it was believed the lights were an omen of death or coming tragedy and would mark the route of a future funeral, from the victim's house to the graveyard, where it would vanish into the ground at the site of the burial. The appearance was often said to be on the night before a death. [8]

Among European rural people, especially in Gaelic, Slavic, and Germanic folklore, the will-o'-the-wisps are held to be mischievous spirits of the dead or other supernatural beings attempting to lead travellers astray [9] (compare Puck). Sometimes they are believed to be the spirits of unbaptized or stillborn children, flitting between heaven and hell. Other names are Jack O' Lantern, or Joan of the Wad, Jenny Burn-tail, Kitty wi' the Whisp, or Spunkie. [10]

Anybody seeing this phenomenon might merely have been seeing, without knowing, a luminescent barn owl, at least in some instances. Much anecdotal evidence supports the fact that barn owls have a luminescence which may be due to fungal bioluminescence (foxfire). [11] It is also possible those who have observed corpse candles may have been witnessing the effect of methane gases produced by decomposing organic material found in swamps, marshlands, and bogs.

A Midsummer Night's Dream Edit

Now it is the time of night,
That the graves all gaping wide,
Every one lets forth his sprite,
In the church-way paths to glide.

Puck suggests a secret history of these routes, for unsurprisingly they attracted long extant folk lore, running not only through the physical countryside but also through the invisible geography, the 'mental terrain', of pre-industrial country-folk. Shakespeare's lines leave little doubt that the physical corpse roads came to be perceived as being spirit routes, taking on qualities which lingered in the folklore of his age and which he incorporated into his play knowing that it would be a familiar concept.

Spirit roads and archaeological features Edit

The spirit roads, such as the church-ways, were always conceived of as being straight, but the physical corpse roads of the United Kingdom vary as much as any other path. Corpses were conveyed along defined corpse roads to avoid their spirits returning to haunt the living. It was a widespread custom, for example, that the feet of the corpse be kept pointing away from the family home on its journey to the cemetery. [12]

Other minor ritualistic means of preventing the return of the dead person included ensuring that the route the corpse took to burial would take it over bridges or stepping stones across running water which spirits could not cross, stiles, and various other 'liminal' ("betwixt and between") locations, all of which had reputations for preventing or hindering the free passage of spirits. The living took pains to prevent the dead from wandering the land as lost souls or animated corpses, for the belief in revenants (ghosts) was widespread in mediæval Europe.

People using the corpse roads assumed that they could be passages for ghosts. The ancient spirit folklore that attached itself to the medieval and later corpse roads also may have informed certain prehistoric features. In Britain, for instance, Neolithic earthen avenues called cursuses link burial mounds: these features can run for considerable distances, even miles, and are largely straight, or straight in segments, connecting funerary sites. The purpose of these avenues is imperfectly understood, but some kind of spirit-way function may be one reasonable explanation. Similarly, some Neolithic and Bronze Age graves, especially in France and Britain, are associated with stone rows, like those at Merrivale on Dartmoor, with intriguing blocking stones at their ends. [13]

Homer Sykes in Mysterious Britain says that the 'holed' Cornish 'Tolvan' stone was used to block a now lost ancient burial chamber, and suggests that the hole allowed a way in for funeral purposes and a passage out for the spirits of the dead. [14]

In Britain, around 4000–6000 years old, bog causeways constructed from timber have been excavated. The "Sweet Track" in Somerset, is one of the oldest and the excavations along this old straight track indicated that one of its uses was for transporting the dead. [15]

Some country-folk claim that if a dead body is carried across a field it will thereafter fail to produce good crop yields. [3] Throughout the United Kingdom and Europe it is still believed that touching a corpse in the coffin will allow the departed spirit to go in peace to its rest, and bring good luck to the living. [16]

Phantom lights are sometimes seen on the Scottish cemetery-island of Mun in Loch Leven and traditionally such lights were thought to be omens of impending death the soul also was thought to depart the body in the form of a flame or light. [7]

