Welcome to the Grave Reopening Research (GRR) website

GRR is a network of archaeologists who investigate grave disturbance. Current members are Edeltraud Aspöck, Alison Klevnäs, Martine van Haperen, Astrid Noterman, and Stephanie Zintl. We share an interest in grave disturbance in the provinces of early medieval Europe, but also work on grave robbery, reopening, and related practices in other periods and places. GRR is a platform for joint publications, projects, and events. We use this website to highlight our upcoming presentations and publications.

Please contact us if you have a question about archaeological reopening. We’re particularly keen to hear about new excavations of early medieval robbed burials – please do get in touch if you find evidence that looks like ancient reopening.

See below for our latest news.

Read all about it

We’re very pleased – ok flabbergasted – to see so much media interest in our new Open Access paper in the journal Antiquity on the phenomenon of grave reopening in early medieval Europe. The paper brings together results from studies by all five authors, plus some wider perspectives from the history of research and more recent work. We show the geographical and chronological extent of the phenomenon, discuss the nature of the practices, and argue that however counterintuitively, reopening now needs to be considered part of the broad customary treatment of the dead in the period.

As Heinrich Härke comments in the livescience.com coverage, while some of the discoveries have been reported previously in journals or books, “What is new in this article… is the coherent attempt to pull the western and central European evidence on ‘grave opening’ together, present it as a European-wide phenomenon of the 6th/7th centuries A.D., and offer some possible interpretations”. We don’t actually get very far into interpretations in this short paper, but as you can see in the press coverage below, we’ve been asked a lot about what possible meanings the reopening practices might have had for those carrying them out and I have tried to give some answers along the lines the authors have variously previously published or are developing.

It’s great to see how much public interest there is in results from an archaeological study of this kind. This wasn’t a spectacular ‘new find’ story. It’s about many years (decades!) of research into a complex phenomenon which raises as many questions as it answers. There’s no familiar ‘Viking’ tag to pin on this. What’s the recognition value of the Merovingian kingdoms? Reihengräberfelder? Lombardic cemeteries (well, cemeteries traditionally but dubiously attributed to so-called Lombards) in Lower Austria and Hungary? The many journalists who’ve contacted us with follow-up questions have had a uphill slog to get clear descriptions of the period and material we’ve been studying, let alone why it’s exciting.

But the human past in all its complexity and strangeness is of huge popular interest – which is why the threats to archaeological research especially in the UK at the moment are so disheartening. It has just been announced that Archaeology and Heritage at the University of Chester is now safe from redundancies, but the world-renowned Department of Archaeology at the University of Sheffield is under threat of closure by university management.

Here’s a list of some of the coverage we’ve seen for this paper. Very many thanks to everyone who has taken an interest in our work and helped to get the word out.

/Alison

https://www.newscientist.com/article/2281538-europeans-used-to-open-their-relatives-graves-to-recover-heirlooms/

https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-01695-4

https://edition.cnn.com/2021/06/17/world/medieval-graves-study-scli-intl-scn/index.html

https://www.dn.se/vetenskap/karin-bojs-att-hylla-de-doda-ar-typiskt-oss/

https://fof.se/artikel/plundrade-gravar-hade-vittjats-av-efterlevande

https://www.livescience.com/medieval-graves-reopened.html

https://www.sciencesetavenir.fr/archeo-paleo/archeologie/ouvrir-une-tombe-ne-rime-pas-toujours-avec-pillage-au-haut-moyen-age_155328

https://www.lanacion.com.ar/el-mundo/saqueadores-investigan-el-misterio-de-las-tumbas-reabiertas-hace-1400-anos-nid22062021/

https://www.spektrum.de/news/trauerriten-graboeffnungen-waren-mittelalterlicher-standard/1886359

https://www.iflscience.com/editors-blog/in-medieval-europe-the-dead-and-buried-werent-left-to-rest/

https://www.fr24news.com/fr/a/2021/06/les-europeens-medievaux-ont-regulierement-rouvert-des-tombes-et-non-pour-les-voler.html

https://kopalniawiedzy.pl/grob-rodzina-sredniowiecze-rabunek-rabus,33884

https://www.sott.net/article/454449-Mystery-of-dark-age-grave-exhumations-probed-by-archeologists

https://www.jpost.com/archaeology/archaeologists-explore-medieval-grave-robbing-phenomenon-671687

