Reopening in early medieval Transylvania

We’ve just been made aware of a 2014 paper by Alpár Dobos on reopening in the row-grave cemeteries of Merovingian-period Transylvania. Dobos presents a careful study of the evidence from several burial grounds, showing that reopening was as widespread and intense in this as in other areas of the Merovingian cultural milieu. He does not refer to the most recent analyses of reopening elsewhere in the Merovingian kingdoms (e.g. Zintl 2012; Klevnäs 2013, 2015), but makes extensive and very useful comparisons with Helmut Roth’s seminal 1978 article as well as Edeltraud Aspöck‘s 2003 study of the Brunn am Gebirge cemetery in Lower Austria.

First impression – based on Dobos’ interpretations of his material – is that the reopening here looks astonishingly similar to what we see to the north-west in Germany, France, the low countries, and into south-east England. The high but variable proportions of cemeteries affected in each cemetery; the specific targeting of the upper body / waist areas of burials; the disarticulated state of most but not quite all the disturbed skeletons; the bones and discarded objects strewn in the intrusive pits; the selective removal of certain grave-goods: all this is immediately recognisable from cemeteries in Bavaria or in Anglo-Saxon Kent. So, sadly, is Dobos’ struggle to recompose evidence from poorly documented excavations. But a less common and particularly interesting feature is the finds of some bones apparently left on the cemetery surface between burials. Contemporary ground surfaces are more often ploughed away, so that this kind of evidence is rarely discoverable elsewhere, although Martine van Haperen‘s forthcoming study will present some examples from the low countries.

Two immediate conclusions: first, Dobos’ study again highlights the need for excavators to be well-informed about the reopening phenomenon before they tackle cemeteries which are likely to be affected. Questions about reopening practices need to be included in the research design before the topsoil is even cleared. And second, it shows that there’s a great deal left to discuss about the scale of the phenomenon, its comparative dating, its limits, and its possible spread. Looking forward to getting to grips with this and more at the symposium in January.


Aspöck, E. (2003). “Graböffnungen im Frühmittelalter und das Beispiel der langobardenzeitlichen Gräber von Brunn am Gebirge, Flur Wolfholz, Niederösterreich.” Archaeologia Austriaca 87: 225-265.
Klevnäs, A. (2013). Whodunnit? Grave Robbery in Anglo-Saxon England and the Merovingian Kingdoms. BAR International Series 2582. Oxford, Archaeopress.
Roth, H. (1978). Archäologische Beobachtungen zum Grabfrevel im Meroweingerreich. Zum Grabfrevel in vor- und frühgeschichtlicher Zeit: Untersuchungen zu Grabraub und ‘haugbrot’ in Mittel- und Nordeuropa: Bericht über ein Kolloquium der Kommission für die Altertumskunde Mittel- und Nordeuropas vom 14. bis 16. Februar 1977. H. Jankuhn, H. Nehlsen and H. Roth. Göttingen, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht: 53-84.
Zintl, S. (2012). Frühmittelalterliche Grabräuber? Wiedergeöffnete Gräber der Merowingerzeit, Inaugural-Dissertation zur Erlangung der Doktorwürde der Philosophischen Fakultät der Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg i. Br.

Reopening of Bronze Age graves: new publication

A new article in the Journal of Archaeological Science by GRR member Edeltraud Aspöck uses soil thin section analyses to investigate formation processes of a reopened early Bronze Age inhumation grave in Austria.

Edeltraud Aspöck, Rowena Yvonne Banerjea, Formation processes of a reopened early Bronze Age inhumation grave in Austria: The soil thin section analyses, Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, Available online 3 August 2016.


Early Bronze Age and early medieval inhumation graves in (central) Europe had often been re-opened a short time after burial and, in most cases, grave goods were removed. To improve the understanding of the archaeological evidence of these graves, one re-opened grave from a large early Bronze Age (Wieselburg/Gáta culture) cemetery in Weiden am See, eastern Austria, was excavated using a microstratigraphic protocol to maximize data collection for the reconstruction of the context formation process and, consequently, the interpretation of the re-opening process. In this article the results of the soil thin section analyses are presented and discussed.

Reopening of Viking period graves: new publication

A new article in the European Journal of Archaeology by GRR member Alison Klevnäs explores the widespread early disturbance of Vendel and Viking period burials in Scandinavia. The paper is currently open access, i.e. free to read.


This article examines the wide range of grave disturbance practices seen in Viking-age burials across Scandinavia. It argues that the much-debated reopenings at high-profile sites, notably the Norwegian ‘royal’ mounds, should be seen against a background of widespread and varied evidence for burial reworking in Scandinavia throughout the first-millennium ad and into the Middle Ages. Interventions into Viking-age graves are interpreted as disruptive, intended to derail practices of memory-creation set in motion by funerary displays and monuments. However, the reopening and reworking of burials were also mnemonic citations in their own right, using a recurrent set of practices to make heroic, mythological, and genealogical allusions. The retrieval of portable artefacts was a key element in this repertoire, and in this article I use archaeological and written sources to explore the particular concepts of ownership which enabled certain possessions to work as material citations appropriating attributes of dead persons for living claimants.


We’re excited to announce that the GRR network will soon be holding its first major event. With the generous support of Riksbankens Jublieumsfond, we’re organising an international symposium on Merovingian-period burial reopening, to be held at Stockholm University on 12th-13th January 2017. This will be the first conference on the widespread and fascinating phenomenon of early medieval grave disturbance since 1977!

The symposium has its own webpage with more information and a registration form at

Hope to see you there!

Early medieval grave disturbance: new publication

Klevnäs, A. (2015). Give and take: grave goods and grave robbery in the early middle ages. In Klevnäs, A. and Hedenstierna-Jonson, C., eds. ‘Own and be owned: archaeological approaches to the concept of possession’. Stockholm Studies in Archaeology 62. (157-188)

The starting point for this paper is the widespread early medieval practice of reopening recent graves and taking artefacts from them. During the seventh century, Merovingian Europe saw an epidemic of grave disturbance: in almost all known cemeteries of the period a proportion of burials were ransacked and selected artefacts taken from them. Trying to understand this reopening leads directly to questions of ownership: the practice has long been labelled as grave robbery, but in what sense was it theft? To whom did the objects belong? To the dead, or kin, or a wider community? Did this ownership come into being during life, or was it conferred at death? When the evidence is considered in detail, there are several ways in which it defies a straightforward pattern of robbing for material gain. Notably, only certain forms of artefacts were taken, with reopeners consistently leaving behind many apparently desirable types of possession. What lay behind their selectivity? Why were only some kinds of grave good taken from the dead?