Some graves from the early European Middle Ages show traces of later opening – until now this was considered a sign of a tomb robbery. But now a new study reveals: such tomb openings were common in Europe in the 5th and 7th centuries and seem to be part of burial traditions. In the course of this practice, one often only removes something from the grave, repositions the dead or even places something in the grave at a later time.
Archaeologists have long puzzled over why the graves of some of the dead from the early Middle Ages were apparently disturbed again soon after they were buried. “In some cemeteries only one or two graves were affected, in others almost all graves were reopened,” says Alison Klevnass of Stockholm University and colleagues. Particularly affected are the so-called grave fields, since they were common in Central and Western Europe from the 5th to the 8th centuries.
The rest of the dead are upset
Typical of these tomb openings: “The skeletons and funerary property found in them are incomplete and mixed, and sometimes fragments or mineral deposits indicate missing artifacts,” explain Klevnas and her team. Because of these references to lost objects, these disturbances in the peace of the dead were previously thought to be the work of grave robbers. This was supported, among other things, by a number of early medieval laws that included an express prohibition on grave robbery. But there was also suspicion of a connection to Christianization.
So far, however, there has been no systematic overview of how common these dangerous openings were in Europe at the time. To find out the answer, Klevnas and her team have now collected data on such dangerous vents from nearly all of Europe. “This makes it possible for the first time to assess the enormous extent of this phenomenon in detail,” the researchers said. Their assessment revealed that there were more than a thousand later grave pits in the early Middle Ages and that this occurred in large parts of Europe – from Transylvania to England. So the tomb opening was far from an anomaly. Rather, it was a common practice in many early medieval tombs,” explain the archaeologists.
Targeted removal of specific objects
The frequency of opening tombs varied slightly depending on the region in Europe. In Bavaria, more than 50 percent of cemeteries were destroyed, in the Benelux countries about 40 percent and in France it was about 30 percent, Klevnas and her team found. Aside from this overall frequency, there were also differences in the proportion of grave openings in individual graves: in southern Germany, Hungary, and Romania almost all graves in a facility were affected, but in France, rarely more than half were affected. “This practice occurred in the whole area of the row burials, but its frequency in a particular area appears to have been determined by local conditions,” the researchers said.
Careful analysis showed that most of the tombs were opened as long as the sarcophagus and the dead had not yet completely collapsed. Usually, only individual objects are intentionally removed – and by no means are all valuables removed, as is the case with grave robbery. In one case, for example, the brooches were removed, but the half-dead necklace was left behind, which consisted of 78 pearls, six silver pendants, and ornaments made of glass and onyx. “It seems that the people carefully chose what to take from the grave. Mostly they were brooches for women and swords for men,” says Clifnas. These objects have been removed even if they are badly damaged or half of the disintegration – so they may no longer have any practical or material value. What exactly motivated this strange custom and why this practice spread so far throughout Europe in the 6th and 7th centuries, however, has not yet been elucidated.
Source: Stockholm University; Professional article: antiquity, doi:10.15184/aqy.2020.217