The Walking Dead?

The twitter account of the Museum of London Archaeology (@MOLArchaeology) posted a link on June 8 to an interesting burial practice from Roman London which features in the Museum’s current high-profile exhibition ‘Roman Dead’: the use of iron shackles irreversibly attached to the limbs of the deceased – an idea, promoted in their blog on the subject from March 2016, which may be linked to a fear of the dead by the living.

As Mike Marshall pointed out on twitter, and MOLA themselves suggest in their blog, the term “shackles” is somewhat misleading as a shackle is a chained and removable form of bondage – these iron rings were neither. @MOLArchaeology continued: “The iron ring from the Crossrail excavations at Liverpool St. could not be opened and was probably too small to slip off, suggesting it had been forged onto the arm shortly before or after death”. And expanded the corpus with “Two burials with leg shackles were found at Finsbury Circus”, then postulating the interesting question whether this was “…a ritual to brand the bearer as a criminal, prisoner or slave in the afterlife or deny them final rest? Or did these Romans fear that the dead might walk again?”. The thread finished with a link to a similar practice from the Driffield Terrace excavations in York.

Well what a question – did the use of non-removable iron bands represent a material manifestation of a fear of the dead or the un-dead? Well for starters we should point out that the iron rings often accompany the mutilation of the skeleton somehow, like by perimortem beheading and this is a relatively unusual thing to come across in Romano-British burials. This topic is helpfully featured also in an article in the publication of the 2015 Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference “Fear of the Dead” (Quercia and Cazzulo 2016) wherein the authors identify both these and additional strategies for the restraint of the deceased from northern Italy: straps which bound the arms and legs; nails in the burial and, in one example, driven into a skull; the removal of the torso and inclusion of an unguentarium in the pelvis; removal of feet; and the use of a wooden board strapped around the neck.

These examples are, to put it mildly, unusual in the grand scheme of Roman burial practices but a fear of the dead is not an unreasonable explanation for these practices. There are numerous textual sources in the Greek Magical Papyri (PGM, see Betz 1992) which advocate the use of the dead as a source of power or as a supernatural medium. A passage in PGM IV.2145-2240 illuminates the effect of such magical practices:

For wrecking chariots: Burn garlic and a snake’s slough as an offering, and write on a tin plaque “NEBOUTOSOUALETH BEU ERBETH PAKERBETH and ONOUPH; Overturn him, NN, and his companions”. Bury the tablet for 3 days in the grave of someone who died untimely; he will come to life for as long as it stays there”.

A passage in PGM XIII. 1-343 goes a step further and attempt to fully resurrect the dead:

Resurrection of a dead body: “I conjure you, spirit coming in air, enter, inspire, empower, resurrect by the power of the eternal god, this body; and let it walk about in this place, for I am he who acts with the power of Thayth, the holy god”.

If the iron work and mutilation were attempts at preventing the dead from rising up again, what prompted the decision to add the iron rings or remove a head? The untimely dead, featured above, the ‘Biaiothanatoi’ (Quercia and Cazzulo 2016, 30) may have been particularly vulnerable to the effects of magical practices. Premature passing, suicide, death in childbirth, murder victims, and others were the ‘restless dead’ – those who went before their time. Their exploitation was not necessarily for the purpose of recreating a zombie apocalypse, they may have been used as vessels to deliver a message or direction to a supernatural entity or, in some conceptual way, their un-used potential, power, ‘essence’, ‘soul’ etc. could be harnessed by the living. PGM IV.296-466:

Wonderous spell for binding a lover: Take wax from a potter’s wheel and make two figure, a male and a female. […….] And take a lead tablet and write the same spell and recite it. And tie the lead leaf to the figures with thread from the loom after making 365 knots while saying as you have learned, “ABRASAX, hold her fast”. You place it, as the sun is setting, beside the graves of one who has died untimely, placing it beside also the seasonal flowers”.

