Last month Astrid Noterman and Alison Klevnäs gave a talk as part of a workshop at the Centre for Textile Research in the Saxo Institute at the University of Copenhagen. This was organised by Liv Nilsson Stutz for the Sweden+ archaeothanatology working group and our travel was funded by a grant from Linnaeus University. We spoke about ways in which disturbed graves can actually be more informative than ones which are intact contexts. It was a very stimulating afternoon with fascinating presentations and informed discussion. Many thanks to Eva Andersson Strand and colleagues for a warm welcome and kind hospitality!
We’re very pleased – ok flabbergasted – to see so much media interest in our new Open Access paper in the journal Antiquity on the phenomenon of grave reopening in early medieval Europe. The paper brings together results from studies by all five authors, plus some wider perspectives from the history of research and more recent work. We show the geographical and chronological extent of the phenomenon, discuss the nature of the practices, and argue that however counterintuitively, reopening now needs to be considered part of the broad customary treatment of the dead in the period.
As Heinrich Härke comments in the livescience.com coverage, while some of the discoveries have been reported previously in journals or books, “What is new in this article… is the coherent attempt to pull the western and central European evidence on ‘grave opening’ together, present it as a European-wide phenomenon of the 6th/7th centuries A.D., and offer some possible interpretations”. We don’t actually get very far into interpretations in this short paper, but as you can see in the press coverage below, we’ve been asked a lot about what possible meanings the reopening practices might have had for those carrying them out and I have tried to give some answers along the lines the authors have variously previously published or are developing.
It’s great to see how much public interest there is in results from an archaeological study of this kind. This wasn’t a spectacular ‘new find’ story. It’s about many years (decades!) of research into a complex phenomenon which raises as many questions as it answers. There’s no familiar ‘Viking’ tag to pin on this. What’s the recognition value of the Merovingian kingdoms? Reihengräberfelder? Lombardic cemeteries (well, cemeteries traditionally but dubiously attributed to so-called Lombards) in Lower Austria and Hungary? The many journalists who’ve contacted us with follow-up questions have had a uphill slog to get clear descriptions of the period and material we’ve been studying, let alone why it’s exciting.
But the human past in all its complexity and strangeness is of huge popular interest – which is why the threats to archaeological research especially in the UK at the moment are so disheartening. It has just been announced that Archaeology and Heritage at the University of Chester is now safe from redundancies, but the world-renowned Department of Archaeology at the University of Sheffield is under threat of closure by university management.
Here’s a list of some of the coverage we’ve seen for this paper. Very many thanks to everyone who has taken an interest in our work and helped to get the word out.
Our work is featured in New Scientist today!
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.
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.