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.

New book! Grave disturbances: the archaeology of post-depositional interactions with the dead. Oxbow 2020.

We’re delighted to announce the publication of a new book on reopening of burials, edited by Edeltraud Aspöck, Alison Klevnäs and Nils Müller-Scheeßel. It starts with a comprehensive introduction to the topic and presents eleven case studies of archaeological approaches to disturbed burials in different parts of the world. The chapter by Stephanie Zintl covers recent work on reopening in early medieval Europe. It’s available to pre-order from Oxbow: https://www.oxbowbooks.com/oxbow/grave-disturbances.html

Archaeologists excavating burials often find that they are not the first to disturb the remains of the dead. Graves from many periods frequently show signs that others have been digging and have moved or taken away parts of the original funerary assemblage. Displaced bones and artefacts, traces of pits, and damage to tombs or coffins can all provide clues about post-burial activities. The last two decades have seen a rapid rise in interest in the study of post-depositional practices in graves, which has now developed into a new subfield within mortuary archaeology. This follows a long tradition of neglect, with disturbed graves previously regarded as interesting only to the degree they revealed evidence of the original funerary deposit. This book explores past human interactions with mortuary deposits, delving into the different ways graves and human remains were approached by people in the past and the reasons that led to such encounters. The primary focus of the volume is on cases of unexpected interference with individual graves soon after burial: re-encounters with human remains not anticipated by those who performed the funerary rites and constructed the tombs. However, a first step is always to distinguish these from natural and accidental processes, and methodological approaches are a major theme of discussion. Interactions with the remains of the dead are explored in eleven chapters ranging from the New Kingdom of Egypt to Viking Age Norway and from Bronze Age Slovakia to the ancient Maya. Each discusses cases of re-entries into graves, including desecration, tomb re-use, destruction of grave contents, as well as the removal of artefacts and human remains for reasons from material gain to commemoration, symbolic appropriation, ancestral rites, political chicanery, and retrieval of relics. The introduction presents many of the methodological issues which recur throughout the contributions, as this is a developing area with new approaches being applied to analyze post-depositional processes in graves.

Table of Contents
1. The archaeology of post-depositional interactions with the dead. An introduction – Edeltraud Aspöck, Alison Klevnäs and Nils Müller-Scheeßel

2. Unruly bones and efficacious stones. Materialities of death in Early Christian post-burial interactions in central eastern Sweden – Fredrik Fahlander

3. Grave disturbance in early medieval Poland – Leszek Gardeła

4. Disturbed relatives. Post-burial practices among the Nomadic Khazars of the Lower Volga (7th-8th centuries CE) – Irina Shingiray

5. Things we knew about grave robbery: reassessing ideas on how and why graves were reopened in the Merovingian period – Stephanie Zintl

6. Disturbance of early medieval graves in southwestern Gaul. Taphonomy, burial reopening and the reuse of graves – Yves Gleize

7. What happened at Langeid? Understanding reopened graves after time has taken its toll – Cecilia Wenn

8. Iron Age ancestral bonds. Consecutive burials and manipulated graves in the Dürrnberg cemeteries (Austria) – Holger Wendling

9. Disturbing the dead. Reopening of stone cists in the Macedonian Gevgelija and Valandovo plains – Daniela Heilmann

10. In search of the modus operandi. Reopenings of Early Bronze Age burials at Fidvár near Vráble, southwest Slovakia –
Nils Müller-Scheeßel, Jozef Bátora, Julia Gresky, Samantha Reiter, Kerstin Stucky and Knut Rassmann

11. Disturbance of graves among the ancient Maya – Estella Weiss-Krejci

12. ‘It was found that the thieves had violated them all’. Grave disturbance in Late New Kingdom Thebes – David A. Aston

GIS mapping

This week the project ‘Interacting with the dead: belief and conflict in early medieval Europe’ based at Stockholm University is being visited by Emma Brownlee from the University of Cambridge, who’s helping us get started with GIS mapping. She’s giving us some training in the use of up to date mapping software, helping us set up the maps we need, and answering our many questions about the types of analysis which are possible and how best to organize our data to utilize them. Not the best time of year to see Stockholm  – as this picture shows, it’s very, very dark on a November afternoon! Best to stay in indoors and try out some hot spot analyses.