Symposium 12-13th January 2017

On 12th and 13th January 2017 the GRR network held our first major event: a symposium in the Department of Archaeology and Classical Studies at Stockholm University. Initially we thought this would simply be a chance for the five researchers to get together and discuss our case studies of Merovingian-period reopening in different areas of Europe. But thanks to support from Riksbankens Jublieumsfond, we were able to go much bigger, inviting a discussion panel of scholars from across Europe and the US, and opening up the first day of talks to a public audience.

Over 40 attendees joined us from Finland, Latvia, the UK, the US, the Netherlands, Denmark, France, Austria, Germany, and Sweden itself. Germany was particularly well-represented, with researchers and students from the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte Berlin, Freie Universität Berlin, HTW Berlin, and Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München. Great to meet so many people who are interested in the topic and to make some new contacts with people who are working on disturbed cemeteries.

Day one began with Alison Klevnäs and Edeltraud Aspöck giving an introduction on grave reopening in archaeological research in general and the research history of Merovingian reopening in particular. Then the researchers presented their own investigations in roughly chronological order of completion. Edeltraud Aspöck talked about her 2003 publication of the heavily disturbed Langobardic cemetery at Brunn am Gerbirge in Austria, plus some new research she’s starting in the region. Alison Klevnäs presented conclusions from her thesis on reopening in Anglo-Saxon England, which was published in 2013. Then Stephanie Zintl talked about her study of Bavarian cemeteries, which was finished in 2012 and will soon be available as a book. Finally Martine van Haperen and Astrid Noterman each presented their recently completed theses on reopening in the Low Countries and northern France respectively. We had scheduled plenty of time for questions so were very pleased with the response from the panel and audience, who had lots of useful points to make – definitely the most constructive discussion I’ve ever had of this topic.

This was our first ever chance to all meet in one place and make detailed comparisons between our findings, so it was good to be able to draw out the areas where we have similar evidence and interpretations, and the points where the material or our conclusions differ. Some research questions are answered, and some new ones have emerged – as we’ll try to show in our forthcoming publications!

On the morning of Day 2 the research network held talks with the invited panel members to discuss how to go forward with our research. Finally in the afternoon we met to discuss the various research funding proposals and publications which we’re currently putting together.

More leisurely activities included a couple of dinners, a fascinating presentation by Professor Dawn Hadley on her work at the Torksey Viking camp, and a trip to Historiska Museet.

Many thanks again to all who attended!

Congratulations to Astrid Noterman!

Astrid Noterman‘s doctoral thesis ‘Violation, pillage, profanation: la perturbation des sépultures mérovingiennes au haut Moyen Âge (VIe-VIIIe siècle) dans la moitié nord de la France [Violation, plundering, desecration: the disturbance of Merovingian graves during the Early Middle Ages (6th-8th century A.D.) in the northern half of France]’ has been passed at the University of Poitiers. Congratulations Dr Noterman!

Happy holidays!

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Happy holidays with this wonderful image from Brian Hope-Taylor.

‘Do people ever reopen graves to put things in rather than taking them out?’ is a question I am often asked after presentations. The answer of course is yes, that happens in all kinds of contexts. And sometimes there are indications that people reopening graves mainly in order to remove artefacts or human remains may also have added other objects. This has been suggested in a number of examples among the widespread phenonmenon of grave disturbance in Merovingian Europe which is the main focus for this blog and the research group behind it. But as long as the added artefacts are reasonably close in date to the original burial assemblage, it’s very hard to prove. If the objects are of a different character – such as bearing explicitly Christian symbolism – or are deliberately placed in an unusual position – such as on top of disturbed remains – then there may be a case. I can’t personally remember finding a really convincing Merovingian-period example, but perhaps one of the other researchers can?

