PresentDead blog post 4: Presenting the PresentDead at the IMAFO – The Historian’s View

by Thom Gobbitt


On Tuesday 16 April, we took the PresentDead project across the street from our regular home, into Otto Wagnar’s Postsparkasse, and presented the aims and goals of the historical perspective at the Institute for Medieval Research (IMAFO) of the OEAW. This was in part to strengthen connections with the members of the Histogenes project, but we had a great turnout from the various departments of the Institute, but especially from the department for “Historical Identity Research”. There was a lot of engagement and some very good and thought-provoking questions, that will certainly inform our thinking over the coming months and years.


The presentation began with Edeltraud outlining the aims and objectives of the project, looking at the archaeological underpinnings and scope, while offering a synopsis of the historical sources and scholarship that archaeologists have employed from the late nineteenth century to the modern day, to inform interpretations of re-opened graves. This began with Ludwig Lindenschmidt’s observation in his three volume Handbuch der Deutschen Alterthumskunde (1880-1889), that if an early medieval grave has less previous metals and jewellery than one would expect, then this should probably be attributed to grave-robbing. He had also already outlined those of the early medieval historical source texts that have in the century-and-a-half since then informed most interpretations on graverobbing: On the one hand, the legislative sources, especially the so called “barbarian laws”, and naming specifically the law-codes of the Salian Franks, Lombards, Visigoths, Alamanns and Bavarians. These remain the sources most frequently referred to up to the modern day, although particularly through the filter of the 1977 “Grabfrevel” conference and the subsequent publication of its proceedings in 1978. On the other hand, the historiographical accounts of the reopening of the graves of the Lombard kings Rothari and Alboin as recounted by Paul the Deacon in his Historia Langobardorum, and the plundering of the recent grave of a relative of the wife of one Guntram Boso by his servants – although probably at his instruction. More recently, Patrick Geary’s work has brought attention to grave-reopening in terms of otherworldly encounters both in the translation of saints and their miraculous powers as well as in secular terms. Archaeologists, however have given little weight to the perspective that Geary offers, and instead their focus has been more on the negative sense of Grabfrevel, the violation of graves. As Edeltraud noted, there has not really been a comprehensive study of the written contexts of grave-reopening in the early medieval period since the 1977 “Grabfrevel” symposium, and for the last almost half a century since its publication, the emphasis on such activity being only grave robbery as underscored in that volume has had a significant influence on archaeological interpretation. Edeltraud concluded her section of our presentation with the key point underlining the project’s historical objectives – the texts need to be re-examined in the light of current historical and literary analysis.


For my own part of the presentation, I began by outlining some of the general parameters of the study: the most significant of which being that for the core geographical area and timeframe where our project focuses – broadly speaking, from what are now Transylvania to eastern Austria, in the fifth to eighth centuries, where different contexts of grave re-opening than just robbery can be observed – written texts are incredibly sparse. Written sources begin to appear towards the western edges of the project area at the end of the time frame, but for the most part it’s not a case of texts which were directly written within the project scope, or even such texts that survive only in their later transmission and reception. Instead, a broader net has to be cast, looking at texts that were written or transmitted outside the project area, later, or most often, both. This broader focus, beginning with the identification of relevant passages from texts written in both Western Europe and Byzantium, will prioritise texts that look into or back into the area and period of interest to the project. But identification of texts will also serve to contextualise grave reopening and interactions with the dead more broadly – what kind of strategies and processes could be imagined in the early middle ages? The types of sources where interactions with the dead and their materials are mentioned are quite varied, especially with the broader focus beyond just the reopening of graves, let alone grave robbing. The main two types of source on which the project at least begins with are regulatory texts and historiographical accounts:


  • Regulatory texts incorporate both the secular “barbarian” laws, and the Roman law inheritance which continued to be developed, as well religiously based normative texts from biblical exemplars through to penitentials, monastic rules and church canons.
  • Historiographical texts incorporate hagiography and, especially, the translation of saints or miracles in their graves, as well as the more worldly accounts of death, burial and grave re-openings – although often the line between the secular and the religious is blurred, especially when written by with religiously-situated authors.


The remainder of the paper comprised deeper dives into some of the specific historical texts and issues that have been drawn on by archaeologists, demonstrating some of the limits that have come from the narrowly focused attention given to just the literal account of re-opening a grave. Here let us finish by revisiting just one of those exemplars: Paul the Deacons recounting of the re-opening of Alboin’s grave in his own time by Giselpert, Duke of Verona – an event that Patrick Geary in his Living with the Dead in the Middle Ages (1994) has already re-framed from the terms of superstition and vanity that Paul had used, to instead reveal an otherworldly encounter with the dead king, one which in turn legitimised Giselpert’s claims to power and enhanced his status.


Paul’s account included a look back into the account of Alboin’s earlier life – so we see Paul the Deacon’s literary gaze looking a little further back into time, and into the plains of Pannonia – within the edges of where our project’s study focuses. In contrast to the extensive archaeological evidence, however, Paul makes no recounts of grave reopenings here. But amongst the mentions of death, bones and bits of corpses, he also recounts Alboin being given his arma [weaponry] at a feast by the Gepid king, Turismund, a ritualised encounter legitimising Alboin’s political and social power and permitting him from then on to be able to feast in the hall with his own father. But as I spoke about in the presentation, Alboin’s receiving of his arma and his consequent legitimisation, echoes the story of Duke Giselpert of Verona entering Alboin’s grave a couple of centuries later, encountering Alboin and receiving (or winning) his sword from him. Perhaps even, although Paul does not make it clear, the very same sword that Alboin had once received from Turismond – and it would appear that the sword continues to accumulate greater significance in the telling, as it weaves its way back and forth between the living and the dead.


But as I argued, this also raises the point that historiographical accounts of the reopening of a grave gain their significance from their broader contexts. We must not just look widely to discover such accounts, but also delve deep into why they were written and how such texts function in their social and intellectual climates. Focusing closely on the specific account of a grave-reopening can already tell us much about how such an event might happen, but when set in its broader contexts we began to reveal how such an act might be understood at a deeper level, and the ways in which the living interacted with the dead and their materials. History and archaeology bring two very different approaches, ones which are often difficult to integrate, let alone unite – but they also offer the potential of wider and multiple perspectives when we instead ask how does each discipline relate to the reopened grave – and what can we dig up together?

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