Well of souls

Sometime in the 9th century, in the remains of the Roman town called Intaranum, in region of Burdundium, the bodies of more than twenty men, women, and children were tossed into a well, a well that had once fed the local Roman baths. It is the largest mass grave from Carolingian times ever discovered on the Continent. It must have been a horrific scene.

From July through December of 2013 the Institut national de recherches archeologiques preventives (Inrap) conducted excavations in the modern day village of Entrains-sur-Nohain. Inrap conducts rescue (or preventive) digs in advance of planned development. They excavated about a quarter of an acre (close to 11,000 square feet) and found part of a Roman road, hot and cold baths, some stone houses, an ironworking workshop, and a couple of wells to supply the baths.1.I gleaned all of the details about the dig and results from a press release issued by Inrap. There are a lot of references to the discovery across the interwebs, but all of them simply parrot the press release. Like me.

Well of soulsAt around thirteen feet down the archaeologists discovered bones in the four-foot diameter well, and the bones kept going for another twelve feet. The picture gives some idea of the mass of bones and bone fragments jammed into stony depths. I imagine that whoever was doing the tossing kept piling up the bodies until the well was full, and the centuries then compressed the remains as the well filled in. Found with the bodies were two large skeleton keys, each almost six inches long. You can see the keys in this (French) Inrap video, at about the 4:15 mark. The video also gives a vivid sense of just how small and tight the well is.

A company named Captair has created some 3D visualizations of the well.

Inrap has offered a couple of explanations for the bodies. The battle of Fontenoy was fought in 841 about fifteen miles from the site, during the civil wars that followed the death of Louis the Pious. Perhaps a raiding party killed the villagers, and poisoned the well to prevent another army from using it. Maybe they just were trying to hide their barbarity.

Another possibility is plague, that ever-present reaper. But plague struck Europe off and on for millennia, and almost always some kind of burial was arranged.

Inrap also mentions the possibility of Viking raiders, who ranged through the coasts and rivers of Francia in the 9th century. The village was only about 20 miles from the river Loire. The Vikings could certainly have achieved this level of barbarity, as no quarter was asked or given in the battles with the Northmen. In England there are two mass graves of Vikings killed by the locals.

Dorset burial pit
Heads to the left, bodies to the right

Sometime in the late 10th or early 11th centuries a group of more than fifty Viking raiders were slaughtered and beheaded in Dorset. The heads were probably piled up, and the bodies left out. Around the same time King Ethelred the Unready ordered a little state-sanctioned ethnic cleansing. The St. Brice’s Day massacre occurred in 1002, when he ordered the killing of all Danish men in England. An excavation in 2008 at Oxford revealed the bodies of more than two dozen young men, all of whom had been killed most violently. How did they inspire this kind of reciprocal viciousness? As one author puts it, “What made them so terrifying to a society which had moved up several rungs on the ladder of civilization was the confrontation with the original, almost primeval warrior type which many of their forefathers had been when they settled in central and western Europe.”2.Koch, Medieval Warfare, p.42.

Unfortunately there is almost no way to know what actually happened. Of the possible explanations I find the Vikings the most compelling, simply because I can’t imagine plague victims being simply tossed into a well, and there doesn’t appear to be any evidence of other “Frank-on-Frank” massacres and body disposal of this kind.

So far I have not been able to find any follow-up to the story by Inrap, so we don’t have anything on the demographics of the bodies, a possible cause of death, evidence of pre- or post-mortem wounds, nothing. It is possible that the victims were thrown into the well while still alive, but let us hope, for the sake of the souls in the well, that this was not the case.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. I gleaned all of the details about the dig and results from a press release issued by Inrap. There are a lot of references to the discovery across the interwebs, but all of them simply parrot the press release. Like me.
2. Koch, Medieval Warfare, p.42.

One thought on “Well of souls

  1. Was it homicide, suicide, or simply quick burial? Perhaps the water became unusable, or dry? I’ll have to read the link

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