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

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.

https://cordis.europa.eu/project/id/101089324

Starting up the new project

This month Astrid Noterman and I are starting up the first major project put together by reopenedgraves.eu members to investigate early medieval grave reopening on a transnational scale. It’s called Interacting with the dead. Belief and conflict in early medieval Europe, has been funded by the Swedish Research Council and is based at Stockholm University. In brief, the aim is to bring together the regional studies carried out by the research network members, produce the first Europe-wide survey of Merovingian-period reopening practices, and explore the implications for our understandings of the societies of the period.

The project will run for three years so we’re still taking our first steps at the moment – including taking part in the EAA and Sachsensymposium and lots of practical things like getting offices set up.

But I did a quick back of the envelope calculation this week and realized that although this is a new phase of research, it’s actually based on about 17 years of previous work. That’s four PhD projects investigating the evidence for ancient grave reopening in different regions of Merovingian-period Europe: Alison Klevnäs – southern England 2010, Stephanie Zintl – Bavaria 2012,  Martine van Haperen – low countries 2016, Astrid Noterman- northern France 2017. Plus Edeltraud Aspöck’s 2005 publication of the heavily disturbed cemetery at Brunn am Gebirge in Lower Austria, which has been influential for all of us. In fact that’s an underestimate, because Edeltraud’s further work developing techniques for recording disturbed burials also directly informs the project.

And so far this year, before the project was fully underway, we’ve already had great contributions from one of my MA students at Stockholm University, Tobias Vinoy, who wrote his dissertation on the disturbance of Roman Iron Age graves in Denmark, and Giorgia Sottotetti, an Erasmus trainee from the University of Pisa, who has been collecting and investigating early medieval cemeteries with reopened graves in northern Italy.

So that all explains why the first stage of the project is going to be a round of publications. Over the last two or three years we’ve presented comparisons between our regional studies at a number of conferences, and last year in Stockholm we had a whole colloquium to discuss findings in the different areas. So we’ve already spent a while puzzling over the details of what the reopening practices in different areas look like, defining the research questions for the next stage, and locating areas for some targeted new data-gathering. Now all of that work needs to come out in print… watch this space.