Grave robbers through the centuries

Grave robbers have been with us for a very long time. From Ancient Egypt to the 20th century. But their motives have often differed. Some were looking for treasure while others simply wanted to desecrate the last resting place of a hated individual.

GRAVE ROBBERS: Ancient Egypt

The looting of ancient Egyptian tombs occurred frequently in ancient Egypt. Indeed, going right back to the early dynastic period when the pyramids were being built.

Everybody knew that wealthy elite Egyptians were buried with treasures they could take to the afterlife. It was just far too tempting to leave all that gold and those jewels locked away in a tomb with a decaying mummy.

The rich tried to ensure that theft of their belongings wouldn’t happen by placing blood curdling curses above the door to their tombs or constructing elaborate ways of protecting their grave. But it just didn’t seem to work.

Because many of the robbers – were the tomb builders themselves!

In 1115BC, a man called Amenpanefer and his mates went on trial for being grave robbers. He was a quarry worker and knew the tombs well. The ideal person to lead the operation. Unfortunately he was caught and more than likely executed in a particularly barbaric way. I suspect impalement may have been involved.

Sadly, looting of ancient Egyptian graves is happening on a pandemic scale today. And grave robbers are also systematically stripping archaeological sites from Latin America to China.

In Italy, tombs from the pre-Roman Etruscan civilisation have been plundered for so long, it’s almost a family business passed down through the generations.

One group of looters chanced upon an Etruscan tomb while building a garage for their home – and somehow neglected to tell the authorities of their good fortune.

But the forces of law and order caught up with them when they tried to sell their ill-gotten Etruscan gains on the black market.

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GRAVE ROBBERS: A revolutionary act

Smashing up graves is not always about financial gain. Some grave robbers snatch the skeletons and artefacts of the dead to denigrate them. This is pretty much what happened to the kings of France after the 1789 French Revolution.

They were buried in the basilica of St Denis for centuries – but up they came and out the door their bones went in the revolution. I visited the basilica earlier this year to see what was left of the royal tombs after the revolutionary grave robbers had finished. This is a short film I made below.

GRAVE ROBBERS: To advance the cause of medicine (and make money)

The most infamous examples of grave robbers are those early 19th century ghouls who sold cadavers to dissecting rooms in London, Edinburgh and other cities.

All in the cause of science and getting their palms crossed with silver!

This was at a time when London’s graveyards were full to capacity. So much so that the dead were buried on top of each other and the most recent burials weren’t that far from the surface.

Two enterprising rogues in Edinburgh – William Burke and William Hare – took to selling corpses to the anatomist Robert Knox. Realising that fresher bodies sold for more, they started to murder their subjects. Eventually, they were both arrested and put on trial.

Hare gave evidence against Burke who was hanged and then submitted to the indignity of being publicly dissected in front of an audience of paying medical students. Gruesomely, the anatomist Professor Munro wrote a note confirming the dissection with Burke’s own blood drawn into a quill from the dead man’s head!

His skeleton is still on display plus death mask and a book bound with leather made from Burke’s own skin. Nice! Unsurprisingly, the tale of Burke and Hare has inspired movie makers.

GRAVE ROBBERS: Twentieth century celebrities

Grave robbers are still very active in the 20th and 21st centuries. Celebrities have been targeted in recent decades in the hope of securing a quick cash windfall. As was the case of the legendary comedian Charlie Chaplin whose coffin was stolen in 1978 and then ransomed.

His widow Oona refused to cough up the six-figure sum demanded and the two robbers were apprehended not long afterwards. They were two jobless car mechanics – Roman Wardas and Gantscho Ganev – who reportedly wanted to use the money to open a garage!

Another 20th century comedian to be exhumed by grave robbers was the British celebrity Benny Hill. He died in 1992 and not long after his funeral, grave robbers got it into their heads that his coffin included some of his personal jewellery.

He was re-interred but this time with a slab of concrete on top and the grave robbers did not attempt a second break-in.

Dog dung used to make books look good!

Before the advent of synthetic products, some very odd natural materials had to be used for processes we take for granted today. Take curing leather bindings on books. In the good old days, getting a nice brown sheen on the cover of books was achieved by using dog dung.

And that dung had to be supplied by somebody. Well, there were people on hand happy to provide the raw materials!

The people who collected dog dung for books

Collecting dog dung for a living has to be about the most revolting job ever created. I’ve been re-reading the works of a Victorian Londoner called Henry Mayhew who, in 1851, published a book describing the appalling ways in which people were forced to make a living. The scraping of “Pure” (the slang word for dog excrement) from the streets has to be the worst.

