EAA 2011: Past Disturbances of Graves

At the EAA conference in Oslo in 2011, Edeltraud Aspöck and Alison Klevnäs organised a full day session on archaeological evidence of reopened graves. The papers encompassed a broad range of phenomena, regions and archaeological periods, as well as theoretical and methodological approaches. A full report of the session was published by Aspöck and Klevnäs in the EAA newsletter TEA: issue 36, pages 66-70.

Renewed interest in reopened graves

Reopened graves are too often a neglected and underestimated source of evidence. The traditional focus of burial archaeology is on the analysis of graves as closed contexts, and disturbed burials are not seen as a desirable source for reconstructing mortuary practices or social structures. Currently however, there is new interest in the topic of grave disturbance, as seen in the several recently finished or ongoing Master’s and doctoral dissertations which were presented in the session.

This was probably the first time an entire conference session has focused on the archaeological evidence for reopened graves. The 1977 symposium on ‘Grabfrevel in vor- und frühgeschichtlicher Zeit’ (‘The sacrilege of graves in pre- and protohistory’ held in Göttingen, Germany, was crucial in establishing grave disturbance as a research topic. However, both the 1977 and two subsequent symposia held in Germany had the main weight on written sources. The focus at the 2011 EAA was firmly on the physical evidence, with useful critical discussion of historical sources for the early medieval period of continental Europe and the Scandinavian Viking Age.

Summary of the papers

Early medieval ‘grave robbery’

The following four papers all discussed aspects of the phenomenon known as early medieval ‘grave robbery’: graves reopened shortly after or at least within a few decades after the original burial where in most cases grave goods were removed – on average close to 40% of Merovingian period graves were disturbed after burial. The presentations clearly showed that the concept of early medieval grave robbery has changed – or is about to change.

The papers showed that: early medieval grave-robbery is not seen as the activity of gangs of strangers and criminals, and solely driven by materialistic motifs any more but more complex cultural explanations are found; secondly, ‘grave-robbery’ is not used as a synonym for reopened graves any more, but researchers are more aware of the inherent interpretative properties of the term: it is frequently questioned whether grave robbery is the right category to describe the phenomenon and alternative interpretations are sought; different types of ‘grave-robbery’ may be defined; reopening of graves is not seen as a sacrilege from the outset anymore; studies were characterized by close attention to the archaeological evidence (way of reopening graves, types of objects removed, manipulation of body).

Stephanie Zintl (Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg i. Br., Germany) talked about variability in the evidence of grave-reopening in Merovingian period cemeteries in Regensburg, Bavaria. The cemeteries showed differences regarding the number of reopened graves, the selection of graves and of grave goods. Stephanie discussed whether there may in fact have been different motives for reopening in these cemeteries.

Alison Klevnäs (University of Cambridge, United Kingdom) presented the results of her research on Anglo-Saxon grave-reopening in Kent. She argued that the reopening is a targeted search for specific types of grave goods, meaning grave goods were removed for their symbolic value rather than for their material one. She suggested that grave-robbery may have been part of a conflicts and feuds between groups, and that the aim may have been to harm the living by violating the graves of their relatives.

Martine van Harperen (University of Amsterdam, Netherlands) discussed evidence of Merovingian period reopened graves in the Netherlands and took a wider view, drawing on historic and ethnographic sources for interpretation. She distinguished between different types of interventions and suggested that some of the reopenings may have to do with the collection of relics of the deceased.

Edeltraud Aspöck (Austrian Academy of Sciences) discussed attitudes towards grave reopening in the early Medieval period and how the appearance of the body may have influenced the practices which were carried out. Different stages of decay of the corpse may have led to different types of interactions with the body and the grave. Written sources show that the reopening of graves in the early Medieval period was officially condemned, but this may have been the ‘ideal’, whilst archaeological evidence (and written sources too) show that it still happened quite frequently.

Viking Age Scandinavia

Julie Lund (University of Oslo, Norway) looked at the social biography of objects which were removed from Scandinavian Viking Age mounds. She suggested that the breaking of mounds and the removal of objects from mounds related to other practices of deposition of objects in the Viking age.

Lars Erik Gjerpe (University of Oslo, Norway) presented the results of his fieldwork at the Viking age cemetery Gulli (eastern Norway). At Gulli not only special graves (ship graves and mounds) were reopened and robbed, but also half of the remaining ‘normal’ graves. Erik suggested that the percentage of robbed graves in Viking Age Norway may generally be underestimated. Robbing may distort the social analysis of Viking Age burials, and differences in grave goods may be down to robbed and non-robbed graves, rather than indicating social differences. In the afternoon we saw a series of papers focusing on methodology.