Reopening in early medieval Transylvania

We’ve just been made aware of a 2014 paper by Alpár Dobos on reopening in the row-grave cemeteries of Merovingian-period Transylvania. Dobos presents a careful study of the evidence from several burial grounds, showing that reopening was as widespread and intense in this as in other areas of the Merovingian cultural milieu. He does not refer to the most recent analyses of reopening elsewhere in the Merovingian kingdoms (e.g. Zintl 2012; Klevnäs 2013, 2015), but makes extensive and very useful comparisons with Helmut Roth’s seminal 1978 article as well as Edeltraud Aspöck‘s 2003 study of the Brunn am Gebirge cemetery in Lower Austria.

First impression – based on Dobos’ interpretations of his material – is that the reopening here looks astonishingly similar to what we see to the north-west in Germany, France, the low countries, and into south-east England. The high but variable proportions of cemeteries affected in each cemetery; the specific targeting of the upper body / waist areas of burials; the disarticulated state of most but not quite all the disturbed skeletons; the bones and discarded objects strewn in the intrusive pits; the selective removal of certain grave-goods: all this is immediately recognisable from cemeteries in Bavaria or in Anglo-Saxon Kent. So, sadly, is Dobos’ struggle to recompose evidence from poorly documented excavations. But a less common and particularly interesting feature is the finds of some bones apparently left on the cemetery surface between burials. Contemporary ground surfaces are more often ploughed away, so that this kind of evidence is rarely discoverable elsewhere, although Martine van Haperen‘s forthcoming study will present some examples from the low countries.

Two immediate conclusions: first, Dobos’ study again highlights the need for excavators to be well-informed about the reopening phenomenon before they tackle cemeteries which are likely to be affected. Questions about reopening practices need to be included in the research design before the topsoil is even cleared. And second, it shows that there’s a great deal left to discuss about the scale of the phenomenon, its comparative dating, its limits, and its possible spread. Looking forward to getting to grips with this and more at the symposium in January.

References

Aspöck, E. (2003). “Graböffnungen im Frühmittelalter und das Beispiel der langobardenzeitlichen Gräber von Brunn am Gebirge, Flur Wolfholz, Niederösterreich.” Archaeologia Austriaca 87: 225-265.
Klevnäs, A. (2013). Whodunnit? Grave Robbery in Anglo-Saxon England and the Merovingian Kingdoms. BAR International Series 2582. Oxford, Archaeopress.
Roth, H. (1978). Archäologische Beobachtungen zum Grabfrevel im Meroweingerreich. Zum Grabfrevel in vor- und frühgeschichtlicher Zeit: Untersuchungen zu Grabraub und ‘haugbrot’ in Mittel- und Nordeuropa: Bericht über ein Kolloquium der Kommission für die Altertumskunde Mittel- und Nordeuropas vom 14. bis 16. Februar 1977. H. Jankuhn, H. Nehlsen and H. Roth. Göttingen, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht: 53-84.
Zintl, S. (2012). Frühmittelalterliche Grabräuber? Wiedergeöffnete Gräber der Merowingerzeit, Inaugural-Dissertation zur Erlangung der Doktorwürde der Philosophischen Fakultät der Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg i. Br.

Reopening of Bronze Age graves: new publication

A new article in the Journal of Archaeological Science by GRR member Edeltraud Aspöck uses soil thin section analyses to investigate formation processes of a reopened early Bronze Age inhumation grave in Austria.

Edeltraud Aspöck, Rowena Yvonne Banerjea, Formation processes of a reopened early Bronze Age inhumation grave in Austria: The soil thin section analyses, Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, Available online 3 August 2016.

Abstract

Early Bronze Age and early medieval inhumation graves in (central) Europe had often been re-opened a short time after burial and, in most cases, grave goods were removed. To improve the understanding of the archaeological evidence of these graves, one re-opened grave from a large early Bronze Age (Wieselburg/Gáta culture) cemetery in Weiden am See, eastern Austria, was excavated using a microstratigraphic protocol to maximize data collection for the reconstruction of the context formation process and, consequently, the interpretation of the re-opening process. In this article the results of the soil thin section analyses are presented and discussed.