New project: Belief and conflict in Early Medieval Europe

We are very happy to announce that the Swedish Research Council (Vetenskapsrådet) has awarded funding for a three-year project entitled ‘Interacting with the dead. Belief and conflict in Early Medieval Europe (AD 450-750)’ to Alison Klevnäs and Astrid Noterman. The project will start in September 2018 and be based in the Department of Archaeology and Classical Studies at Stockholm University. The other network members – Edeltraud Aspöck, Martine van Haperen, and Stephanie Zintl – are currently busy with other research, but will participate as project advisors.

Interacting with the dead. Belief and conflict in Early Medieval Europe (AD 450-750)

This project will study customs of revisiting, reworking, and retrieving human and material remains which have newly been recognised in burial grounds across early medieval Europe, using them as an innovative route into understanding beliefs and community life in this formative period of social and religious change.

Once into the Christian Middle Ages, burial sites became places of worship and pilgrimage, with human body parts revered as relics. But the traditional view of the earlier pagan societies is that the dead were kept separate from the living, lying undisturbed in rows of graves in quiet fields, surrounded by their treasured possessions and grave gifts.

This research will show that far from decomposing in peace, the pre-Christian dead were regularly and frequently unearthed. Over 3 years, it will bring together the first Europe-wide survey of grave reopening practices, showing that a set of related customs can be seen at hundreds of excavated sites over a geographic range from Transylvania to central Spain to southern England.

Applying forensic and archaeothanatological techniques to the excavated evidence, the researchers will reconstruct the reopening practices in detail, exploring their methods and motives as a source for past understandings of such fundamental concepts as death, the body, and ownership. Tracing the spatial and chronological development of the customs, the project will ask how their recognition changes our picture of the societies of the period.

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.

Abstract:

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.

Symposium!

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 http://reopenedgraves.eu/events/

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)

Abstract:
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?