This link to the untimely dead does not, however, fully answer the question as such deaths must have been far more commonly encountered than the burial practices under discussion here. It is, at least, a stepping off point for trying to make sense of the thing. The chap from the Crossrail excavations was an adult, but had not died of old age and nor had any of the examples restrained in York. It’s certainly an issue studying Roman magic that it gives you a tendency to see magic everywhere, but these burial practices are good candidates for representing material strategies to, perhaps, prevent the deceased from helping anyone. Could the deceased rise from the grave of their own accord without living human agency involved? Again the weight of the numbers of untimely dead devoid of such interventions suggests otherwise or, at the very least, suggests that a different strategy was used that did not leave an archaeological trace.

Quercia and Cazzulo (2016) also suggest that particularly deep burials and those capped by stones could also represents attempts at some sort of restraining of the dead as things that were fundamentally unmovable by an individual. These may also have been things that have been overlooked throughout the past centuries of archaeological enquiry! Iron rings, in and of themselves, were probably uncomfortable but may not have completely prevented physical movement by a living person wearing such a thing. Perhaps then they were an allusion to restriction? Did the material matter – why iron? Good ol’ PLiny (HN XXXIV) at least suggests various medicinal uses of iron and iron rust. Presumably there was a logic in being able to forge straight onto a limb that meant iron was the only real choice. On a living participant that would also have been an intensely painful procedure, but is there more to it.

It’s certainly a bit of a leap of faith, but why do we not also consider the ‘deviant’ ringed and mutilated burials as attempts to prevent something being done to the remains rather than the remains themselves being the pejorative agents in this? Perhaps that’s just my retrojected assumptions about how the un-dead ‘work’ from modern fictions and folklore surrounding it? I’m not sure if anyone else has made the claim yet, but the practices of binding and restraining of the dead in such a manner could have been a realistic attempt at protection of the deceased themselves from the living rather than the other way around. Believing that practices which exploited chthonic powers through the recently dead were undertaken could have prompted the pre-emptive projection of the dead by preventing them from walking around in thrall to any living person with a spell book and the correct materia magica.

A reference to the use of iron rings, touched on in PGM IV.2125-39, offers another suggestion:

“A restraining seal for skulls that are not satisfactory [for use in divination], and also to prevent [them] from speaking or doing anything whatever of this [sort]: Seal the mouth of the skull with dirt from the doors of [a temple] of Osiris and from a mound [covering] graves. Taking iron from a leg fetter, work it cold and make a ring on which have a headless lion engraved. Let him have, instead of his head, a crown of Isis, and let him trample with his feet a skeleton (the right foot should trample the skull of the skeleton)…”

Immediately from this example there are allusions to the practices of using an iron ring (note: large enough to fit on a human(?) head) and the use of feet, but the additions of these materials are designed to restrain or seal the remains from being useful to anyone else. The important thing to take away from this example is that the additions of these materials may have been by someone attempting a magical ritual themselves – accessing a grave shortly after internment may have been difficult, but certainly was not impossible. Rather than a caring family protecting the deceased, such examples may represent the attempt at silencing or sealing the dead – to restrain them in their graves in an attempt to protect the living from their knowledge or interference rather than their undeadness. In this scenario the ‘living’ means an individual/group with a vested interested in the dead staying that way.  Thus in this capacity it may be that the dead weren’t being restrained because it was the fact of their coming back to life that was the main concern; not only was this believed to be possible, but they may return with information or knowledge that was detrimental to some of the living. Any sane person would do the same, right?

Pure speculation of course, all of it, but my goal with these musings has been to take the conversation towards understanding the behaviour in a more nuanced way and accept that these practices were reacting to quite specific social situations in specific places rather than a generalised fear of the dead rising up again.



Betz, H. D. (ed). 1992. The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation.

Quercia, A. and Cazzulo, M. 2016. ‘Fear of the Dead? ‘Deviant’ Burials in Roman Northern Italy’, in Mandich, M. J. et al. (eds) TRAC 2015: Proceedings of the twenty-Fifth Annual Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference. Leicester, TRAC. 28-42.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s