In Ireland, the féar gortach ("hungry grass"/"violent hunger") is said to grow at a place where an unenclosed corpse was laid on its way to burial. This is thought to be a permanent effect and anyone who stands on such grass is said to develop insatiable hunger. One such place is in Ballinamore and was so notorious that the woman of the nearby house kept a supply of food on hand for victims. [17]

On Aranmore Island off Ireland each passing funeral would stop and erect a memorial pile of stones on the smooth rocky surface on the roadside enclosure. [18]

The existence of specific coffin stones, crosses or lychgates on church-ways, suggests that these may have been specially positioned and sanctified so as to allow the coffin to be placed there temporarily without the chance of the ground becoming in some way tainted or the spirit given an opportunity to escape and haunt its place of death. [19]

Gerald of Wales (Giraldus Cambrensis) in the 13th-century relates the strange story of a marble footbridge leading from the church over the Alan rivulet in Saint Davids. The marble stone was called 'Llechllafar' (the talking stone) because it once spoke when a corpse was carried over it to the cemetery for interment. The effort of speech had caused it to break, despite its size of ten feet in length, six in breadth and one in thickness. This bridge was worn smooth due to its age and the thousands of people who had walked over it, however the superstition was so widely held that corpses were no longer carried over it. [20] This ancient bridge was replaced in the 16th century and its present location is not known. [21] [22]

Another legend is that Merlin had prophesied the death on Llechllafar of an English King, conqueror of Ireland, who had been injured by a man with a red hand. King Henry II went on pilgrimage to Saint David's after coming from Ireland, heard of the prophecy and crossed Llechllafar without ill effect. He boasted that Merlin was a liar, to which a bystander replied that the King would not conquer Ireland and was therefore not the king of the prophecy. [20] This turned out to be true, for Henry never did conquer the whole of Ireland. [21] [22]

A Devon legend tells of a funeral procession heading across Dartmoor on its way to Widecombe and the burial ground, carrying a particularly unpopular and evil old man. They reach the coffin stone and place the coffin on it while they rest. A beam of light strikes the coffin, reducing it and its contents to ashes and splitting the coffin stone. The party believes that God did not wish to have such an evil man buried in a cemetery. [19]

The villagers in Manaton in Devon used to carry coffins three times round the churchyard cross, much to the irritation of the vicar, who opposed the superstition. Upon being ignored, he had the cross destroyed. [23]

The 'Lych way' is a track lying to the south-west of Devil's Tor on Dartmoor. The dead from remote moorland homesteads were taken along this track to Lydford church for burial. Many reports have been made of monks in white and phantom funeral processions seen walking along this path. [24]

Childe's Tomb on Dartmoor is the site of the death of Childe who was caught in a snowstorm, killed and disembowelled his horse and climbed inside for shelter, but still froze to death. He left a message to say that the first person to bury him would get his lands at Plymstock. The greedy monks of Tavistock buried him and claimed the lands. The ghosts of monks carrying a bier have been seen at Childe's tomb. [24]

An old woman at Fryup in Yorkshire was well known locally for keeping the "Mark's e’en watch" (24 April), as she lived alongside a corpse road known as the "Old Hell Road". In this 'watch', typically a village seer would hold a vigil between 11 pm and 1 am on St. Mark's Day, in order to look for the wraiths of those who would die in the following year. [13]

The Lyke Wake Walk in North Yorkshire is not a corpse road but takes its name from the Lyke Wake Dirge [25] [26]

Crossroads Edit

Places where tracks intersect are considered dangerous and are believed occupied by special spirit-guardians because they are places of transition where the world and the underworld intersect. The Celtic god Lugh indicated the right road at such places and was a guide to the traveler's footsteps. The god of the dead was the divinity of the crossroad and later Christian crosses were erected at such places. [27]

Crossroads divination was conducted in Britain and other parts of Europe, and is associated with the belief that the Devil could be made to manifest at such intersections. Crossroads lore also includes the idea that spirits of the dead could be "bound" (immobilized or rendered powerless) at crossroads, specifically suicides and hanged criminals, but also witches, outlaws and gypsies. [27] The belief was that since straight routes could facilitate the movement of spirits, so contrary features like crossroads and stone or turf labyrinths could hinder it. An example of a crossroad execution-ground was the famous Tyburn, London, which stood on the spot where the Roman road to Edgware crossed the Roman road heading west out of London. [13]

Why a coffin trail?

