Skeletons of children with coins stuffed in their mouths have been discovered at a construction site in Poland.
Workers servicing a road on the country’s S19 motorway in the south-east Podkarpackie province uncovered a cemetery with 115 dead bodies – more than 70% of which were children.
The burial ground dates back to late 16th century and the coins are believed to be part of a pre-Christian tradition. People placed them in the mouth of the deceased as payment for a ferryman called Charon to bring the soul across the river that divided the world of the living and the dead.
The discovery lines up with both written accounts and legends of a cemetery in Jeżowe near the town of Nisk, dating back 500 years ago, archaeologists say.
Archaeologist Katarzyna Oleszek said: ‘It’s certainly a sign of their beliefs.
‘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 practised by Pope Pius IX.’
Most of the coins were minted during the reign of Sigismund III Vasa, who ruled Poland from 1587 to 1632, or from the reign of John II Casimir, who ruled from 1648 to 1668.
Apart from the coins no other items were found in the graves, such as buttons, nails or coffin handles, which Oleszek says suggests that the community that buried them was very poor.
However she does not believe it was a mass grave where bodies were tossed into a pit, as the skeletons were carefully buried.
‘The arrangement of the skeletons, the state of their preservation, shows that the discovery is a Catholic church cemetery, which was certainly taken care of. No grave is damaged by another’ Oleszek told The First News.
‘The inhabitants knew exactly where they had graves and took care of them.’
The bodies will be exhumed and after being studied by anthropologists they will be passed to the local parish church and buried again in the local cemetery.
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