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.

PresentDead blog post 4: Presenting the PresentDead at the IMAFO – The Historian’s View

by Thom Gobbitt

 

On Tuesday 16 April, we took the PresentDead project across the street from our regular home, into Otto Wagnar’s Postsparkasse, and presented the aims and goals of the historical perspective at the Institute for Medieval Research (IMAFO) of the OEAW. This was in part to strengthen connections with the members of the Histogenes project, but we had a great turnout from the various departments of the Institute, but especially from the department for “Historical Identity Research”. There was a lot of engagement and some very good and thought-provoking questions, that will certainly inform our thinking over the coming months and years.

 

The presentation began with Edeltraud outlining the aims and objectives of the project, looking at the archaeological underpinnings and scope, while offering a synopsis of the historical sources and scholarship that archaeologists have employed from the late nineteenth century to the modern day, to inform interpretations of re-opened graves. This began with Ludwig Lindenschmidt’s observation in his three volume Handbuch der Deutschen Alterthumskunde (1880-1889), that if an early medieval grave has less previous metals and jewellery than one would expect, then this should probably be attributed to grave-robbing. He had also already outlined those of the early medieval historical source texts that have in the century-and-a-half since then informed most interpretations on graverobbing: On the one hand, the legislative sources, especially the so called “barbarian laws”, and naming specifically the law-codes of the Salian Franks, Lombards, Visigoths, Alamanns and Bavarians. These remain the sources most frequently referred to up to the modern day, although particularly through the filter of the 1977 “Grabfrevel” conference and the subsequent publication of its proceedings in 1978. On the other hand, the historiographical accounts of the reopening of the graves of the Lombard kings Rothari and Alboin as recounted by Paul the Deacon in his Historia Langobardorum, and the plundering of the recent grave of a relative of the wife of one Guntram Boso by his servants – although probably at his instruction. More recently, Patrick Geary’s work has brought attention to grave-reopening in terms of otherworldly encounters both in the translation of saints and their miraculous powers as well as in secular terms. Archaeologists, however have given little weight to the perspective that Geary offers, and instead their focus has been more on the negative sense of Grabfrevel, the violation of graves. As Edeltraud noted, there has not really been a comprehensive study of the written contexts of grave-reopening in the early medieval period since the 1977 “Grabfrevel” symposium, and for the last almost half a century since its publication, the emphasis on such activity being only grave robbery as underscored in that volume has had a significant influence on archaeological interpretation. Edeltraud concluded her section of our presentation with the key point underlining the project’s historical objectives – the texts need to be re-examined in the light of current historical and literary analysis.

 

For my own part of the presentation, I began by outlining some of the general parameters of the study: the most significant of which being that for the core geographical area and timeframe where our project focuses – broadly speaking, from what are now Transylvania to eastern Austria, in the fifth to eighth centuries, where different contexts of grave re-opening than just robbery can be observed – written texts are incredibly sparse. Written sources begin to appear towards the western edges of the project area at the end of the time frame, but for the most part it’s not a case of texts which were directly written within the project scope, or even such texts that survive only in their later transmission and reception. Instead, a broader net has to be cast, looking at texts that were written or transmitted outside the project area, later, or most often, both. This broader focus, beginning with the identification of relevant passages from texts written in both Western Europe and Byzantium, will prioritise texts that look into or back into the area and period of interest to the project. But identification of texts will also serve to contextualise grave reopening and interactions with the dead more broadly – what kind of strategies and processes could be imagined in the early middle ages? The types of sources where interactions with the dead and their materials are mentioned are quite varied, especially with the broader focus beyond just the reopening of graves, let alone grave robbing. The main two types of source on which the project at least begins with are regulatory texts and historiographical accounts:

 

  • Regulatory texts incorporate both the secular “barbarian” laws, and the Roman law inheritance which continued to be developed, as well religiously based normative texts from biblical exemplars through to penitentials, monastic rules and church canons.
  • Historiographical texts incorporate hagiography and, especially, the translation of saints or miracles in their graves, as well as the more worldly accounts of death, burial and grave re-openings – although often the line between the secular and the religious is blurred, especially when written by with religiously-situated authors.

