Magic For The Dead?* Re-thinking ‘Pagan’ Grave Goods in Christian Burial Contexts.

This article highlights two examples of ‘pagan’ grave goods accompanying Christian burials in the archaeological record- separated by five hundred years. They illustrate the compulsion of the living to provide grave goods for the dead and how this act was expressed materially over time. The author does not suggest that these acts were part of an unbroken continuum; rather, it is clear that it was a practice which constantly evolved in response to shifting cultural anxieties.

As well as reporting on the discovery of an abbot’s crosier having been secreted in a sarcophagus in the 13th century, a preliminary survey recorded a range of apotropaic graffiti (along with evidence for ritual protection practices) in and around the church complex of St Benoit, Vienne, France.

Plate 1: The Abbot’s Crosier is now displayed in the north transept of St Benoit, Vienne, France

An Archaeological Discovery

This ornate copper 13th century crosier (1) [Plate 1], finished in an exceptionally rich Limousin-style enameling was found secreted in an Abbot’s sarcophagus in the church of Saint Benoit (2), Department of the Vienne, France [Plate 2]. It was discovered during the consolidation of a pier on the north side of the transept at the base of the clock tower in 1971 (Parvis 2007). In the past, grave goods placed within coffins to accompany the dead were generally considered to have been a relict ‘pagan’ or pre-Christian act.

Plate 2 : St Benoit, Viennne, France, west facade.

The decoration within the crook head is a depiction of Christ in Majesty on one side whilst the other shows the Virgin Mary with the child Jesus. The curled ‘crook’ has been further enhanced of with winding dragons whilst the bas-relief decoration on the shaft depicts the Angel Gabriel and Virgin Mary at the Annunciation (3). 

The crosier is one of a distinctive  ‘family’ of similar crosiers, so it can be confidently dated to having been manufactured between AD 1220 – 1240, making the owner of this particular crosier likely to have been that of either Abbot Geoffrey (AD 1200-1219) or Abbot Aimeri (AD 1225 – 1229) (Fourestier, M et al 1996:17). This in of itself is not unusual; some Christian burials could be as rich as any pagan burials and this was particularly true of ecclesiastics. St Cuthbert was found to have been buried with a jeweled pectoral cross, a chalice, a paten, a portable altar and ivory comb (Merrifield 1987: 77).

Western European Christian ‘Shepherd’s Crook’

In Western European Christian traditions the crosier takes the form of a shepherd’s crook whist Eastern Orthodox versions favour a staff topped with a Tau-cross or with two curled serpents facing a central cross. The latter is said to represent the transformation of Moses’ staff into a snake whilst the former represents the symbolism of the Bishop guiding his flock (congregation) whilst also acknowledging the allegory of Good Shepherd.

The origin of the crosier is uncertain but in the ‘crook’ form  it is very similar to the pagan Roman lituus which was the staff of the Augur (4) who was an official or priest in charge of ‘taking the auspicies [Plate 3].

Plate 3: An augur holding a lituus, the curved wand often used as a symbol of augury on Roman coins.
(c) Public Domain Wikicommons

Further pagan connotations are alluded to through the analogy of Christ as the Good Shepherd who lays his life down for his flock. Early 4rd century Christian depictions of Christ in Rome’s Catacombs portray a figure carrying a sheep across his shoulders in both paint and sculptural forms [Plate 4]. The iconography is identical to the Greek kriphorus figure that was depicted carrying a ram across its shoulders in preparation for its sacrifice [Plate 5]. The crosier thus embodies several acts of syncretism whereby earlier representations of ‘pagan ‘ iconography were appropriated for Christian use.

Plate 4: Considered to be one of the oldest representations of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, c.300 AD. Catacombs, Rome (c) Public Domain Wikicommons
Plate 5: Late Roman marble copy of the Kriophoros of Kalamis (Museo Barracco, Rome) (c) Public Domain Wikicommons

Magic For the Dead?

In her 2008 article, ‘Magic for the Dead? The Archaeology of Magic in later Medieval Burials,’ Roberta Gilchrist outlined her evidence for the continuation of the ‘pagan’ practice of grave goods in Christian burials. Her examination of the burial evidence culled from archaeological reports illustrated that the practice had persisted through the 11th to 15th centuries. She noted patterns in the placement of objects and the deliberate selection of items which included heirlooms, amulets, healing charms and certain ‘natural’ objects such as fossils which were considered to possess ‘occult power (5).’ The objects – diverse in nature – had one thing in common – in most cases, they were considered to have an apotropaic quality.

