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.

Symposium registration form

Grave disturbance in early medieval Europe. International symposium 2017

09:00 to 17:00 Thursday 12th January 2017.

Attendance is free but registration is required.

Tea, coffee, and light refreshments will be served during the morning and afternoon breaks, but lunch is not provided. A range of cafés and restaurants can be found on the university campus or nearby.

For more information please see the main event page.

Update 17 December 2016: The symposium is now fully booked. If you would still like to attend, please register using the form below and we will place your name on a waiting list in case of cancellations.

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A quick report from Glasgow EAA

The EAA conference for this year is over and I’ve more or less recovered from the devastating cold everyone seemed to contract there, so it’s time for a quick report.

For reopened burial enthusiasts, the first day featured an afternoon session on ’Grave disturbances: the secondary manipulation of burials’ organised by Nils Müller-Scheeßel. This was billed as a follow up to a session at the 2011 Oslo EAA organised by Edeltraud Aspöck and I (Alison Klevnäs), so we were both keen to take part.

Edeltraud presented a paper called ‘Microtaphonomy in context’ on her excavation of a heavily disturbed Bronze Age grave in eastern Austria. She’s carrying out a very detailed study of a single grave to investigate how much information can be extracted using the newest techniques. Her work has useful findings for excavators of reopened burials in all periods, so there were lots of questions from the evidently specialized and informed audience.

I was excited to present a paper on behalf of the whole Grave Reopening Research group. It brought together findings from all our recent research on early medieval grave disturbance: Edeltraud Aspöck’s work in Austria, Stephanie Zintl’s recent thesis in southern Germany, mine in Anglo-Saxon England, Martine van Haperen’s forthcoming thesis on the low countries, and Astrid Noterman’s ongoing case study in northern France. Preparing for the talk was the first time I’d had the opportunity to make detailed comparisons between our results in different areas, and seeing it all together threw up some interesting points of contrast for future investigation as well as showing several shared conclusions. It was good to have both Edeltraud and Stephanie Zintl in the audience to help field questions.

The session was well attended and well received, with standing room only in the lecture theatre much of the time. Papers ranged from the Eneolithic/Chalcolithic to the Early Middle Ages. Several presented data from recent or ongoing digs – it’s always interesting to see new results from excavations which take grave disturbance as a research object. The interpretations coming out of the Iron Age disturbed cemeteries, which seem to have quite complex ritual manipulations of human remains, were an interesting contrast to the early medieval material. But also a reminder that the neat categories of ‘secondary burial’ v. ‘disturbed burial’ which we use need questioning. I was particularly interested to hear Ulla Moilanen‘s talk on 9th to 12th century graves in Finland which seem to have been opened to stop the dead from walking, since these have parallels in burials described in England by Aspöck at Winnall II and at various sites in my thesis. I’ve just finished a paper on the Anglo-Saxon examples, so looking forward to some fruitful discussions with Ulla. Lastly, we were pleased to receive a positive write-up on Professor Howard William’s blog Archaeodeath!

Then I also presented a paper in a session called ‘Bridging scales: local to global perspectives on mobility, interaction, and transmission in the first millennium AD‘ which I co-organized with Kathrin Meents (until recently Kathrin Felder) and Susanne Hakenbeck. Here I gave a more personal view of the early medieval reopening evidence, especially tied to questions of scale – the sizes of geographical areas and the scales of narrative we use in analyzing and interpreting early medieval archaeology. This session was also well attended, despite being scheduled for 0800-1000 on Saturday morning, and gave rise to a lot of useful discussion. For me it demonstrated the strength of relatively short sessions with a smallish number of closely related papers, between which the speakers and audience can make connections and comparisons.

Between all that, I also managed to see great sessions on ‘Pathways to power in Iron Age/Early medieval Europe’ and ‘The control and management of burial in Christian cemeteries’. Edeltraud spoke in a roundtable discussion on ‘Terminology in funerary archaeology’, to which I couldn’t make it – hopefully she’ll give us a write up.

As ever, it was great to see old friends and acquaintances and to make new ones. This year in particular the conference was a useful opportunity for members of GRR to get together and also to hear from others working on disturbed burials. This evidently continues to be a hot topic!