 

The remainder of the paper comprised deeper dives into some of the specific historical texts and issues that have been drawn on by archaeologists, demonstrating some of the limits that have come from the narrowly focused attention given to just the literal account of re-opening a grave. Here let us finish by revisiting just one of those exemplars: Paul the Deacons recounting of the re-opening of Alboin’s grave in his own time by Giselpert, Duke of Verona – an event that Patrick Geary in his Living with the Dead in the Middle Ages (1994) has already re-framed from the terms of superstition and vanity that Paul had used, to instead reveal an otherworldly encounter with the dead king, one which in turn legitimised Giselpert’s claims to power and enhanced his status.

 

Paul’s account included a look back into the account of Alboin’s earlier life – so we see Paul the Deacon’s literary gaze looking a little further back into time, and into the plains of Pannonia – within the edges of where our project’s study focuses. In contrast to the extensive archaeological evidence, however, Paul makes no recounts of grave reopenings here. But amongst the mentions of death, bones and bits of corpses, he also recounts Alboin being given his arma [weaponry] at a feast by the Gepid king, Turismund, a ritualised encounter legitimising Alboin’s political and social power and permitting him from then on to be able to feast in the hall with his own father. But as I spoke about in the presentation, Alboin’s receiving of his arma and his consequent legitimisation, echoes the story of Duke Giselpert of Verona entering Alboin’s grave a couple of centuries later, encountering Alboin and receiving (or winning) his sword from him. Perhaps even, although Paul does not make it clear, the very same sword that Alboin had once received from Turismond – and it would appear that the sword continues to accumulate greater significance in the telling, as it weaves its way back and forth between the living and the dead.

 

But as I argued, this also raises the point that historiographical accounts of the reopening of a grave gain their significance from their broader contexts. We must not just look widely to discover such accounts, but also delve deep into why they were written and how such texts function in their social and intellectual climates. Focusing closely on the specific account of a grave-reopening can already tell us much about how such an event might happen, but when set in its broader contexts we began to reveal how such an act might be understood at a deeper level, and the ways in which the living interacted with the dead and their materials. History and archaeology bring two very different approaches, ones which are often difficult to integrate, let alone unite – but they also offer the potential of wider and multiple perspectives when we instead ask how does each discipline relate to the reopened grave – and what can we dig up together?

PresentDead blog post 3

PresentDead blog post 3

As part of the PresentDead project, I spent a week in Vienna to take a preliminary look at the human skeletal remains from Brunn am Gebirge, Achau and Globasnitz. The aim was to test a recording system that we are currently developing for bone surface modifications and bone breakage.

The archaeological focus on secondary interventions has traditionally been on the artefacts and the reasons why some of them were removed and others left behind. But in recent years, more attention has been paid to skeletal remains. In fact, focus has shifted from the basic description of the anatomical area of the body that has been disturbed to the taphonomic and technical consequences of the reopening. Today, archaeologists are increasingly interested in the traces left on bones by tools. The most classic example is the holes that are sometimes seen, made by the penetration of a probe – a tool that seems to have been used to detect graves in some regions. We can mention grave 8 from Friedberg-Bruchenbrücken (Germany) with a 4 mm hole on the upper part of the left tibia of the individual (Thiedmann, Schleifring 1992, pp. 435-439).
The marks left by the use of a sharp tool such as a knife are interesting for understanding the modus operandi of the reopening, and by extension for reconstructing funerary costume. Such marks are sometimes recorded, like at Vendenheim in eastern France (Chenal, Barrand-Emam 2014).

There are in fact a whole range of traces that secondary intrusions can leave on the bones, and one of the aims of the PresentDead is to better understand them in order to find out more about the practice of reopening, but also about the way in which individuals were dressed at the time of burial.
So during a week I looked at a selection of graves from three collections and ‘chased’ these marks. The bone preservation was uneven, making the process rather challenging. Eventually, I identified a few chopping & cut marks, sun bleaching and coffin wear.