She concluded that the practice may have been tolerated by the clergy and that the relatives or friends who had inserted the objects may have done so in the hope of ensuring a successful ‘passing’ for the deceased. It was thought that the perceived power of the objects may have been intended to heal or reconstitute the corpse; to ensure its reanimation on Judgement Day or to protect the vulnerable souls on their journey through Purgatory (Gilchrist 2008: 119). Archaeologically, this tradition can be traced through to the Early Modern Period and well into the 20th century – but it was expressed in a variety of ways as cultural norms developed & changed.

In most cases, it seems to be that the objects illuminated by her study were the vestiges of ‘popular’ or ‘folk’ magic – which was undertaken by the laity – but one which was felt not to contradict Christian teaching. It manifested itself in a number of different ways.

Apotropaic Graffiti & Ritual Protection Marks at St Benoit

A preliminary survey of St Benoit revealed a number of apotropaic (evil-averting) and votive symbols cut into the masonry both inside and outside the church [Plates 6 – 10].

Plate 6 : A number of simple crosses had been cut into the outer walls of the church with the pilaster buttresses being particularly targeted. These appeared to have been cut with a square-bladed chisel.
Plate 7: Many of the ‘simple’ crosses continued into the interior often allied with other known apotropaic symbols such as the compass-drawn circle. This circle is one of the ‘incomplete’ variety and is cut into the mortar between two blocks. Its incision has been later filled with paint or plaster (whose surface has been subsequently removed) The layers provide a terminus ante and terminus post quem for the marks.
Plate 8: A possible ‘Archbishop’s Cross is part of a panel of indistinct graffiti, a palimpsest which includes ‘random’ marks and scratches (c) W Perkins 2020
Plate 9 : The protective graffiti continues into the monks’ dormitory attached to the church, in this instance around the windows (see below)
Plate 10 : Two saltires (or ‘X’ marks) to the right of the window in the dormitory. The saltire (or Greek Cross) is often found around thresholds and entry points and has been interpreted as an ‘occlusive’ (blocking) symbol. As the ‘gyfu’ rune it can also mean consecration – whose purpose is to sanctify a building and drive out evil spirits.

Recent archaeological building recording studies have often found that, where apotropaic graffiti is present, it may be but one component of a number of different methods of ritual building protection. Along with the graffiti, intentional taper burns were found on the 18th century choir stalls of the church [Plates 11 & 12] .

Plate 11 : An intentional taper burn applied to the paneling on the side of the choir stalls. It is now generally agreed that taper burns are applied as an act of sympathetic magic to ward against fires and lightning strikes. However, their apotropaic function is not to be ignored as they are often found in concentrations around thresholds and chimney breasts.
Plate 12 : Further intentional taper burns found on the choir stalls at St Benoit

Fast forward 500 years……

Post Medieval 18th & 19th Century Salt Plates

‘Dead when I am, first cast in salt.Then shall my ghost not walk about but keep still in the Coole, and silent shades of sleep’

Herrick Hesperides 1648

Garret Lane Old Burial Ground, Wandsworth

In 2018, the author undertook an archaeological watching brief at the Garratt Lane Old Burial Ground, Wandsworth, containing internments from the 18th-19th centuries. The brief ensured that burials (or the grave cuts) were recorded and human charnel collected and re-interred within the consecrated area of the graveyard. One surprising outcome was the regular discovery of caches of 19th century ceramics, some of which appeared to be associated with the grave cuts [Plate 13]. Reference to map regression showed that the cemetery had been delimited within open fields well before the date of the ceramics – and burial continued until it was shut down in the 1930’s. It was therefore highly unlikely (nor  desirous) for nearby residents to use the cemetery for the casual disposal of refuse. Around the same time, MOLA anthropologist Jacqui Pearce had noted similar practices elsewhere in London cemeteries where collections of ceramics (or single large plates) had been found associated with the human burials (6).

