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Mysterious Mass Grave at Medieval Monastery

In 2013, a team of Polish archaeologists unearthed what appeared to be a massive monastery in the Wadi Abu Dom valley in central Sudan near the Nile River. The al-Ghazali monastery is believed to be over 1,000 years old, implying it was built during a period when Christian missionaries were widespread throughout Africa and used by pilgrims and visiting monks. Interestingly, the most significant find of that initial excavation was the discovery of fifteen individual toilets, each with their own private space and shards of smooth pottery in place of toilet paper.

7th century toilets.

7th century toilets.

Now, more recent excavations have revealed an even deeper mystery than how anyone would use pottery shards for toilet paper. According to a report presented at the Archaeological Institute of America by Robert Stark of McMaster University, the al-Ghazali monastery is the site of a mysterious mass burial ground containing unusual graves unlike any other known monastic burial sites from the same era. Most curious of all is the discovery that many of the remains found show signs of post-mortem mutilation.

The outer walls of the monastery still stand.

The outer walls of the monastery still stand.

Many of the remains are still covered in burial shrouds, indicating that the burials were planned carefully and undertaken according to tradition. Some of the features of other graves, however, remain unexplained. A few graves contain the mixed bones of multiple individuals and show evidence of either de-fleshing or some sort of ritual mutilation. A few graves indicate haphazard burials, including bodies interred at odd angles or with limbs askew.

Medieval monasteries can be found throughout central and eastern Africa.

Medieval monasteries can be found throughout central and eastern Africa.

This discovery could shed new light on the religious history of Christianity in Nubia, or ancient Sudan, which dates back to the height of the Byzantine Empire. Byzantine missionaries spread Christianity deep into Africa as far back as the 7th century, although Coptic Christians from Greece had established contact with Nubian kingdoms as early as the 2nd century. With the Muslim conquests of Africa in the 6th and 7th centuries, however, Christianity’s hold in areas such as Nubia began to wane. Could these mysterious mutilated burials imply a holy war or some sort of desecration? As usual, more evidence is needed before definitive conclusions can be drawn.