PresentDead blog post 2

Turning ideas into practice

Ha! PresentDead has already been running for half a year. And it is four months since the last (and first) blog post… so much for me thinking that the initial enthusiasm of starting the PresentDead project will finally turn me into a very active online communicator. Well, I am still the same as I ever was.

Saying that, the months since then have been quite exciting and really important ones as we have been working on transforming the more abstract project ideas into concrete workplans and tasks. This process, however, does not really lend itself into short, easy to communicate and ideally somewhat entertaining blog-post pieces. Anyway. So far, we have been defining workplans and goals and discussing how to implement them. And in an even more concrete fashion, Astrid has worked on the development of protocols for the analysis of bone taphonomy, which includes an analysis of the impact of reopening on the human remains as well as potential evidence of fragmentation. Fragmentation in the sense of fragmentation theory (e.g. Chapman, J. 2000. Fragmentation in Archaeology, People, Places and Broken Objects in the Prehistory of South-Eastern Europe. London, Routledge) – that is the idea that objects might be deliberately broken in order to create fragments for use in other practices. Astrid has also come to  Vienna to take a look at the human remains of selected individuals from three collections (Brunn am Gebirge , Achau , Globasnitz ) to ‘test’ the protocols she is developing. (This will certainly also be worth a dedicated blog post in the very near future!)

Thom Gobbitt and I have been working together quite closely since the start of the project (as was planned, my vision has always been to have an integrated archaeological-historical research in PresentDead, and with Thom, who is also trained as an archaeologist we have the right candidate for this endeavour!). This has meant a lot of discussion about how to proceed with the historical part of the project (we decided to follow two strands of research, a data-driven one and a more ‘traditional’ one, where Thom will organise workshops and collaborate with other historians on the topic); we have also been discussing how to organise the historical part of the data platform and how to achieve semantic integration of data (that, basically, is to integrate archaeological and historical data based on their “meaning”), among other things. Finally, we also realised that we really need to start the project with a historian’s review of how historical sources related to the reopening of graves have been used to inform the archaeological work and interpretation. And this is what Thom is working on now (and which has already brought to light many small but very important results, and these will certainly also be worthy of a blog post written by the third social media enthusiast in this project )

Ali Klevnäs has in the meantime been looking into Carpathian basin evidence for the reopening of graves prior to our main period of interest of the 5th to 8th centuries CE. The so-called “Sarmatian” cemeteries show plenty of evidence for reopening of graves and it will be important to establish if and how these practices can be related to what we find in the later “row grave cemeteries”.

Apart from being engaged, to varying degrees, with all of the above research threads, I have primarily been working on the data modelling, and, most importantly, have been establishing connections with archaeologists and other cooperation partners. We had a very fruitful first official meeting with Walter Pohl and the Viennese team from the HistoGenes project (Histogenes meets PresentDead), exchanging very practical ideas on the handling of the data and case studies, and with some very concrete outcomes about collaborations already being proposed (more to come on those when they happen). And for me, personally, it has been a nice experience to re-connect with several colleagues who are excavating in Vienna and the surroundings, and to breath the air of excavation once more while searching for potential sites for micro-archaeological excavations (as well as for analysis).

PresentDead blog post 1

And #PresentDead hit the ground running: 29th – 30th September 2023 we visited the colloquium ‘Between Goths, Huns and Gepids. The Middle Danube Region in the Early Migration Period’ in Târgu Mureș in Romania. It was organised by Mureș County Museum (Târgu Mureș) in collaboration with the National Museum of Transylvanian History (Cluj-Napoca) to mark the publication of the migration-period inhumation cemetery from Ernei from the Transylvanian Plateau: The Migration Period Cemetery from Ernei, BMM sa XIX, Cluj-Napoca, 2023 (edited by Alpár Dobos and Sándor Berecki). Ernei is a site that we plan to investigate together with other cemeteries in the region for in-depth analysis of the grave reopening.

On Friday the colloquium was opened by our colleague and cooperation partner Alpár Dobos, with a presentation on the cemetery Ernei, a cemetery with 70 graves and hence untypical for the 5th century in this region, where solitary graves and small grave groups are common. However, its dating to the mid-5th century CE is secured not only by grave goods but also by recent radiocarbon dates. The publication of the C14 results is a collaboration of the excavators with Ali Klevnäs (one of the outcomes of her project ‘Interacting with the dead. Belief and conflict in Early Medieval Europe (AD 450-750)’ and currently in preparation. For PresentDead, the high number of reopened graves – all but one of the graves were reopened – raises interesting questions about the start of the reopening phenomenon.

