Reopening in early medieval Transylvania

We’ve just been made aware of a 2014 paper by Alpár Dobos on reopening in the row-grave cemeteries of Merovingian-period Transylvania. Dobos presents a careful study of the evidence from several burial grounds, showing that reopening was as widespread and intense in this as in other areas of the Merovingian cultural milieu. He does not refer to the most recent analyses of reopening elsewhere in the Merovingian kingdoms (e.g. Zintl 2012; Klevnäs 2013, 2015), but makes extensive and very useful comparisons with Helmut Roth’s seminal 1978 article as well as Edeltraud Aspöck‘s 2003 study of the Brunn am Gebirge cemetery in Lower Austria.

First impression – based on Dobos’ interpretations of his material – is that the reopening here looks astonishingly similar to what we see to the north-west in Germany, France, the low countries, and into south-east England. The high but variable proportions of cemeteries affected in each cemetery; the specific targeting of the upper body / waist areas of burials; the disarticulated state of most but not quite all the disturbed skeletons; the bones and discarded objects strewn in the intrusive pits; the selective removal of certain grave-goods: all this is immediately recognisable from cemeteries in Bavaria or in Anglo-Saxon Kent. So, sadly, is Dobos’ struggle to recompose evidence from poorly documented excavations. But a less common and particularly interesting feature is the finds of some bones apparently left on the cemetery surface between burials. Contemporary ground surfaces are more often ploughed away, so that this kind of evidence is rarely discoverable elsewhere, although Martine van Haperen‘s forthcoming study will present some examples from the low countries.

Two immediate conclusions: first, Dobos’ study again highlights the need for excavators to be well-informed about the reopening phenomenon before they tackle cemeteries which are likely to be affected. Questions about reopening practices need to be included in the research design before the topsoil is even cleared. And second, it shows that there’s a great deal left to discuss about the scale of the phenomenon, its comparative dating, its limits, and its possible spread. Looking forward to getting to grips with this and more at the symposium in January.

References

Aspöck, E. (2003). “Graböffnungen im Frühmittelalter und das Beispiel der langobardenzeitlichen Gräber von Brunn am Gebirge, Flur Wolfholz, Niederösterreich.” Archaeologia Austriaca 87: 225-265.
Klevnäs, A. (2013). Whodunnit? Grave Robbery in Anglo-Saxon England and the Merovingian Kingdoms. BAR International Series 2582. Oxford, Archaeopress.
Roth, H. (1978). Archäologische Beobachtungen zum Grabfrevel im Meroweingerreich. Zum Grabfrevel in vor- und frühgeschichtlicher Zeit: Untersuchungen zu Grabraub und ‘haugbrot’ in Mittel- und Nordeuropa: Bericht über ein Kolloquium der Kommission für die Altertumskunde Mittel- und Nordeuropas vom 14. bis 16. Februar 1977. H. Jankuhn, H. Nehlsen and H. Roth. Göttingen, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht: 53-84.
Zintl, S. (2012). Frühmittelalterliche Grabräuber? Wiedergeöffnete Gräber der Merowingerzeit, Inaugural-Dissertation zur Erlangung der Doktorwürde der Philosophischen Fakultät der Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg i. Br.

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