The next steps now are to adjust the recording protocol to make it even more effective and to carry out a full, in-depth osteological study of the human remains from the sites.

Picture: chopping mark on the left femur from grave 3 from Brunn am Gebirge (NHM collection, photo by A. A. Noterman).

PresentDead blog post 2

Turning ideas into practice

Ha! PresentDead has already been running for half a year. And it is four months since the last (and first) blog post… so much for me thinking that the initial enthusiasm of starting the PresentDead project will finally turn me into a very active online communicator. Well, I am still the same as I ever was.

Saying that, the months since then have been quite exciting and really important ones as we have been working on transforming the more abstract project ideas into concrete workplans and tasks. This process, however, does not really lend itself into short, easy to communicate and ideally somewhat entertaining blog-post pieces. Anyway. So far, we have been defining workplans and goals and discussing how to implement them. And in an even more concrete fashion, Astrid has worked on the development of protocols for the analysis of bone taphonomy, which includes an analysis of the impact of reopening on the human remains as well as potential evidence of fragmentation. Fragmentation in the sense of fragmentation theory (e.g. Chapman, J. 2000. Fragmentation in Archaeology, People, Places and Broken Objects in the Prehistory of South-Eastern Europe. London, Routledge) – that is the idea that objects might be deliberately broken in order to create fragments for use in other practices. Astrid has also come to  Vienna to take a look at the human remains of selected individuals from three collections (Brunn am Gebirge , Achau , Globasnitz ) to ‘test’ the protocols she is developing. (This will certainly also be worth a dedicated blog post in the very near future!)

Thom Gobbitt and I have been working together quite closely since the start of the project (as was planned, my vision has always been to have an integrated archaeological-historical research in PresentDead, and with Thom, who is also trained as an archaeologist we have the right candidate for this endeavour!). This has meant a lot of discussion about how to proceed with the historical part of the project (we decided to follow two strands of research, a data-driven one and a more ‘traditional’ one, where Thom will organise workshops and collaborate with other historians on the topic); we have also been discussing how to organise the historical part of the data platform and how to achieve semantic integration of data (that, basically, is to integrate archaeological and historical data based on their “meaning”), among other things. Finally, we also realised that we really need to start the project with a historian’s review of how historical sources related to the reopening of graves have been used to inform the archaeological work and interpretation. And this is what Thom is working on now (and which has already brought to light many small but very important results, and these will certainly also be worthy of a blog post written by the third social media enthusiast in this project )

Ali Klevnäs has in the meantime been looking into Carpathian basin evidence for the reopening of graves prior to our main period of interest of the 5th to 8th centuries CE. The so-called “Sarmatian” cemeteries show plenty of evidence for reopening of graves and it will be important to establish if and how these practices can be related to what we find in the later “row grave cemeteries”.

Apart from being engaged, to varying degrees, with all of the above research threads, I have primarily been working on the data modelling, and, most importantly, have been establishing connections with archaeologists and other cooperation partners. We had a very fruitful first official meeting with Walter Pohl and the Viennese team from the HistoGenes project (Histogenes meets PresentDead), exchanging very practical ideas on the handling of the data and case studies, and with some very concrete outcomes about collaborations already being proposed (more to come on those when they happen). And for me, personally, it has been a nice experience to re-connect with several colleagues who are excavating in Vienna and the surroundings, and to breath the air of excavation once more while searching for potential sites for micro-archaeological excavations (as well as for analysis).

