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.

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?

Vendel: new paper on the disturbance of the famous boat-grave cemetery in central Sweden

Klevnäs, A. 2015. Abandon Ship! Digging out the Dead from the Vendel Boat-Graves. Norwegian Archaeological Review, 48(1), 1-20.


The boat-grave cemetery at Vendel, Uppland, is one of the iconic sites of first-millennium Sweden. The high-status grave-goods and weaponry have been widely displayed and studied since their discovery over 130 years ago. Yet it is rarely mentioned that the burial ground had been almost completely ransacked long before archaeologists stepped in. The celebrated finds are only a fraction of the wealth that was originally buried at the site.

This is the first evaluation of the evidence of disturbance from Vendel since the excavations in the late 19th century. The ancient re-opening of the graves is reconstructed through the letters and diaries of the excavator, Hjalmar Stolpe, as well as the various preliminary and final reports. Evidence is presented that the main parts of the burials, notably the human bones, were systematically dug out of nearly every grave and removed from the site. The reopening probably took place during the Christianization period, before or during the construction of the nearby church in the 13th century. This is an example of the widespread reworking of monuments at this time, specifically highlighting the significance accorded to buried human remains.