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?

Grave reopening at EAA 2015 in Glasgow

Edeltraud Aspöck and Alison Klevnäs will both be at the Glasgow EAA in September 2015 talking about disturbed burials.

We’re both in Session RI12 ‘Grave disturbances: the secondary manipulation of burials’ on 3/9/15 at 1330-1800 in James Watt South, Room 355.

Alison’s also in AM5 ‘Bridging scales: Local to global perspectives on mobility, interaction, and transmission in the first millennium AD’ on 5/9/15 at 0800-1000 in Mathematics Building, Room 214.

 

Abstract for EAA 2015 Session RI12 ‘Grave disturbances: the secondary manipulation of burials’

Dr AM Klevnäs, Department of Archaeology and Classical Studies, Stockholm University

Grave reopening in early medieval Europe: new research perspectives

This paper presents new research into a long-recognized phenomenon: the widespread reopening and ransacking of burials in the row-grave cemeteries of the Merovingian kingdoms. Grave disturbance has been recorded in hundreds of early medieval burial grounds since the 19th century, but until recently there was almost no synthetic work comparing evidence between sites and regions. The practice was commonly glossed as graverobbery, and assumed to be an unlawful activity with material motives. Hence reopening was for a long time seen mainly as a problem: disturbance not only of the dead but also of the archaeological resource, with analysis of burials, grave goods and social structures all hindered by interference with the original burial context.
However, the last few years have seen significant new findings about the date, extent, and types of grave reopening seen in this period. This paper highlights the work of the Grave Reopening Research working group (reopenedgraves.eu), whose members are carrying out detailed investigation of reopening evidence in five different areas of early medieval Europe. This new work demonstrates that it is possible to move on from speculation about motives and to develop interpretations which are grounded in the evidence. Grave reopening was a widespread and intensive practice in 6th and 7th century Europe, with untapped potential for understanding contemporary attitudes to death, decay, commemoration, possessions, and ancestors. It has significant implications both for our understandings of early medieval burial practice, and also more widely for recognition of conflicts and power relations in early medieval society.

Vendel: new paper on the disturbance of the famous boat-grave cemetery in central Sweden

Klevnäs, A. 2015. Abandon Ship! Digging out the Dead from the Vendel Boat-Graves. Norwegian Archaeological Review, 48(1), 1-20.

Abstract:

The boat-grave cemetery at Vendel, Uppland, is one of the iconic sites of first-millennium Sweden. The high-status grave-goods and weaponry have been widely displayed and studied since their discovery over 130 years ago. Yet it is rarely mentioned that the burial ground had been almost completely ransacked long before archaeologists stepped in. The celebrated finds are only a fraction of the wealth that was originally buried at the site.

This is the first evaluation of the evidence of disturbance from Vendel since the excavations in the late 19th century. The ancient re-opening of the graves is reconstructed through the letters and diaries of the excavator, Hjalmar Stolpe, as well as the various preliminary and final reports. Evidence is presented that the main parts of the burials, notably the human bones, were systematically dug out of nearly every grave and removed from the site. The reopening probably took place during the Christianization period, before or during the construction of the nearby church in the 13th century. This is an example of the widespread reworking of monuments at this time, specifically highlighting the significance accorded to buried human remains.