PresentDead blog post 1

And #PresentDead hit the ground running: 29th – 30th September 2023 we visited the colloquium ‘Between Goths, Huns and Gepids. The Middle Danube Region in the Early Migration Period’ in Târgu Mureș in Romania. It was organised by Mureș County Museum (Târgu Mureș) in collaboration with the National Museum of Transylvanian History (Cluj-Napoca) to mark the publication of the migration-period inhumation cemetery from Ernei from the Transylvanian Plateau: The Migration Period Cemetery from Ernei, BMM sa XIX, Cluj-Napoca, 2023 (edited by Alpár Dobos and Sándor Berecki). Ernei is a site that we plan to investigate together with other cemeteries in the region for in-depth analysis of the grave reopening.

On Friday the colloquium was opened by our colleague and cooperation partner Alpár Dobos, with a presentation on the cemetery Ernei, a cemetery with 70 graves and hence untypical for the 5th century in this region, where solitary graves and small grave groups are common. However, its dating to the mid-5th century CE is secured not only by grave goods but also by recent radiocarbon dates. The publication of the C14 results is a collaboration of the excavators with Ali Klevnäs (one of the outcomes of her project ‘Interacting with the dead. Belief and conflict in Early Medieval Europe (AD 450-750)’ and currently in preparation. For PresentDead, the high number of reopened graves – all but one of the graves were reopened – raises interesting questions about the start of the reopening phenomenon.

Whilst the presentations on the first day provided more insights on migration period artefacts and sites of the region, with interesting discussions also in relation to PresentDead research questions, on day 2 the whole morning was dedicated to the discussion of grave disturbances: Ali Klevnäs started with a presentation on the state-of-the-art of research on reopened graves in Western Europe. I provided an overview of PresentDead, its overall aims and objectives and a focus on case studies and the specific approach I had developed to overcome current hinderances of research. Thom Gobbitt gave an overview of the textual sources that he will be working with for PresentDead and gave examples of texts that will be relevant from the Langobard laws, his specialism. The third talk from the PresentDead project was presented by Astrid Noterman, who presented on methods that we will use, primarily from within her specialism as an biological anthropologist and taphonomist (archaeothanatology). We had an interesting discussion, once again drawing our attention to terminology (is reopening the right term? We say yes, in English, German and French, but possibly not in other languages), but also what role ethnic labels may play in PresentDead (or not!).

In the second part of the session on grave disturbances Alpár Dobos was introducing newly excavated sites in Transylvania and how they would fit into the picture (and which interesting questions they pose about the origin of reopening); Regina Viktória Csordás gave a first presentation on her new PhD project on reopening of Transdanubian cemeteries in Hungary that she just started at Eötvös Loránd University; and the section was concluded by Coriolan Horațiu Opreanu who presented on a mortuary custom that is still upheld by the Romanian Orthodox Christians, the exhumation and reburial of the human remains of their dead. A reminder, that reopening of graves can be the cultural norm for engagement with the dead. The afternoon provided us – among other presentations – with more insights in particular on artefacts and even more specifically we learnt of new material analyses that were carried out as part of the ‘Power and Culture in the Carpathian Basin during the Early Middle Ages’ project and that gave us more ideas to think about in particular in relation to ways of recycling – an important factor when it comes to discuss the whereabout of objects removed from graves.

Grave reopening in the Paris region

Grave reopening in the Paris region

How to approach and understand disturbed graves in a densely populated region undergoing constant development?
Here is a new paper by Astrid Noterman on grave disturbances in Île-de-France published in a special volume of the RAIF journal, and which discusses Merovingian burial practices in the Paris region. Between looting, accidental disturbance and reopening practice, a lot of complexity for the archaeologists and the need to develop excavation protocols to appreciate the broad range of post-depositional interventions during the Merovingian period and beyond.

NOTERMAN A. A., PECQUEUR L. (2023) – La réouverture des sépultures mérovingiennes franciliennes : le pillage en question, in: LE FORESTIER C. (dir.), Archéologie des nécropoles mérovingiennes en Île-de-France, Paris, Les Amis de la Revue archéologique d’Île-de-France, p. 271-285 (RAIF, supplément 7)

https://www.raif.fr/index.php/en/7-2023-gb?amp;view=article&layout=edit&id=490