PresentDead blog post 4: Presenting the PresentDead at the IMAFO – The Historian’s View

by Thom Gobbitt


On Tuesday 16 April, we took the PresentDead project across the street from our regular home, into Otto Wagnar’s Postsparkasse, and presented the aims and goals of the historical perspective at the Institute for Medieval Research (IMAFO) of the OEAW. This was in part to strengthen connections with the members of the Histogenes project, but we had a great turnout from the various departments of the Institute, but especially from the department for “Historical Identity Research”. There was a lot of engagement and some very good and thought-provoking questions, that will certainly inform our thinking over the coming months and years.


The presentation began with Edeltraud outlining the aims and objectives of the project, looking at the archaeological underpinnings and scope, while offering a synopsis of the historical sources and scholarship that archaeologists have employed from the late nineteenth century to the modern day, to inform interpretations of re-opened graves. This began with Ludwig Lindenschmidt’s observation in his three volume Handbuch der Deutschen Alterthumskunde (1880-1889), that if an early medieval grave has less previous metals and jewellery than one would expect, then this should probably be attributed to grave-robbing. He had also already outlined those of the early medieval historical source texts that have in the century-and-a-half since then informed most interpretations on graverobbing: On the one hand, the legislative sources, especially the so called “barbarian laws”, and naming specifically the law-codes of the Salian Franks, Lombards, Visigoths, Alamanns and Bavarians. These remain the sources most frequently referred to up to the modern day, although particularly through the filter of the 1977 “Grabfrevel” conference and the subsequent publication of its proceedings in 1978. On the other hand, the historiographical accounts of the reopening of the graves of the Lombard kings Rothari and Alboin as recounted by Paul the Deacon in his Historia Langobardorum, and the plundering of the recent grave of a relative of the wife of one Guntram Boso by his servants – although probably at his instruction. More recently, Patrick Geary’s work has brought attention to grave-reopening in terms of otherworldly encounters both in the translation of saints and their miraculous powers as well as in secular terms. Archaeologists, however have given little weight to the perspective that Geary offers, and instead their focus has been more on the negative sense of Grabfrevel, the violation of graves. As Edeltraud noted, there has not really been a comprehensive study of the written contexts of grave-reopening in the early medieval period since the 1977 “Grabfrevel” symposium, and for the last almost half a century since its publication, the emphasis on such activity being only grave robbery as underscored in that volume has had a significant influence on archaeological interpretation. Edeltraud concluded her section of our presentation with the key point underlining the project’s historical objectives – the texts need to be re-examined in the light of current historical and literary analysis.


For my own part of the presentation, I began by outlining some of the general parameters of the study: the most significant of which being that for the core geographical area and timeframe where our project focuses – broadly speaking, from what are now Transylvania to eastern Austria, in the fifth to eighth centuries, where different contexts of grave re-opening than just robbery can be observed – written texts are incredibly sparse. Written sources begin to appear towards the western edges of the project area at the end of the time frame, but for the most part it’s not a case of texts which were directly written within the project scope, or even such texts that survive only in their later transmission and reception. Instead, a broader net has to be cast, looking at texts that were written or transmitted outside the project area, later, or most often, both. This broader focus, beginning with the identification of relevant passages from texts written in both Western Europe and Byzantium, will prioritise texts that look into or back into the area and period of interest to the project. But identification of texts will also serve to contextualise grave reopening and interactions with the dead more broadly – what kind of strategies and processes could be imagined in the early middle ages? The types of sources where interactions with the dead and their materials are mentioned are quite varied, especially with the broader focus beyond just the reopening of graves, let alone grave robbing. The main two types of source on which the project at least begins with are regulatory texts and historiographical accounts:


  • Regulatory texts incorporate both the secular “barbarian” laws, and the Roman law inheritance which continued to be developed, as well religiously based normative texts from biblical exemplars through to penitentials, monastic rules and church canons.
  • Historiographical texts incorporate hagiography and, especially, the translation of saints or miracles in their graves, as well as the more worldly accounts of death, burial and grave re-openings – although often the line between the secular and the religious is blurred, especially when written by with religiously-situated authors.


The remainder of the paper comprised deeper dives into some of the specific historical texts and issues that have been drawn on by archaeologists, demonstrating some of the limits that have come from the narrowly focused attention given to just the literal account of re-opening a grave. Here let us finish by revisiting just one of those exemplars: Paul the Deacons recounting of the re-opening of Alboin’s grave in his own time by Giselpert, Duke of Verona – an event that Patrick Geary in his Living with the Dead in the Middle Ages (1994) has already re-framed from the terms of superstition and vanity that Paul had used, to instead reveal an otherworldly encounter with the dead king, one which in turn legitimised Giselpert’s claims to power and enhanced his status.


Paul’s account included a look back into the account of Alboin’s earlier life – so we see Paul the Deacon’s literary gaze looking a little further back into time, and into the plains of Pannonia – within the edges of where our project’s study focuses. In contrast to the extensive archaeological evidence, however, Paul makes no recounts of grave reopenings here. But amongst the mentions of death, bones and bits of corpses, he also recounts Alboin being given his arma [weaponry] at a feast by the Gepid king, Turismund, a ritualised encounter legitimising Alboin’s political and social power and permitting him from then on to be able to feast in the hall with his own father. But as I spoke about in the presentation, Alboin’s receiving of his arma and his consequent legitimisation, echoes the story of Duke Giselpert of Verona entering Alboin’s grave a couple of centuries later, encountering Alboin and receiving (or winning) his sword from him. Perhaps even, although Paul does not make it clear, the very same sword that Alboin had once received from Turismond – and it would appear that the sword continues to accumulate greater significance in the telling, as it weaves its way back and forth between the living and the dead.


But as I argued, this also raises the point that historiographical accounts of the reopening of a grave gain their significance from their broader contexts. We must not just look widely to discover such accounts, but also delve deep into why they were written and how such texts function in their social and intellectual climates. Focusing closely on the specific account of a grave-reopening can already tell us much about how such an event might happen, but when set in its broader contexts we began to reveal how such an act might be understood at a deeper level, and the ways in which the living interacted with the dead and their materials. History and archaeology bring two very different approaches, ones which are often difficult to integrate, let alone unite – but they also offer the potential of wider and multiple perspectives when we instead ask how does each discipline relate to the reopened grave – and what can we dig up together?

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.