Why on earth, you may reasonably ask, was dog dung referred to as “Pure” and what possessed anybody to go out and collect it? Well, it’s all to do with turning animal skins into leather. In the Victorian period, this would be done at a tannery.

That would be a workshop where animal skins were delivered to be cleaned; the fat and hair scraped off and then fermented using dog or pigeon dung.

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Needless to say, tanneries stank. I mean, really reeked. And so they were normally placed out of the centres of town by the 19th century – though not always. The leather created using dog dung transformed goat and calf skins into book covers, gloves and other quality items.

So, if you have a leather bound book from the Victorian era, I’m afraid dog dung may have been involved in its production. Canine excrement was essential for quality books.

The supply of dog poo was done by people called “Pure Finders”. The brown stuff was called “Pure” because it cleansed and purified the animal skins turning them into leather.

Getting dog dung for books was good business

In 1851, Mayhew tells us that Pure Finders could make between eight and ten pennies per bucket – and maybe more if the quality was good. The highest price was for something described as the “dry-limy-looking sort”. That apparently had more alkaline and so reacted better with the animal skins to make good leather.

There was always a temptation to doctor the dung to make it look more “limy”. That was done by mixing a bit of mortar with it. I can’t imagine how that was done – actually I can but I’m trying not to!

A lucky Pure Finder might have an arrangement to regularly clean some kennels and could make ten to fifteen shillings a week – good pay in the 1850s. But most had to scour the streets picking up what they could find. Their income was pretty miserable – this was a job you did if you’d fallen on hard times.

A typical tannery in the south London district of Bermondsey might employ 300 to 500 tanners – and in addition, retain 20 or so Pure Finders. Many of the finders were struggling to keep out of the workhouse by doing any job on the streets that was available. Mayhew heard about one finder who was totally unaware up until he died that he was the beneficiary of a vast legacy of thousands of pounds. Lawyers even placed advertisements in the newspapers to find him.

Fittingly, this man’s name was Mr Brown – I’m not kidding.

Tony Robinson is a TV historian and presenter in the United Kingdom and a few years back, he broadcast a series on horrible jobs in history. Here is his episode on the Victorians!

Top five weird saints in the Catholic church

I’ve been visiting the shrines of some weird saints over the summer.

The stories, legends and myths attaching to these holy people can often be rather weird. Strange tales of how they were martyred in a gruesome fashion. At the shrines, you can find their entire body or a bone or a piece of cloth. Let’s look at some of the weird saints I encountered!

Saint Cassian is the oddest account of a martyrdom. A Christian in the Roman Empire who was teaching pagan children. This was during the reign of Julian the Apostate – who tried to turn the empire back to paganism after three decades of emperors who had converted to Christianity.

Cassian refused to sacrifice to the Roman gods and his punishment was to be turned over to his own pupils who were told to kill him with their pens and clay tablets. This took a while by all accounts – but Cassian urged them on desiring to die for his faith!

Cassian takes a while to die

Saint Apollonia is said to have been martyred during a riot in Alexandria under the reign of the Roman emperor Philip. Before her death, it’s said she had her teeth pulled out. And so rather ghoulishly, she is depicted holding a pair of pliers with a tooth in its grip. Yuck!

Wilhelm Borremans, Saint Apollonia, 1717

There’s many horrible ways to die but being grilled is probably the worst. Saint Lawrence is often depicted holding what looks like an iron bed mattress but it’s actually the metal grid to which he was tied and cooked.

Saint Lawrence and his grid

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Here’s the body of Saint Justina – a virgin woman from Padua in Italy. She converted to Christianity at a time when the Roman Empire was still pagan. The emperor Maximian himself tried to make her reject Christ but she refused. So she was martyred with a sword – which she holds close to her breast. Somehow, her body made it from Italy to Portugal and here it is…

Saint Justina – possibly!

And then there’s Bartholomew the apostle of Christ. He is said to have journeyed to India to convert people to Christianity but then came to grief in Armenia. There, he was executed by being skinned alive. Sometimes he’s also being crucified upside down at the same time. The depictions of him and his skin can be rather odd.

Bartholomew and his skin

Was Jesus blond or not?

I’m being a bit flippant of course. But there are still people who get incredibly upset if you dare to suggest that Jesus might not have been something approaching blond and blue eyed.

