Mystery of early medieval grave openings

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Troubled grave in France. (Image: Éveha-Études et valorisations archéologiques / G. Grange)

Some graves from the European early Middle Ages show traces of subsequent opening – up to now this was considered a sign of grave robbery. But now a new study reveals: Such grave openings were widespread in Europe in the 5th to 7th centuries and apparently part of burial traditions. In the context of this practice, one often only removed an object from the grave, changed the position of the dead or even later placed something in the grave.

Archaeologists have been puzzling for a long time as to why the tombs of some of the dead from the early Middle Ages were apparently disturbed again shortly after their burial. “In some cemeteries only one or two graves are affected, in others almost all graves were reopened afterwards,” report Alison Klevnäs from Stockholm University and her colleagues. So-called row grave fields, as they were common in Central and Western Europe from the 5th to 8th centuries, are particularly affected.

Dead rest disturbed

Typical of these grave openings: “The skeletons and grave goods contained therein are incomplete and mixed up, sometimes fragments or metallic deposits indicate missing artifacts,” explain Klevnäs and her team. Because of such references to missing objects, this disturbance of the peace of the dead was previously thought to be the work of grave robbers. This was supported, among other things, by a series of early medieval laws that contained explicit prohibitions on grave robbery. But a connection with Christianization was also suspected.

Map
Map of the early medieval grave openings. (Image: Stockholm University)

So far, however, there has been no systematic overview of how widespread these grave openings really were in Europe at that time. To find out, Klevnäs and her team have now compiled data on such grave openings from almost all of Europe. “This makes it possible for the first time to evaluate the enormous extent of this phenomenon in detail,” said the researchers. Their evaluation revealed that there were more than a thousand subsequent grave openings in the early Middle Ages and that this took place in large parts of Europe – from Transylvania to England. “The grave opening was therefore far from being an anomaly. Instead, it was common practice in many early medieval cemeteries, ”explain the archaeologists.

Targeted removal of specific objects

The frequency of the grave openings differed slightly depending on the region in Europe. In Bavaria, more than 50 percent of the graves were disrupted, in the Benelux countries around 40 percent and in France it was around 30 percent, as Klevnäs and her team found. Regardless of this overarching frequency, there were also differences in the proportion of grave openings in the individual cemeteries: In southern Germany, Hungary and Romania, mostly all graves in a facility were affected, in France, however, rarely more than half. “This practice occurred in the entire area of ​​the row burial grounds, but its frequency in a certain area seems to have been determined by local conditions,” said the researchers.

Closer analysis showed that most of the graves were opened as long as the coffin and the dead were not completely disintegrated. In most cases, only individual objects were deliberately removed – and by no means all valuables removed, as would be the case with a grave robbery. In one case, for example, brooches were removed, but the half-decayed dead necklace was left behind, which consisted of 78 pearls, six silver pendants, and decorations made of glass and garnet. “Apparently people carefully chose what to take from the grave. Mostly it was brooches for the women and swords for the men, ”reports Klevnäs. These objects were removed even if they were badly damaged or half-disintegrated – they therefore no longer had any practical or material value. What exactly was the motivation behind this strange custom and why this practice spread so far across Europe in the 6th and 7th centuries is still unclear.

Source: Stockholm University; Professional article: Antiquity, doi: 10.15184 / aqy.2020.217

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