Starting up the new project

This month Astrid Noterman and I are starting up the first major project put together by reopenedgraves.eu members to investigate early medieval grave reopening on a transnational scale. It’s called Interacting with the dead. Belief and conflict in early medieval Europe, has been funded by the Swedish Research Council and is based at Stockholm University. In brief, the aim is to bring together the regional studies carried out by the research network members, produce the first Europe-wide survey of Merovingian-period reopening practices, and explore the implications for our understandings of the societies of the period.

The project will run for three years so we’re still taking our first steps at the moment – including taking part in the EAA and Sachsensymposium and lots of practical things like getting offices set up.

But I did a quick back of the envelope calculation this week and realized that although this is a new phase of research, it’s actually based on about 17 years of previous work. That’s four PhD projects investigating the evidence for ancient grave reopening in different regions of Merovingian-period Europe: Alison Klevnäs – southern England 2010, Stephanie Zintl – Bavaria 2012,  Martine van Haperen – low countries 2016, Astrid Noterman- northern France 2017. Plus Edeltraud Aspöck’s 2005 publication of the heavily disturbed cemetery at Brunn am Gebirge in Lower Austria, which has been influential for all of us. In fact that’s an underestimate, because Edeltraud’s further work developing techniques for recording disturbed burials also directly informs the project.

And so far this year, before the project was fully underway, we’ve already had great contributions from one of my MA students at Stockholm University, Tobias Vinoy, who wrote his dissertation on the disturbance of Roman Iron Age graves in Denmark, and Giorgia Sottotetti, an Erasmus trainee from the University of Pisa, who has been collecting and investigating early medieval cemeteries with reopened graves in northern Italy.

So that all explains why the first stage of the project is going to be a round of publications. Over the last two or three years we’ve presented comparisons between our regional studies at a number of conferences, and last year in Stockholm we had a whole colloquium to discuss findings in the different areas. So we’ve already spent a while puzzling over the details of what the reopening practices in different areas look like, defining the research questions for the next stage, and locating areas for some targeted new data-gathering. Now all of that work needs to come out in print… watch this space.

New project: Belief and conflict in Early Medieval Europe

We are very happy to announce that the Swedish Research Council (Vetenskapsrådet) has awarded funding for a three-year project entitled ‘Interacting with the dead. Belief and conflict in Early Medieval Europe (AD 450-750)’ to Alison Klevnäs and Astrid Noterman. The project will start in September 2018 and be based in the Department of Archaeology and Classical Studies at Stockholm University. The other network members – Edeltraud Aspöck, Martine van Haperen, and Stephanie Zintl – are currently busy with other research, but will participate as project advisors.

Interacting with the dead. Belief and conflict in Early Medieval Europe (AD 450-750)

This project will study customs of revisiting, reworking, and retrieving human and material remains which have newly been recognised in burial grounds across early medieval Europe, using them as an innovative route into understanding beliefs and community life in this formative period of social and religious change.

Once into the Christian Middle Ages, burial sites became places of worship and pilgrimage, with human body parts revered as relics. But the traditional view of the earlier pagan societies is that the dead were kept separate from the living, lying undisturbed in rows of graves in quiet fields, surrounded by their treasured possessions and grave gifts.

This research will show that far from decomposing in peace, the pre-Christian dead were regularly and frequently unearthed. Over 3 years, it will bring together the first Europe-wide survey of grave reopening practices, showing that a set of related customs can be seen at hundreds of excavated sites over a geographic range from Transylvania to central Spain to southern England.

Applying forensic and archaeothanatological techniques to the excavated evidence, the researchers will reconstruct the reopening practices in detail, exploring their methods and motives as a source for past understandings of such fundamental concepts as death, the body, and ownership. Tracing the spatial and chronological development of the customs, the project will ask how their recognition changes our picture of the societies of the period.

Reopened graves at the Sachsensymposion

In September 2017 Martine van Haperen and Alison Klevnäs attended the 68th Internationales Sachsensymposion, held this year in Canterbury, England. Alison presented a paper introducing the new research carried out by GRR network members on Merovingian-period grave reopening and was delighted to receive lots of useful feedback and new leads from the audience of early medievalists. Highlights (for reopening researchers) included Jean Soulat and Laure Pecqueur’s presentation of the burial grounds at Vicq which include a large number of disturbed burials, currently being investigated by Astrid Noterman.

Ritualiser, Gérer, Piller

On 10th to 12th May 2017, Astrid Noterman (CESCM, CRAHAM) and Mathilde Cervel (EPHE) organised the first conference held in France on the topic of grave reopening.

The 9th Meeting of Le Groupe d’anthropologie et d’archéologie funéraire/the Group of anthropology and funerary archaeology (Gaaf) in Poitiers aimed to open up discussions on grave reopening and bone manipulation by questioning the motives of the living and the means available to archaeologists achieve their understanding.

The symposium was built around three sessions, each of which dealt with a different type of reopening from prehistory to the modern period – Session 1: grave robbery / Session 2: funerary space management / Session 3: cultural practice.

A panel of archaeologists, historians, anthropologists and sociologists from several countries (France, Italy, Portugal, Uruguay, England…) presented on specific cases of grave disturbance but also on the best way to excavate and interpret them.

During the symposium GRR presented a poster entitled ‘Grave Reopening Research Group – A research collaboration to investigate early medieval grave disturbance‘. This poster highlighted the widespread phenomenon of reopening in early medieval Europe, and the work carried out by each member of GRR on grave disturbance in England, Austria, Germany, the Netherlands and France.

A publication of the symposium will follow in the coming years.