Do you have morbid fascination with gallows, pillories and other sites of execution and infamy? If you do, you will probably never confess this interest, lest your colleagues shall fear you as a closet maniac. Unless, of course, you are one of a handful of people working on the archaeology of justice, who confessed and even celbrated our fascination with hangings, decapitations, amputated hands of forgers, burned and drowned witches and suchlike.
On February 8-10, 2017, a group of people came to discuss and share pictures, photos and even videos of bones, hangmen, cut-off and mummified arms and suchlike fascinating objects. We did not gather in a cave or a dark chapel, we congregated in a mirky amphitheater of the Archeopole of Aquitane in Bordeaux and civilly shared our thoughts on such topics as:
The Spatial Organisation of Justice in Early Medieval England (Andrew Reynolds, University College London)
An Archaeological Approach to Medieval and Modern Justice in the Czech Republic, Lower Silesia and Upper Lusatia (Pavlina Mašková (Warsaw), Daniel Wojtucki (Wroclaw))
Places of Justice in the Estate of Meillerie (Savoy) (Sidonie Bochaton)
Did you know, for instance, that the bodies of medieval criminals, hanged for the abominable perpetrations, would be left on the community gallows until they fell into the pit under the gallows of their own account. Far from being proof of the brutality supposedly dsistinguishing our ancestors, these gallows were proofs of law and order, reassuring honest travellers and warning would-be transgressors that justice is done well in the locality. Furthermore, bodies of convicts would be usually denied burial in consecrated ground, a fate most Christians justly dreaded.Were these harsh measures efficient in keeping crime in check, upholding law and order, or were they seemly inept ways for the authorities to avenge the victims and uphold the wavering prestige of the state apparatus? I leave you to make your own conclusions, as this is quite beyond a short blogpost…
Well, this was just the first day… On the second and third days, we heard about common gallows large and small, where corpses of hanged men were left on display until they fell apart; about forensic archaeology; and, most intriguingly, about books bound with human skin (if you love leather-bound books, think again…). And, of course, about the executioner of Riga, an invisible man who lived in a doorless house and cut the hands of malefactors with just one stroke of his ornate sword.
Severed hands of forgers, 16c., at the History of Riga and Navigation Museum in Riga, Latvia