Plate 13 : A cache of ceramics discovered in association with a grave cut, Garret Lane Old Burial Ground. (c) Pre-Construct Archaeology Ltd, photograph by the author.

‘It was a custom in Leicester and its shire, yet continued, to place a dish of salt on a corpse, for its swelling and purging’

Gentleman’s Magazine 1785

HS2 Excavations

Three years later, during the excavation of a cemetery at St James’s to the west of  Euston Railway Station, MOLA had further identified more 18th to 19th century burials containing so-called ‘salt plates’ interred within some of the coffins (MOLA/Headland 2005). The excavators forwarded a number of putative interpretations for the presence of the ceramics based on folkoric accounts. Some suggested that the salt may have been seen as a deterrent to the devil; acted as a symbol for eternal life or provided protection for the soul on its journey through Purgatory (MOLA/Headland 2005). Salt has always been seen as possessing magical qualities as well as its prosaic one; there are numerous superstitious beliefs recorded by folklorists regarding the believed occult properties of the substance (Opie & Tatem 1989).

Plate : A ‘salt plate’ placed at the foot of an inhumation, this example from HS2 excavations in Birmingham (c) MOLA/Headland Archaeology 2005

Many there be who yet do grace the dead with a salt platter putten upon the breast of the corpse, and all those friends who do view the dead.. do first touch the corpse…and then lay their own hands upon the platter first having full and free forgiven the dead for any fault or ill-feeling that they had in life held as a grudge again the dead’

Calvert MS 1828

CodaWhere Are We Now?

The most recent revelations have come as something as a surprise to the archaeological community. It is becoming apparent that as well as ‘deviant’ burials (those having been placed in the grave in unusual positions or buried in lime or ash) exist in the Christian burial tradition, the practice of inserting grave goods is being noted throughout the archaeological record.

Data for such practices is skewed however, because the objects only come to light if burials are disturbed or moved for some reason – therefore it is difficult to say definitively whether the tradition was indeed continuous, sporadic or only done when responding to outside, time-specific cultural anxieties. What has been highlighted is the continuing faith that objects have the power to aid the soul to eternal rest. A tradition which carried through to the ‘modern’ period.


  • The title of this article owes its debt to Roberta Gilchrist’s ground breaking study (see Bibliography)
  1. A crosier/crozier is also known as a Pastoral or Bishop’s staff carried by the Bishop, Abbot or Abbess as a symbol of his or her pastoral office.
  2. Saint Benedict of Nursia (d. AD 547)was the founder of the Benedictine Order, exorcist, mystic  & father of Western Monasticism
  3. The Christian celebration of the Annunciation commemorates the visit made by the angel Gabriel to Mary to inform her that she would conceive and bear a son through a virgin birth and become the mother of Jesus.
  4. The lituus staff would be used to symbolically mark out the part of the sky which would be used for divination whereby any bird or flock entering it would be interpreted in terms of their speed, direction of flight or their number.
  5. Belemnites were believed to be ‘thunder stones’ created where lightning had struck the ground.
  6. Museum of London Archaeology.

Bibliography & Links

Calvert MS (1828) used by G Home in, Evolution of an English Town. Pickering, Yorkshire, 1915

Clauzier, D & Leclair, E (2010) Histoire et Patramoine Saint-Benoit. Poitiers & Grand Poitiers Service Culture et Patrimoine.

Fourestier, M & Lesellier, F (1996) Histoire Autour de Saint-Benoit.L’office de tourisme de Poitiers.

Gentleman’s Magazine, The (1731-1907)

Herrick, R (1648) Hesperides; or, the works of both humane and divine of Robert Herrick.

Merrifield, R (1987) The Archaeology of Ritual & Magic. London: BT Batsford Ltd.

MOLA Headland (2005) An Emblem of the Immortal Spirit? ‘Salt Plates’ From St James & Park Street Burial Grounds. MOLA Headland Infrastructure website.

Opie, I & Tatem, M (1989) A Dictionary of Superstitions. Oxford University Press.

PARVIS (2007a) L’eglise de Saint-Benoit, Vienne. 1. Le batiment. Histoire et Foi, Centre theologique de Poitiers.

PARVIS (2007b) L’eglise de Saint-Benoit, Vienne. 2. Le Mobilier. Histoire et Foi, Centre theologique de Poitiers.

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