Mar 16, 2023 I Paul Seaburn

Romans Protected the Living from the Restless Dead with Bent Nails on the Ground

Old-time Warner Brothers cartoons and Three Stooges short films share a cinematic staple when a scene requires stopping someone or something villainous from running amok and chasing the protagonist. It works with any villain, but is particularly effective if the antagonist is barefoot or driving a vehicle with rubber tires. That cinematic go-to action is strewing sharp objects on the ground for the enemy to step on – causing pain and forcing them to stop and give the heroes time to escape. It turns out that this reliable trick has been around for a long time. Archeologists excavating at the site of the ancient Roman city of Sagalassos in southwestern Turkey recently discovered a tomb from the second century CE whose perimeter was covered with bent nails – the researchers believe this was to keep the deceased from rising from the dead and running out to haunt the living. Did it work? Was this the inspiration for The Three Stooges and the Roadrunner cartoons?

Nobody living or dead wants to step on a nail. 

“The authors report the discovery of a cremation burial from ancient Sagalassos that differs from contemporaneous funerary deposits. In this specific context, the cremated human remains were not retrieved but buried in situ, surrounded by a scattering of intentionally bent nails, and carefully sealed beneath a raft of tiles and a layer of lime.”

This was a burial worthy of a study, published recently in the journal Antiquity. First author Johan Claeys, an archaeologist at Catholic University Leuven in Belgium, described to Live Science the many ways the burial suggested strong magical rituals were used to keep this particular deceased man from leaving this tomb. The site dates back to 100-150 CE when Sagalassos was under Roman rule. Claeys and his team were working as part of the Sagalassos Archaeological Research Project and the first thing that caught their eyes was the way this man was cremated. In normal funerals of the time, the corpse was burned on a funeral pyre, then the ashes were collected, placed in an urn and buried in a grave or a mausoleum. Not this man – his cremation was in situ … the funeral pyre was directly above his final resting place. The bones that were not burned to ashes were placed in the coal fragments in a way that revealed this unusual cremation. There were enough remains to determine this was an adult, but little more.

“The deceased was awarded a pyre cremation within the necropolis, and accompanied by appropriate objects: a ‘Charon's obol’, perfume bottles, vessels containing food, and a shroud or clothing. A woven or plaited item might have been a basket (containing some of the fruits and nuts?) or a bier used to carry the deceased to their final resting place.”

While the cremation was odd, other parts of the funeral ritual and placement of objects for the afterlife seemed normal. But, as the archeologists looked around, it became unusual again. Surrounding the remains of the corpse and the bier were nails – the researchers could not determine a carpentry or other functional use for these bent nails, which would not have been appropriate for building the pyre or making any other wood objects in the grave. (Photos of the nails here.) The archeologists thus concluded that their placement in a circle around the deceased’s ashes were a ritual means of keeping them from leaving. Nails were common tools for warding off evil - Pliny the Elder wrote of using nails from tombs to ward off nightmare, while other texts refer to nails protecting from diseases. In this case, it was clearly the cartoonish way of dissuading the dead from stepping on them on their way out. However, this was a man who was obviously feared, as more was done to keep him from rising again.

“Following the cremation, the pyre was covered with 24 bricks (each averaging 280 × 280 × 35mm), which were neatly arranged in four rows, covering a surface of 1.80 × 1.20m. The undersides of the bricks were discoloured, suggesting that they had been placed on top of the still-smouldering pyre. The bricks were subsequently covered with a layer of solidified lime (CaCO3), with remnants of slaked lime (Ca(OH)2), suggesting that their placement over the pyre was not a temporary measure to safeguard the cremains for future recovery, as was typical for cremations at Sagalassos. Sealing the pyre site with lime effectively transformed its location into a permanent tomb for the cremains.”

While the remains were still hot, they were weighed down by 24 bricks in a 4 by 6 arrangement, then covered with a lime plaster which hardened and held them in place like a tile cover. The study notes that weighing a corpse down with stones or other heavy objects was a sign of necrophobia and often found in later times when the living feared the dead rising from the grave as vampires, zombies or ghosts. However, even 24 bricks were deemed insufficient to keep this corpse down, so they were plaster into an immobile and extremely heavy covering. The lime plaster was often used to prevent putrefaction or to protect the living from whatever disease the deceased had in what was known as ‘plaster burials’, but that doesn’t seem to be the reason here.

"It is the combined practices, however, within their specific historical and regional setting, that narrow down the possible interpretations. The combination of nails and bricks designed to restrain the dead with the sealing effect of the lime strongly implies a fear of the restless dead. Regardless of whether the cause of death was traumatic, mysterious or potentially the result of a contagious illness or punishment, it appears to have left the dead intent on retaliation and the living fearful of the deceased's return.”

No more nails!

What made this burial study-worthy was the combination of so many practices for protecting the living from the “restless dead” – the in-place cremation, the circle of bent nails, the 24 bricks and the covering of plaster. There was something about this deceased man that obviously terrified those burying him. What could that have been? The authors note that the burial is confusing. While the deceased was treated with respect and buried with appropriate grave objects, the post-cremation burial practices made it far from normal. However, they note that using the term “deviant” to describe them has negative connotations which may not be correct – there could be other reasons for the circle of nails, bricks and plaster which have not yet been identified. One possibility suggested in Ancient Origins is that the family of the deceased was protecting him, not the townspeople. Protecting the dead from whom? It seems there were necromancers – wizards who raised the dead with curse tablets to do their bidding.

The reasons for the bent nails and other practices are subjects for future research projects. The authors suggest that those researchers and students of history should be open to possible new insights “into the belief structures of past societies that may complement or confront our established views of the Roman past.”

It’s too bad Larry, Curly and Moe (the Stooges) aren’t around and it’s unfortunate that Wile E. Coyote can’t speak. Perhaps their experiences with stepping on nails could help solve this mystery.

Paul Seaburn

Paul Seaburn is the editor at Mysterious Universe and its most prolific writer. He’s written for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show", "Politically Incorrect" and an award-winning children’s program. He's been published in “The New York Times" and "Huffington Post” and has co-authored numerous collections of trivia, puzzles and humor. His “What in the World!” podcast is a fun look at the latest weird and paranormal news, strange sports stories and odd trivia. Paul likes to add a bit of humor to each MU post he crafts. After all, the mysterious doesn't always have to be serious.

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