The ethnicity of Jesus has been exciting people for two millennia. From very early on in the history of the church, there was a concerted attempt to divorce Jesus from his own Jewish background. To do this meant emphasising his alleged divinity over his human self.

At its most extreme, there was the Third Reich in the 20th century trying to turn the Messiah into a member of the master race. Some Nazi occultists even tried to suggest that he was descended from a special race of humans from the Arctic!!

Before we get going on the whole Jesus being blond or not question – a quick note to say that I’m going for the spelling “blond” and not “blonde”. Largely because I know American readers tend to use “blond” more. Though in Europe they can be more interchangeable and in France it’s blond for a man and blonde for a woman.

Anyway, that’s you grammar obsessives dealt with! Now on with the show…

Jesus – probably not blond

The first thing to state is that there’s nothing much by way of a physical description of Jesus in the four gospels of the New Testament. We’re not told if he was tall, short, dark or fair. Brown-eyed or blue-eyed.

And we’re not informed because it wasn’t deemed to be important to the early faithful. Some Christians even took the view that the human form was something evil that we needed to shake off. So the physical appearance of Jesus was not a thing to dwell on.

Did the Romans turn Jesus blond?

But then Christianity was adopted as the state religion of the Roman Empire – we see a big change. Any lingering reservations about graven images of Jesus fly out the door. He is the new God of the Romans!

Roman depictions of Jesus drew on pagan iconography more than you might like to think. On the Vatican museum website, there is a photo of a statue of Christ as the good shepherd and an acknowledgement that this imagery borrowed heavily from that of Apollo.

Apollo was a God of the sun with a halo and forever at this most youthful and virile – and possibly blond. Jesus also sometimes pops up in Roman Christian art as Apollo’s father – Zeus – enthroned in majesty. He acquires long hair and a beard – though more often dark haired than blond.

Jesus – not blond and with short hair

In the Greco-Roman tradition, philosophers and people of great learning were bearded. But at the time that Jesus was alive, the Roman elite were clean shaven and short-haired. Only after the Emperor Hadrian in the following century do emperors go bearded.

Among Jewish people in Judaea, there’s a suggestion that clean shaven may also have been seen as desirable. In his letters, St Paul doesn’t appear to approve of the hipster look declaring that “long hair was a shame unto a man”. So our long-haired blond Jesus wouldn’t have impressed Paul very much.

And this hang up about long hair continues into the Middle Ages with Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, in the 12th century ranting against the king and his court being too hirsute. Then, according to an account, he took a pair of scissors and cut the king’s hair!

That said, Jesus had already acquired long flowing locks in most images of him – especially on the cross.

America and the blonde Jesus

It’s in the United States, in the 19th century, that we see the greatest angst over the skin and hair colour of Jesus. Especially in the slave-owning southern states where owners spent a surprising amount of time vexing about what kind of Christianity to impose on their slaves.

What they didn’t want was slaves to view Christ as a supreme master of all to whom they could appeal or emulate. After all, Jesus knew the lash of the whip and died humiliated on the cross. That sounded more like a slave’s life than that of a master.

So, there seems to have been a certain impetus among white Americans to ensure that Jesus was depicted very much as a Caucasian European. Even his Jewishness evaporates. And with the rise of the Mormons comes the idea that a fair-skinned Jesus even visited America after his resurrection.

Jesus the blond working for the enemy

In 2010, Aurum Press published my biography of the black British boxer Errol Christie – No Place To Hide. Errol was a good friend and sadly died of cancer in 2017. He often used to remark how his Jamaican mother would invoke the name of Jesus during family rows.

But he would look at the blond, blue-eyed representation on the walls and wonder just whose side the risen Christ was on. He certainly didn’t look like a champion for black rights, Errol used to quip to me.

The Green Children of Wulpet

Medieval England saw many strange incidents. Unexplained visitations that creeped out villagers who knew nothing about science or reason. One such incident was the sudden arrival of two children with green skin at the village of Wulpet. Who and what were they? The mystery is one well worth revisiting.

The strange green children of Wulpet

This is one of those stories that confirms the view of folk in the Middle Ages being…well…not the sharpest pencils in the box.  It’s a strange tale.  We must go back to the stormy reign of King Stephen, a Norman king who sat precariously on his throne fighting an insurgency from a rival claimant to his crown – the Empress Matilda.  The Anglo-Saxon chronicle claims these were miserable times for England when God himself had turned his face away from the country.

