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.

Symposium 12-13th January 2017

On 12th and 13th January 2017 the GRR network held our first major event: a symposium in the Department of Archaeology and Classical Studies at Stockholm University. Initially we thought this would simply be a chance for the five researchers to get together and discuss our case studies of Merovingian-period reopening in different areas of Europe. But thanks to support from Riksbankens Jublieumsfond, we were able to go much bigger, inviting a discussion panel of scholars from across Europe and the US, and opening up the first day of talks to a public audience.

Over 40 attendees joined us from Finland, Latvia, the UK, the US, the Netherlands, Denmark, France, Austria, Germany, and Sweden itself. Germany was particularly well-represented, with researchers and students from the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte Berlin, Freie Universität Berlin, HTW Berlin, and Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München. Great to meet so many people who are interested in the topic and to make some new contacts with people who are working on disturbed cemeteries.

Day one began with Alison Klevnäs and Edeltraud Aspöck giving an introduction on grave reopening in archaeological research in general and the research history of Merovingian reopening in particular. Then the researchers presented their own investigations in roughly chronological order of completion. Edeltraud Aspöck talked about her 2003 publication of the heavily disturbed Langobardic cemetery at Brunn am Gerbirge in Austria, plus some new research she’s starting in the region. Alison Klevnäs presented conclusions from her thesis on reopening in Anglo-Saxon England, which was published in 2013. Then Stephanie Zintl talked about her study of Bavarian cemeteries, which was finished in 2012 and will soon be available as a book. Finally Martine van Haperen and Astrid Noterman each presented their recently completed theses on reopening in the Low Countries and northern France respectively. We had scheduled plenty of time for questions so were very pleased with the response from the panel and audience, who had lots of useful points to make – definitely the most constructive discussion I’ve ever had of this topic.

This was our first ever chance to all meet in one place and make detailed comparisons between our findings, so it was good to be able to draw out the areas where we have similar evidence and interpretations, and the points where the material or our conclusions differ. Some research questions are answered, and some new ones have emerged – as we’ll try to show in our forthcoming publications!

On the morning of Day 2 the research network held talks with the invited panel members to discuss how to go forward with our research. Finally in the afternoon we met to discuss the various research funding proposals and publications which we’re currently putting together.

More leisurely activities included a couple of dinners, a fascinating presentation by Professor Dawn Hadley on her work at the Torksey Viking camp, and a trip to Historiska Museet.

Many thanks again to all who attended!