Reopened graves across the world

Mara Vejby (University of Reading, UK) discussed patterns of reuse of megalithic tombs across Atlantic Europe in the Iron Age and the Roman periods, including reuse for habitation or for funerary activities. She argued that the basis for the reuse was a shared interpretation of the sites, which was formed and perpetuated through social memory.

Camilla Cecilie Wenn (University of Oslo, Norway) talked about ongoing excavations run by the University of Oslo at a Roman period house tomb in Hierapolis, Turkey which was reused over several centuries. The re-use in the late 13th century AD, when the remains of 27 individuals in different stages decomposition were placed in the tomb, poses challenging questions such as the origin of the bones, and the motives behind the intentional placement and sorting of some bones and finds.

Lazar Catalin, Theodor Ignat and Radian Andreescu (National History Museum of Romania, Bucharest, Romania) described the Eneolithic cemetery from Sultana-Malu Rosu (fifth millennium BC). In seven graves skeletons without skulls were found, in some graves pits could be seen which were dug into the grave, whilst in other graves no disturbances were discovered. In some grave pits, only parts of skeletons were discovered, but again without evidence for reopening. The discussion was whether these types of evidence represent exceptional body treatment outside funerary practices or different stages of a multi-stage burial rite.

Estella Weiss-Krejci (University of Vienna, Austria) introduced different types of grave reopening among the Ancient Maya. Hieroglyphic texts on ancient monuments provide information about the background to the practices visible in the archaeological evidence. Estella described different types of activities which involved grave reopening in relation to the funerary circle: activities which are part of funerals, those that happen after funerals or practices outside the funeral.

Andrey Epimakhov (Institute of History and Archaeology, Russia) talked about evidence of reopened graves of the Ural Bronze Age Alakul’ kurgan cemeteries. More than half of the graves were reopened, often before the decomposition of the corpse was finished. Because many valuable items were left in the graves, he suggested that the ‘disturbance ritual’ may have been part of post-funeral activity and ancestor cults.

Techniques and Methodology

Alexandru Morintz (Institute of Archaeology, Romania) demonstrated how to investigate whether a burial mound was reopened before the actual excavation through surveying the surface of mounds and 3D models.

Christine Keller (University of Vienna/Natural History Museum Vienna, Vienna, Austria) told us about her osteological (macroscopic and reflected-light microscopic investigations) of human bone of the early Bronze Age cemetery Franzhausen I (Austria). In her analysis she compared the patterning of peri-mortem and post-mortem fractures (types
and frequencies) with the degrees of disturbances of the graves.

Reopened cremations

The final two papers dealt with a much neglected topic: reopened cremation graves. Eberhard Bönisch (Brandenburgisches Landesamt für Denkmalpflege, Wünsdorf, Germany) introduced evidence of reopening of cremation graves from the Late Bronze Age of Lower Lusatia/Brandenburg. The archaeological evidence showed that the graves were reopened about a few years to decades after the original deposition of the burnt bone: the urns were taken out when the roofs of the grave chambers were already collapsed. The bone was deposited on the ground and bronze grave goods were taken out too.

Karol Dziegielewski (Jagiellonian University, Poland) presented evidence of reopened stone-cist graves of the Pomeranian culture (early Iron Age, Poland), where graves were reopened, possibly to add new urns. The reopening of the graves showed regularities, which suggest that the reopening was part of ritual practices. Dziegielewski suggested that the largest of these graves containing ten and more urns represent collective graves.


Despite the advanced hour and it being the last day of the conference the final discussion was still lively. One point concerned dating: unless reopening happens shortly after burial it is difficult to date, which creates difficulties with interpretation and a danger of mixing up different phenomena. Activities which look similar in the archaeological record may have quite different motivations.

There was a lively discussion about to what degree it is possible to discover intentions behind grave reopening at all. This was against the background of use of ethnographic sources and some recent attempts to search for general models and rules. For graves which were reopened soon after the original deposition it was pointed out that a precondition for interpreting the reopening is understanding of the original burial practices. Hence there is a need to discuss reopened graves in the context of the respective cemetery and historical/archaeological context.

There was also discussion about whether grave-reopening may have a ritualistic character – e.g. regarding opening of Viking Age mounds. Generally it was agreed that there may have been many different versions of ‘grave-robbery’ (reopening graves to remove objects), including within the early medieval period.

Other points which were frequently made during the session include: grave disturbances are probably more frequent than assumed and there are probably still many unknown cases. Frequently it is not recognized if graves were reopened because archaeologists don’t associate reopening with graves of a certain period. Once some disturbed graves are found and the phenomenon becomes a recognized part of the archaeology of a locality or period, there may be an increase in reporting of reopened graves. Many speakers agreed that reopened graves are much undervalued in their potential as archaeological sources about past societies.