It’s in troubled periods like this that odd events seem to happen – mysterious occurrences with no rational explanation.  Maybe a product of mass hysteria – people driven out of their wits by daily strife.  And what happened in the village of Wulpit in Suffolk was, frankly, out of the ordinary. It was recorded by one William of Newburgh in 1150.  He adopts a cynical tone but says so many witnesses claimed what they saw was true that he feels compelled to repeat it.

Green children emerge from the “wolf pits” – known as Wulpet

Four or five miles from Bury St Edmunds – the shrine to a Saxon king shot through with arrows – was Wulpit….named after “ancient cavities” called Wolfpittes or ‘pits for wolves’.  While the reapers were in the fields working, two children emerged from these holes in the ground.  A boy and a girl.  Nothing untoward about that – except for their appearance.  William of Newburgh explains:

“…a boy and girl, completely green in their persons, and clad in garments of a strange colour, and unknown materials, emerged from these excavations…”

Their skin was completely green!  Well, the reapers were startled and grabbed the kids taking them to Wulpit.  The villagers gawped at them for ages, trying to feed them but the children would not take what they were offered – until somebody offered them beans from their pods.  And they gobbled them down.

Their green skin of the children of Wulpet fades!

Over time, they were taught to eat bread and learned English and then something unexpected happened – their green colour started to fade.  With this development, it was decided to baptise the boy and girl.  This proved fatal with the boy who subsequently died.  The girl survived and “differed not in the least from the women of our own country”.  She even got married.

All of which begs the question – who were these children?  This was their own explanation recorded by William of Newburgh:

‘…we only remember this, that on a certain day, when we were feeding our father’s flocks in the fields, we heard a great sound, such as we are now accustomed to hear at St Edmund’s when the bells are chiming; and whilst listening to the sound in admiration, we became on a sudden, as it were entranced, and found ourselves among you in the fields, where you were reaping’.

Wulpet green children: from the ‘land of St Martin’

They claimed to be from the ‘land of St Martin’ – a place where this saint was hugely venerated.  Did they believe in Christ in their homeland? Yes. Did the sun rise like it did in Wulpit? No.

‘The sun does not rise upon our countrymen; our land is little cheered by its beams; we are contented with that twilight, which, among you, precedes the sunrise, or, follows the sunset.’

So they lived in a permanently dark realm though, bizarrely, they could see in the distance a ‘certain luminous country’.  But they couldn’t get to it because there was a great river in between.

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There are a large number of theories as to what or who these children were – ranging from aliens to fairies to Flemish refugees, etc, etc.  It’s not atypical of other stories in the Middle Ages detailing strange visitations to isolated villages.

One such story I like is of the villagers in a church who heard a great thump in the graveyard and found a massive anchor had dropped from the sky…and up above was a floating ship…and down the anchor chain came a sailor.  In one version of this story he was grabbed by the villagers and ‘drowned’, exploding like a being made of water.

Sounds like something from X Men!

American Roman slavery

Roman slavery and American slavery – how were they different?

So what was the difference between slavery in the Roman Empire two thousand years ago and slavery in the American south 150 years ago. The answers may surprise…

American slavery was very real – here is the grim evidence!

First of all – this is me holding a copy of the Richmond Enquirer – a newspaper from Virginia. This is an original newspaper from 1840. I bought it from an antique dealer a few years ago. And on the front page are some grim reminders of American slavery.

The front page is not like newspapers or websites today – it’s full of small ads and announcements. And shockingly, there are ads for forthcoming slave auctions. Plus there are pleas from slave owners to help them retrieve their runaways.

American slavery
American slavery

So – how did American and Roman slavery differ?

The American South defined slavery in racial terms. In the Roman Empire, anybody could end up a slave regardless of skin colour. The Romans, you could say were equal opportunities slavers! So, you might be a Roman citizen living in Syria of Arab ethnicity who owned a Germanic slave captured in one of Rome’s wars on the Rhine frontier.

In other words, a man of Middle Eastern complexion could own a man of blonde and blue-eyed appearance. To the Romans, your status was everything – your race was a lesser factor.

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Roman slaves did what we regard as high status jobs. If you went to a doctor, had your accounts worked on, watched an actor at the theatre or met the manager of a local business – all those professionals could have been slaves in ancient Rome. There were slaves in the fields and mines kept in chains and subject to unbelievable brutality. But there were also slaves in what we would regard as white-collar and managerial roles.

This was simply not the case in the American south. The idea of a white family going to an African-American doctor for a consultation would have been unthinkable in early 19th century Virginia. Ditto having your accounts done. Slaves were overwhelmingly in menial, agrarian roles on the plantations. The variety of roles you’d have found in Rome didn’t exist in the American south.

