Plants & People

Plant Remains in Coffin Pillows Betray Burial Beliefs

A top-quality pillow is essential for a good night's sleep, but what pillow do you need for the longest sleep? A study of pillows in Polish graves shows that Catholics and Protestants had different ideas.
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They say you can’t take anything with you when you die but, in Christian burials, you do get a pillow for your head. A new study, published in Vegetation History and Archaeobotany by Monika Badura and colleagues, has found that plant remains in these pillows reveal information about the beliefs of a community. Piecing together details from seeds and even pollen, they discovered that the plant remains might even supply information about the season of the burial.

Image: Midjourney

One feature that the study found was that the plants used in pillows varied according to their Christian denomination. Catholics placed many different species of plants in the funeral pillows of their loved ones. The remains indicate that wreaths blessed for Corpus Christi, or bouquets for Assumption Day from Catholic ceremonies would be used for the deceased. In contrast, Protestants used comparatively few plants.

“Our research is the result of cooperation with archaeologists who work on crypt burials. ‘My’ archaeologists know that I am interested in this topic, so they collect botanical remains and submit them to me for analysis,” said Monika Badura in an email to Botany One. It’s rare for an archaeologist to examine remains like this. “The analysis of this type of plant remains is not easy, and not all archaeobotanists work on this type of material.”

The team of Polish botanists, historians and archaeologists examined the flora used to stuff pillows in Christian burials in the 17th to 19th centuries. They found that many plants were chosen for practical reasons, with insect repellent and anti-microbial properties reducing decay before burial. Some pillows were filled solely with hops and Humulus lupulus, but Artemisia, Buxus sempervirens, and various Asteraceae and Lamiaceae were also important.

The botanists examined material from burials around Poland, with a focus on the crypts in Kościół Święty Trójcy (Holy Trinity Church) in Byszewo, with samples from 15 adult and five child burials. But other material came from around the nation.

The team examined both macroremains and pollen, which has allowed much more information to be recovered from the burials. Badura and colleagues write in their article: “The parallel use of pollen and macroscopic analyses has indicated the importance of studying the plant material with both methods. Pollen analysis does not always detect taxa present only as vegetative remains, therefore the occurrence of both pollen and macroscopic remains of a taxon may depend on the season of collection of the plants. Also, pollen and macrofossils differ in their ability to be preserved and in the extent to which they can be identified, thus affecting the list of the identified taxa. Our data even indicate that the pollen taxa may not have an identifiable equivalent among the macroscopic remains, and the other way round.”

READ THE ARTICLE

Badura, M., Jarosińska, M., Noryśkiewicz, A.M., Kosmaczewska, A., Sady-Bugajska, A., Święta-Musznicka, J., Pińska, K. and Latałowa, M. (2022) “Archaeobotanical evidence and ethnobotanical interpretation of plants used as coffin pillow fillings in burials in Poland (17th-18/19th centuries),” Vegetation History and Archaeobotany. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00334-022-00884-z

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