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16th-Century Child Skeletons With Coins in Their Mouths Found at Construction Site in Poland

Some of the graves uncovered at the site in southeastern Poland.
Some of the graves uncovered at the site in southeastern Poland.
Image: Gminne Centrum Kultury w Jeżowem/Facebook

Road crews in Poland stumbled upon a lost 16th-century cemetery, in which the vast majority of graves belong to children. Incredibly, some of the skeletons still have coins in their mouths, a tradition that dates back to ancient times.

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The cemetery was discovered in a wooded area currently being cleared for Poland’s S19 motorway, which is part of the Via Carpathia road project to establish a north-south corridor running all the way from Greece to Lithuania. A team from Arkadia Firma Archeologiczna (Arkadia Archaeological Company) was called in after construction crews stumbled upon human remains, reports The First News. The cemetery, which dates back to the late 16th and early 17 centuries, is located near the village of Jeżowe in southeast Poland.

Of the 115 individuals found at the site, around 70% to 80% were children, according to Poland’s General Directorate for National Roads and Motorways. The discovery corroborates both written accounts and local legends describing a cemetery dating back to this time period.

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A partially excavated skeleton.
A partially excavated skeleton.
Image: Gminne Centrum Kultury w Jeżowem/Facebook

The bodies were carefully buried in sandy ground and oriented along an east-west axis. The dead were laid down on their backs with their hands positioned at their sides. Some skeletons were found to have coins inserted into their mouths.

“It’s certainly a sign of their beliefs,” Arkadia archaeologist Katarzyna Oleszek told The First News. “The coins are called obols of the dead or Charon’s obol. It is an old, pre-Christian tradition. But it’s been cultivated for a long time, even as late as the 19th century, it was practiced by Pope Pius IX.”

Some skeletons were found with coins in their mouths.
Some skeletons were found with coins in their mouths.
Image: Arkadia Firma Archeologiczna/Facebook
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This death ritual, which dates back to ancient Greece and Rome, represents a payment or bribe to Charon, the ferryman who delivers souls from the world of the living to the world of the dead.

The presence of these coins is certainly interesting from an anthropological perspective, but coins can also be used by archaeologists to timestamp a site. In this case, the coins were minted during the reign of Sigismund III Vasa, a Polish king who ruled from 1587 to 1632. Coins called boratynki were also found, which are associated with John II Casimir Vasa, who ruled from 1648 to 1668.

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One of the more intriguing graves contains four children laid side-by-side with their heads all oriented in the same position, but with their legs and feet all meeting together. The leftmost child in the grave appears to have died at a very young age. It’s possible that these four individuals are closely related—perhaps siblings.

A grave containing four children, laid side-by-side, with legs and feet meeting together.
A grave containing four children, laid side-by-side, with legs and feet meeting together.
Image: Arkadia Firma Archeologiczna/Facebook
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Indeed, this is no “mass grave,” as The First News incorrectly describes it. This was an orderly Catholic church cemetery, with no graves set atop or disturbing others. The “inhabitants knew exactly where they had graves and took care of them,” said Oleszek. Aside from the coins, no other items were found in the graves, suggesting the presence of a very poor community.

Speaking to Polish media outlet Gazeta Wyborcza, Oleszek said her team is likely “dealing with this part of the cemetery where only children were buried.” It’s possible that adult members of this community were buried at a yet-to-be discovered portion of the cemetery.

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The cemetery was found in an area known as Góry Kościelne, which translates to the Church Mountains. The discovery confirms local legends about a children’s cemetery in the region, as well as historical accounts, according to The First News. Written records from 1604 describe a trip to Jeżowe made by Catholic bishops from Kraków, a town located 126 miles away (203 km). These accounts describe a large parish, church, garden, rectory, school, and a cemetery.

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We will learn a lot more about this cemetery and the people buried in it over the coming months and years, as the archaeologists are planning to analyze the remains. Importantly, the skeletons will be reburied at a local parish church. When doing so, the archaeologists will mimic the layout of the original cemetery as much as possible, including the burial position of the four children.

George is a senior staff reporter at Gizmodo.

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DISCUSSION

ComradeDread

I don’t want to tell you guys how to do your job or anything, but maybe unearthing an ancient burial ground is not the thing you want to be doing in this particular year.