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.

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?

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.