Whilst the presentations on the first day provided more insights on migration period artefacts and sites of the region, with interesting discussions also in relation to PresentDead research questions, on day 2 the whole morning was dedicated to the discussion of grave disturbances: Ali Klevnäs started with a presentation on the state-of-the-art of research on reopened graves in Western Europe. I provided an overview of PresentDead, its overall aims and objectives and a focus on case studies and the specific approach I had developed to overcome current hinderances of research. Thom Gobbitt gave an overview of the textual sources that he will be working with for PresentDead and gave examples of texts that will be relevant from the Langobard laws, his specialism. The third talk from the PresentDead project was presented by Astrid Noterman, who presented on methods that we will use, primarily from within her specialism as an biological anthropologist and taphonomist (archaeothanatology). We had an interesting discussion, once again drawing our attention to terminology (is reopening the right term? We say yes, in English, German and French, but possibly not in other languages), but also what role ethnic labels may play in PresentDead (or not!).

In the second part of the session on grave disturbances Alpár Dobos was introducing newly excavated sites in Transylvania and how they would fit into the picture (and which interesting questions they pose about the origin of reopening); Regina Viktória Csordás gave a first presentation on her new PhD project on reopening of Transdanubian cemeteries in Hungary that she just started at Eötvös Loránd University; and the section was concluded by Coriolan Horațiu Opreanu who presented on a mortuary custom that is still upheld by the Romanian Orthodox Christians, the exhumation and reburial of the human remains of their dead. A reminder, that reopening of graves can be the cultural norm for engagement with the dead. The afternoon provided us – among other presentations – with more insights in particular on artefacts and even more specifically we learnt of new material analyses that were carried out as part of the ‘Power and Culture in the Carpathian Basin during the Early Middle Ages’ project and that gave us more ideas to think about in particular in relation to ways of recycling – an important factor when it comes to discuss the whereabout of objects removed from graves.

ERC PresentDead has started

This month work on the ERC project PresentDead has begun. The project will be investigating more evidence for re-entering graves and also other forms of contact between the living and the materials of the dead (graves, human remains and artefacts) in early medieval central and eastern Europe (5th to 8th centuries CE). Archaeological and textual evidence in diverse contexts will be studied using new scientific methods, technical solutions and new theoretical approaches.



ERC PresentDead

The Present Dead: Investigating Interactions with the Dead in Early Medieval Central and Eastern Europe from 5th to 8th Centuries CE

The ERC project PresentDead aims to investigate the practical, mental and emotional dimensions of human interactions with the materials of the dead (graves, human remains and artefacts) in early medieval central and eastern Europe (5th to 8th centuries CE). Based on archaeological and textual evidence, diverse contexts of contact will be investigated through an innovative approach combining cutting-edge scientific methods, technical solutions and new theoretical approaches. The project’s working hypothesis is that perspectives on interaction with the materials of the dead will vary with the ritual stages of funerals.

Early medieval cemeteries comprise of up to hundreds of graves where corpses were generally inhumed in individual graves, frequently together with lavish objects. Many graves were interfered with soon after burial. While disturbed graves have elsewhere been seen as an inferior source of evidence, this project argues that these interventions are important sources for early medieval practices relating to the dead. Investigating cemeteries and out-of-cemetery contexts in four central- and eastern European regions it pursues the following objectives: 1. Investigating the range of practices and contexts in the archaeological records. 2. Analysing textual perspectives in diverse genres. 3. Synthesising material and textual perspectives via an innovative technical solution for semantic integration of data. The methodological objectives for achieving the archaeological goals are: 1. Consolidation of methods and development of research protocols. 2. Development of strategies to mitigate deficiencies of archaeological data. The development of digital tools, moving from high- to low resolution evidence, will be novel and key to the approach.

The project will significantly contribute to our understanding of the relationship between the living and the dead in early medieval Europe.

Not so new any more, but never posted: my excavation of an early Bronze Age reopened grave in eastern Austria

pl 7a  webseiteAs part of my post-doc project on ‘the microtaphonomy of reopened graves’ (at the OREA Institute, Austrian Academy of Sciences) I excavated a reopened grave from the early Bronze Age period (so-called Wieselburg Culture) in eastern Austria to investigate what we can learn about reopened graves if we focus on the evidence of the reopening.

For the excavation and analysis I use a multi-dimensional approach: single-finds recording (collaborating with our research group Quaternary Archaeology), sedimentanalysis, micromorphology, archaeothanatology.

Excavations took about 2 months because – lucky me – the grave was particularly deep and contained two inhumations: a first body was buried in a coffin at the bottom of the grave pit, then the grave was reopened and a second body was placed on top. The photo shows the remains of the bottom burial which was reopened. The boxes are Kubiena tins for micromorphological soil samples. Analysis is still ongoing.