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/why-did-medieval-people-reopen-graves-180978034/

https://www.focus.de/wissen/natur/raetsel-um-fruehmittelalterliche-graboeffnungen_id_13422634.html

https://www.futura-sciences.com/sciences/actualites/archeologie-profanateurs-tombes-moyen-age-netaient-pas-inconnus-88136/#xtor%3DRSS-8

https://www.ystadsallehanda.se/nyheter/gravar-plundrades-inte-utan-besoktes-igen-a2be2aa5/https://www.gp.se/nyheter/sverige/gravar-plundrades-inte-utan-bes%C3%B6ktes-igen-1.50617887

https://www.gp.se/nyheter/sverige/gravar-plundrades-inte-utan-bes%C3%B6ktes-igen-1.50617887

https://45secondes.fr/des-archeologues-enquetent-sur-le-mystere-des-tombes-rouvertes-il-y-a-1-400-ans/

Reopening graves a widespread practice in early medieval Europe, research reveals

https://actualidad.rt.com/actualidad/395553-descubren-europeos-medievales-reabrian-regularmente-tumbas

Why were people in the Early Middle Ages reopening graves?

Reopening graves in the early Middle Ages: from local practice to European phenomenon

Today we’ve published an Open Access paper in the journal Antiquity summarizing results from all five members of the research network, plus new wider perspectives:

https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/antiquity/article/reopening-graves-in-the-early-middle-ages-from-local-practice-to-european-phenomenon/7AF3550F7CDD3FEEF7E1E8146BF71284

Abstract: Across Europe early medieval archaeologists have long recognised significant numbers of graves displaying evidence for the intentional post-burial disturbance of skeletons and artefacts. The practice of reopening and manipulating graves soon after burial, traditionally described—and dismissed—as ‘robbing’, is documented at cemeteries from Transylvania to southern England. This article presents a synthesis of five recent regional studies to investigate the evidence of and the motivations for the reopening of early medieval graves. From the later sixth century AD, the reopening of individual graves and removal of selected artefact types rapidly became part of the shared treatment of the dead across this wide area.

Klevnäs, A., Aspöck, E., Noterman, A. A., van Haperen, M. C., & Zintl, S. (2021). Reopening graves in the early Middle Ages: from local practice to European phenomenon. Antiquity, 1-22, doi:10.15184/aqy.2020.217.

Ceci n’est pas une tombe réouverte. Archaeothanatology Working Group 2021

Astrid Noterman and Alison Klevnäs recently gave a presentation to the Archaeothanatology Working Group on cases of burials in which deliberate early re-entries have been suspected, but where archaeothanatological analysis doesn’t support the interpretation. This was part of preparing for a methodological paper we’re writing on how post-depositional interventions are recognized and recorded. It was super-useful to have expert feedback and discussion from the group members.

New publication on reopening evidence in southeast England

Lots of publications in the pipeline at the moment, but here’s one that’s come out. It’s published in Archaeologia Cantiana, the regional journal for the county of Kent in southeast England. This is an area where many disturbed burials have been unearthed and more are likely to appear in future excavations of early medieval cemeteries, so a key aim for the paper was to raise awareness of the evidence for post-depositional interventions and why it’s interesting and worth recording in detail.

Klevnäs, A. 2020. ‘Robbed in antiquity’: grave opening in seventh-century East Kent – stimulated by cross-channel influences. Archaeologia Cantiana. 140. 1-18.

Signs of what appears to be ancient grave robbery have frequently been reported in excavations of Anglo-Saxon cemeteries in Kent. The county is the one area of early medieval England with substantial evidence of such plunder. Affected graves appear ransacked, with incomplete skeletons found in disorder on grave floors and in the fill. Artefacts, or at least their fragmentary remains, are often found in the disturbed burials, but grave-good collections appear diminished, with metal stains on bones sometimes indicating the original presence of removed objects.

Until recently no attempt had been made to collate reports of robbery, nor to compare the evidence from different sites, with the poor publication record for cemeteries a major hindrance. Moreover, discussions in Kent have been almost entirely isolated from the parallel evidence for widespread reopening in contemporary cemeteries on the Merovingian Continent.

This paper presents the key Kentish findings of recent research which brought together all the accessible evidence for disturbance of contemporary burials in Anglo-Saxon England as a whole. Reopening of recent graves occurred intensively, especially in the east of the county, being particularly common on the Isle of Thanet. There are also isolated examples of similarly treated graves in west Kent and elsewhere in southern and eastern England, but only east Kent shows reopening levels comparable to those seen in cemeteries over the Channel.

Looking in depth at the evidence from the most heavily disturbed sites in east Kent, it quickly becomes apparent that this is not a question of straightforward robbery. On the Continent this period featured pervasive practices of revisiting, opening, manipulating and removing selected objects from recent burials, and it is now clear that these customs crossed the Channel into Kent.