This grassy path, like other coffin routes around the UK, was traditionally used to transport bodies across the countryside from parishes that didn’t have burial grounds to churches that did. The bodies were carried from Ambleside and Rydal to the 13th Century St Oswald’s Church in Grasmere the same church that houses the Wordsworth family graves. It’s hard enough transporting ourselves along the route through the muddy puddles with the rain weighing down our backpacks. It must have been knackering for those funeral parties who did it with a human on their shoulders.

Mystery in stone

There once was an itinerant stone carver who traveled the dusty roads of upstate New York in a horse-drawn wagon loaded with quarried pieces of sandstone. He was looking for families who had recently buried loved ones, to sell them a headstone for the grave. His “signature” was the coffin shape he would chisel at the base of each headstone. The size, and the number of these coffin shapes would indicate whether the occupant was an adult or a child, and how many rested beneath this headstone.

The headstone in the Sanford Cemetery for George Sands, who died August 8, 1816 at age 83, was so inscribed. There are two coffins at the base it is not known who the second person might have been.

For decades, the carver remained anonymous, known only as “The Coffin Man.” Researcher Mary Dexter of Cortland became obsessed with locating as many of his stones as she could (she found more than 200 of them over 30 years) and of trying to determine the carver’s name. At last, she discovered, in estate papers of one of his “customers,” a record of payment of $5 for a headstone and footstone to one Jonas W. Stewart.

Stewart, it turns out, came from a family of stone carvers. Father Jonas was a well known carver in the Clermont, NH area. Jonas W. Stewart II was born in Clermont in 1778. J. W. and his brother James followed in their father’s footsteps, but each developed a unique, recognizable carving style, and each staked out stone peddling territories of their own.

J. W., the “Coffin Man,” settled in Coventryville, Chenango County, near a quarry where he got the stone for his craft. J. W. Stewart traveled throughout eastern New York and northern Pennsylvania. His stones have been found in a 4,000-square mile area – the one for George Sands, who was originally buried in an area now under the waters of the Pepacton Reservoir, is the easternmost example of Stewart’s work that Mary Dexter has found. She believes he carved from 1811 to 1822, though many of his stones bear earlier dates, because it was often years before a family had a monument erected for a deceased loved one.

The Coffin Man may have been prolific, but he wasn’t perfect: He left the ‘r’ out of George Sands’ name. But at least George got a headstone. The same cannot be said for The Coffin Man, whose own grave has never been found.

The Excavations

Six years ago the Catholic Church celebrated what it called the Jubilee 2000. Pilgrims from all over the world visited Rome and Saint Paul's Outside-the-Walls.

"They asked to see Saint Paul's tomb and were disappointed to learn that it was buried and not on view," said Cardinal Andrea Cordero Lanza di Montezemolo, the archpriest of the basilica.

"So we decided to begin excavations and bring the sarcophagus to light."

Work started in 2002 and just recently wrapped up.

"Archaeologists opened a window 70 centimeters [28 inches] wide and 1 meter [39 inches] deep through the concrete layer under the main altar to reach the side of the sarcophagus," he continued.

Archaeologist Filippi said, "There is a hole in the cover of the sarcophagus, about ten centimeters [four inches] wide.

"In ancient times people used it to dip pieces of fabric inside the coffin, so they would become relics too. Currently the hole is closed by debris.

"It could be used to access to the remains of the saint if and when Vatican authorities decide to explore what the sarcophagus contains."

Cardinal di Montezemolo added: "At last, today pilgrims visiting the basilica can see the side of the sarcophagus through a small window we left open under the papal altar."

Watch the video: Recovering a Roman stone sarcophagus coffin (May 2022).