Would You Visit Five Centuries of Bones? The Scary Spanish Ossuary of Wamba

What could be more frightening than a chamber full of bones? Perhaps only the awareness of being surrounded by the remains of 3000 people who died between the 13th and 18th century, while having a possible Visigoth cemetery under your feet. This creepy experience is available for the brave in Wamba, Spain.

There are numerous ossuaries in Europe, but some of them are scarier than others. In the small town of Wamba in the Valladolid province of Spain there is a place for royal burials which is also filled with the living legend of Visigoth rulers, and a scary ossuary – all this combines to leave a permanent mark on local and visitor perceptions of life and death.

Detail of one of the skulls in the Wamba ossuary.

Detail of one of the skulls in the Wamba ossuary. (el Pachinko/CC BY NC 3.0)

The Visigothic Settlement

The story of Wamba began with King Wamba, the Visigothic ruler who was elected as king of these lands in 672 AD. He died just eight years later. As Raquel Alonso described in her article:

”On the night of 14 October 680, King Wamba fell into a swoon and appeared to be dying, and was thus subjected to the sacrament of public penance (he was tonsured, covered with a hair-shirt and a cross of ashes traced on his body while being exhorted to consider himself dead to the world). The king, however, regained consciousness, but what had been done could not be undone and, as the public penitent he had become, found himself disqualified from ruling as king. As a result, the following day Erving came to the groyne and was anointed king on 21st of that month. This is how these events were described both in the Laterculus Regum Visigothorum (…).”

The Election of Wamba as King, by Francisco de Paula Van Halen

The Election of Wamba as King, by Francisco de Paula Van Halen. (Public Domain)

The ruler had to be buried in a prominent place with all the ceremonial honors. This burial started a new tradition in Wamba. The impact of the Visigoths on European culture was impressive. However, many of their buildings and other achievements have been destroyed or recreated into Christian sites.

Remembering Past Glory

Before the location was known as Wamba, the settlement was called Gerticos and it was already an important site for rulers like King Recceswinth, who had a comfortable villa located in this area. Wamba became a significant settlement for many years. Currently, Wamba is just a small town, but its history has fascinated generations of archaeologists and historians.

The Church of Santa Maria is in the heart of the town. The remarkable archaeological findings from its site are found at the Archaeological Museum of Valladolid, but the church itself continues to be a notable Visigoth monument. It is possible that the area of Wamba was abandoned for some time and repopulated by people who came there from the north. Due to this, the church is closer to Asturian and Visigoth styles than typical Christian buildings, like the ones we can see, for example, in Andalusia.

The Church of Santa Maria, Wamba, Spain.

The Church of Santa Maria, Wamba, Spain. (el Pachinko/CC BY NC 3.0)

Some researchers believe that the church is the oldest one in this area. First it was a Mozarabic church, but it was rebuilt later by the Knights Hospitaller of the order of St. John of Jerusalem. At that time, the church was rectangular and measured only 18 meters (59 ft.) long and 12 meters (39 ft.) wide. The most remarkable part of the construction was the complex of arches on pillars. During the 12th century, the church was rebuilt in the Cistercian style, which is the dominant style until now.

This church is famous for its royal burials. The most famous tomb belongs to Queen Urraca of Portugal, who was King Ferdinand II of León’s wife and the mother of King Alfonso IX of León. But the queen was not the only one buried here, the ossuary contains the bones of thousands of people. The vast number demonstrates the power of death to all who visit it. It is a creepy place that frightens anyone who is even a little sensitive.

Ossuary in Wamba (Valladolid, Spain).

Ossuary in Wamba (Valladolid, Spain). (CC BY SA 3.0)

The Fascinating Composition of Skulls

The ossuary contains the bones of more than 3000 monks. It is unknown how many people were buried there, but researchers have tried to count visible remains. Although the bones have been dated back to the 13th to 18th centuries AD, it is likely that some of them are even older. These finer details of the remnants are unknown. However, the construction looks like it has been around for a long time. Moreover, the bones are a perfect source of information about the life and causes of death for the Wamba monks.

The epitaph of the ossuary says: “As you see, I saw myself as you see me, you see all ends here Think about it and you will not sin….”

Examining the bones. (Fundación Joaquín Díaz / Cayetano Enríquez/CC BY SA 3.0)

Money and the Magic of Bones

The human remains became a huge money magnet for the Church and town. The creepy chamber is a popular tourist attraction today. It is possible that its popularity comes from a fascination people have with the eternal search for the truth about life after death.

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