Reopening graves in the early Middle Ages: from local practice to European phenomenon

Today we’ve published an Open Access paper in the journal Antiquity summarizing results from all five members of the research network, plus new wider perspectives:

Abstract: Across Europe early medieval archaeologists have long recognised significant numbers of graves displaying evidence for the intentional post-burial disturbance of skeletons and artefacts. The practice of reopening and manipulating graves soon after burial, traditionally described—and dismissed—as ‘robbing’, is documented at cemeteries from Transylvania to southern England. This article presents a synthesis of five recent regional studies to investigate the evidence of and the motivations for the reopening of early medieval graves. From the later sixth century AD, the reopening of individual graves and removal of selected artefact types rapidly became part of the shared treatment of the dead across this wide area.

Klevnäs, A., Aspöck, E., Noterman, A. A., van Haperen, M. C., & Zintl, S. (2021). Reopening graves in the early Middle Ages: from local practice to European phenomenon. Antiquity, 1-22, doi:10.15184/aqy.2020.217.

Ceci n’est pas une tombe réouverte. Archaeothanatology Working Group 2021

Astrid Noterman and Alison Klevnäs recently gave a presentation to the Archaeothanatology Working Group on cases of burials in which deliberate early re-entries have been suspected, but where archaeothanatological analysis doesn’t support the interpretation. This was part of preparing for a methodological paper we’re writing on how post-depositional interventions are recognized and recorded. It was super-useful to have expert feedback and discussion from the group members.

New publication on reopening evidence in southeast England

Lots of publications in the pipeline at the moment, but here’s one that’s come out. It’s published in Archaeologia Cantiana, the regional journal for the county of Kent in southeast England. This is an area where many disturbed burials have been unearthed and more are likely to appear in future excavations of early medieval cemeteries, so a key aim for the paper was to raise awareness of the evidence for post-depositional interventions and why it’s interesting and worth recording in detail.

Klevnäs, A. 2020. ‘Robbed in antiquity’: grave opening in seventh-century East Kent – stimulated by cross-channel influences. Archaeologia Cantiana. 140. 1-18.

Signs of what appears to be ancient grave robbery have frequently been reported in excavations of Anglo-Saxon cemeteries in Kent. The county is the one area of early medieval England with substantial evidence of such plunder. Affected graves appear ransacked, with incomplete skeletons found in disorder on grave floors and in the fill. Artefacts, or at least their fragmentary remains, are often found in the disturbed burials, but grave-good collections appear diminished, with metal stains on bones sometimes indicating the original presence of removed objects.

Until recently no attempt had been made to collate reports of robbery, nor to compare the evidence from different sites, with the poor publication record for cemeteries a major hindrance. Moreover, discussions in Kent have been almost entirely isolated from the parallel evidence for widespread reopening in contemporary cemeteries on the Merovingian Continent.

This paper presents the key Kentish findings of recent research which brought together all the accessible evidence for disturbance of contemporary burials in Anglo-Saxon England as a whole. Reopening of recent graves occurred intensively, especially in the east of the county, being particularly common on the Isle of Thanet. There are also isolated examples of similarly treated graves in west Kent and elsewhere in southern and eastern England, but only east Kent shows reopening levels comparable to those seen in cemeteries over the Channel.

Looking in depth at the evidence from the most heavily disturbed sites in east Kent, it quickly becomes apparent that this is not a question of straightforward robbery. On the Continent this period featured pervasive practices of revisiting, opening, manipulating and removing selected objects from recent burials, and it is now clear that these customs crossed the Channel into Kent.