Routes to becoming a slave were very different. In Rome it might involve:

  • Being a prisoner of war
  • Born into slavery because your parents were slaves
  • Abandoned babies often were reared as slaves
  • You were the citizen of a city that had rebelled against Roman rule and you and your neighbours were carted off as slaves
  • Your debts had forced you to sell yourself into slavery

American routes into slavery tended to be less subtle:

  • You were an African American in the southern states
  • You had been captured or sold in Africa and sold on to slavers who then transported you to the New World – the Caribbean, Latin America or deep south

Freed slaves could be very successful in ancient Rome. The Romans borrowed a practice called manumission from the Greeks. This was a very smart idea. Slaves were encouraged to earn a wage on the side – maybe doing something like basket weaving – and they would save some of their money. At an agreed date, they would approach their master and buy their freedom at a pre-determined price.

For the master, this was great. Slaves were depreciating assets – as all that work wore them down. So now, the master had a tidy sum of money with which to pop down to the slave market and get a replacement. The freed slave still had social obligations to the former master but could otherwise pursue a successful career. Some freed slaves did surprisingly well. The emperor Claudius made considerable use of clever Greek freedmen as advisers.

Slaves were freed in the American south from the 17th century onwards but on nothing like the Roman scale. In fact, American slave owners seem to have been more reticent to give slaves their liberty. The only reason I can think of is that by this period in history, slavery was so obviously a rotten institution. By the early 19th century, the United Kingdom – once an enthusiastic slave trader – had outlawed it.

I suspect American slave owners thought that emancipating one slave could lead by degrees to freedom for all. That kind of concern never bothered a Roman in a world where all societies had slave ownership. There was simply no economic alternative. Whereas by the late 18th and 19th centuries, modern industrial capitalism was arriving on the scene with people hiring their labour to factory bosses.

The chances of freed American slaves succeeding while they remained in the south were pretty poor because of the strong racial element. An American ex-slave was easily identifiable whereas a Roman ex-slave could blend into the population. Most manumitted African Americans retained a very servile status compared to Roman freed slaves.

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American slavery made less and less economic sense. New farming technology and the growing of a wider variety of crops made slavery a bit redundant in economic terms from the mid-18th century onwards in the American south. However, studies have concluded that for some landowners and slave traders, investing in human beings was extremely lucrative.

Bluntly, if nobody had been getting rich out of it – slavery would have collapsed long before the American civil war. The investment yield on “slave capital” could be as high as 13% – comparable to investing in the 19th century railroads.  It might seem both distasteful and odd to us now, but there were little old ladies in Worcester, England who invested in slaves in the Caribbean or Virginia in much the same way you might invest remotely in shares or bonds today. You can find these records online.

This kind of investment in slaves required a level of financial sophistication and technology unknown to the Romans. They simply bought a human being and put him or her to work. End of story. It was the economic norm and there was no other known way of powering a ship forward (galley slaves), heating a posh house (the hypocaust) or quarrying all that marble to build lovely temples to the gods.

Whereas American slavery could be replaced instantly by harnessing industrial methods and hiring workers. There was simply no good reason for continuing a pre-feudal form of labour in the 19th century.  By the end, when the south lost the civil war, plantation owners who had supported the Confederacy just seemed to be flaunting their slaves like trophies as opposed to making a profit and running a proper business.

Sexual abuse of slaves. In both Roman and American slave systems, sexual abuse was common. The main difference would have been that certain sexual practices were condemned by Christian doctrine – sodomy for example – whereas in ancient Rome, no such restriction was in place.

Slaves in Rome could be openly advertised for their sexual capability – heterosexual and homosexual. Ointments were applied to remove body hair and, it was thought, to delay the onset of puberty. For example, a hyacinth bulb dipped in sweet wine and applied on a teenage slave’s body was thought to keep it artificially youthful. Boys might also be castrated to satisfy the demand for young eunuchs.

Sex between slaves and owners was tolerated in ancient Rome and even celebrated on The Warren Cup – a goblet you can see at the British Museum in London. But there were social conventions. The owner had to be dominant and not passive in the sexual act. The slave had to be in very much the submissive role. Some of these relationships may have been consensual – but you can bet a great many more were not.

Sexual abuse also happened to slaves in the Americas but not openly advertised. In one case, an African American man was forced to rape a slave woman in front of the owners for their amusement. Families were split up at slave auctions with women and children then left exposed to their new owner’s whims.