In search of an acceptable past

Another of our project publications has just come out, thanks to the hard work of Estella Weiss-Krejci and her co-editors of the new Open Access volume Interdisciplinary Explorations of Postmortem Interaction. Dead Bodies, Funerary Objects, and Burial Spaces Through Texts and Time.

Our paper, which you can download and read for free, took us into the history of archaeology for the first time.

Noterman, A. A. and A. Klevnäs (2022). In Search of an Acceptable Past: History, Archaeology, and ‘Looted’ Graves in the Construction of the Frankish Early Middle Ages. In: E. Weiss-Krejci, S. Becker and P. Schwyzer (eds). Interdisciplinary Explorations of Postmortem Interaction: Dead Bodies, Funerary Objects, and Burial Spaces Through Texts and Time. Cham, Springer International Publishing: 133-166.

Abstract

The Early Middle Ages have provided material for imagining selves and groups in a wide range of contexts since the earliest beginnings of the historical and archaeological disciplines. Considerable recent research has shown how modern political conflicts and regional-national identities have crystallized in this period in particular. This essay traces ways in which early medieval remains, mainly from the richly furnished cemeteries, have been brought into play in developing scholarly and popular accounts of the history of France. During the second half of the nineteenth century, the recovery of considerable numbers of finely worked grave goods from the large rural cemeteries provided material for studying and reevaluating Merovingian-period societies, previously only glimpsed in written sources and largely out-competed as national ancestors by the popular appeal of Gaulish warriors. Yet paradoxically, another form of discovery in the same burial grounds seemed to place them back in the Dark Ages: many graves were found to have been ransacked and robbed soon after burial, making the communities of the time appear lawless and barbarous. Archaeological attitudes towards excavated early medieval graves, and in particular the many thousands of graves already reopened in antiquity, not only highlight key aspects of the development of the discipline, but also reveal ways in which the remains of the dead may be integral to processes of national identity construction.

Project publications

This week Alison Klevnäs and Astrid Noterman gave a research seminar in the Department of Archaeology and Classical Studies at Stockholm University to mark the end of our project ‘Interacting with the Dead’ which we’re finishing this calendar year. We talked through some of our published and accepted books and papers. Here’s a list of the finished ones we talked about. Some are generally applicable discussions of the information value of disturbed burials and the use of archaeothanatological methods for their analysis. Others are explorations of the evidence for secondary interactions with inhumation graves in the specific context of early medieval Europe, aimed at difference audiences. Most are still ‘in press’, but should be out in the next few months. Then there are a few more which are still under construction – we’ll post when they’re on their way.

Archaeothanatology and textile research

Last month Astrid Noterman and Alison Klevnäs gave a talk as part of a workshop at the Centre for Textile Research in the Saxo Institute at the University of Copenhagen. This was organised by Liv Nilsson Stutz for the Sweden+ archaeothanatology working group and our travel was funded by a grant from Linnaeus University. We spoke about ways in which disturbed graves can actually be more informative than ones which are intact contexts. It was a very stimulating afternoon with fascinating presentations and informed discussion. Many thanks to Eva Andersson Strand and colleagues for a warm welcome and kind hospitality!

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?