Reopening of Viking period graves: new publication

A new article in the European Journal of Archaeology by GRR member Alison Klevnäs explores the widespread early disturbance of Vendel and Viking period burials in Scandinavia. The paper is currently open access, i.e. free to read.


This article examines the wide range of grave disturbance practices seen in Viking-age burials across Scandinavia. It argues that the much-debated reopenings at high-profile sites, notably the Norwegian ‘royal’ mounds, should be seen against a background of widespread and varied evidence for burial reworking in Scandinavia throughout the first-millennium ad and into the Middle Ages. Interventions into Viking-age graves are interpreted as disruptive, intended to derail practices of memory-creation set in motion by funerary displays and monuments. However, the reopening and reworking of burials were also mnemonic citations in their own right, using a recurrent set of practices to make heroic, mythological, and genealogical allusions. The retrieval of portable artefacts was a key element in this repertoire, and in this article I use archaeological and written sources to explore the particular concepts of ownership which enabled certain possessions to work as material citations appropriating attributes of dead persons for living claimants.


We’re excited to announce that the GRR network will soon be holding its first major event. With the generous support of Riksbankens Jublieumsfond, we’re organising an international symposium on Merovingian-period burial reopening, to be held at Stockholm University on 12th-13th January 2017. This will be the first conference on the widespread and fascinating phenomenon of early medieval grave disturbance since 1977!

The symposium has its own webpage with more information and a registration form at

Hope to see you there!

Early medieval grave disturbance: new publication

Klevnäs, A. (2015). Give and take: grave goods and grave robbery in the early middle ages. In Klevnäs, A. and Hedenstierna-Jonson, C., eds. ‘Own and be owned: archaeological approaches to the concept of possession’. Stockholm Studies in Archaeology 62. (157-188)

The starting point for this paper is the widespread early medieval practice of reopening recent graves and taking artefacts from them. During the seventh century, Merovingian Europe saw an epidemic of grave disturbance: in almost all known cemeteries of the period a proportion of burials were ransacked and selected artefacts taken from them. Trying to understand this reopening leads directly to questions of ownership: the practice has long been labelled as grave robbery, but in what sense was it theft? To whom did the objects belong? To the dead, or kin, or a wider community? Did this ownership come into being during life, or was it conferred at death? When the evidence is considered in detail, there are several ways in which it defies a straightforward pattern of robbing for material gain. Notably, only certain forms of artefacts were taken, with reopeners consistently leaving behind many apparently desirable types of possession. What lay behind their selectivity? Why were only some kinds of grave good taken from the dead?

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!