Medieval People Were Reopening Graves, But Not to Rob Them
In the Middle Ages being dead wasn’t a guarantee you would rest in peace. Researchers have found hundreds of examples of people re-opening graves in cemeteries from Transylvania to southern England in the 5th – 7th centuries AD.
What could this mean? The first explanation for the apparently inconsistent reopening of graves and removal of artifacts, or fragments of artifacts, was common grave robbery. But a new study published in the journal Antiquitychallenges that view, saying that the widespread re-opening of graves did not signal theft, and it was actually a part of regular mortuary practices at the time.
Reconstruction of a chamber grave from eastern France. (figure by B. Clarys/ Antiquity)
“Excavators Have Realized that Something Stranger is Going On”
This study demonstrates that in early Medieval Europe the dead and their possessions continued to be important after they were buried. Lead author of the research Dr. Alison Klevnäs from Stockholm University explained,
“For over a hundred years, archaeologists in many European countries have discovered graves from the early medieval period which look like they were robbed soon after burial. But over the decades, many excavators have realized that something stranger is going on.”
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Grave 224 at Vitry-la-Ville, France, showing a body that has been moved while partially articulated and within an intact container. ( Antiquity)
Dr. Klevnäs teamed up with four other archaeologists working in other parts of Europe – France, the Netherlands, Austria, and Germany. When they pooled their data, which covers findings at cemeteries from Romania to England, they discovered that grave reopening was a far more widespread and long-lasting practice than previously believed. They found more than 1000 reopened graves in dozens of cemeteries.
They believe that the mortuary practice likely started in central Europe shortly before the end of the 6th century, then it spread around the continent to reach a peak in the 7th century. Dr. Astrid Noterman, who studied the reopening of graves in over 40 sites in northern France, says that “The reopening custom spread over western Europe from the later sixth century and reached a peak in the seventh century.” But in many of the areas, they found the practice “peters out in the later seventh century, so that many cemeteries have a last phase of burials with no reopening.”
Artist’s reconstruction of a burial and reopening at Ozengell, England. ( Figure by L. Jay, courtesy of the Trust for Thanet Archaeology/ Antiquity)
What Did People Do After Reopening the Graves?
The research team found that the grave reopenings were generally linked to a removal of certain artifacts, but sometimes involved damaging objects, moving bodies around, removing body parts - and in one instance someone opened a grave to add a dog to the burial.
One of the key factors which revealed that the reopening of burials wasn’t grave robbing was the “careful selection of possessions to remove,” according to Dr. Klevnäs. It seems that many of the objects were not economically valuable. Even though Dr. Klevnäs notes that people took “ brooches from women and swords from men […] they left behind lots of valuables, even precious metal objects, including necklace pendants of gold or silver.”
A grave in Germany that was reopened, during which the bones were moved around (credit: Stephanie Zintl, photograph by M. Hensch/ Antiquity)
In their paper, the researchers mention an example in Kent, in which a reopened burial still contained necklaces with precious metal pendants, and another grave in which “brooches were taken from a semi-decomposed corpse,” however “a necklace comprising 78 beads, along with six pendants of silver, silver-gilt, glass and garnet was left.” As Dr. Klevnäs says,
“It seems really surprising that someone would take copper alloy brooches from a decaying corpse, but leave behind a necklace with silver pendants. Evidently they felt they could only take certain kinds of belongings from the dead.”
The study authors also write in the paper that across the study area, from Romania to England, swords and seaxes (a type of knife or dagger) “were almost always removed.” However, other weapons were also routinely removed in some areas, such as spears and shields taken out of graves in Bavaria – but only when they were visible and easy to access. If they were at the edge of a grave it seems that people were less interested in making the effort to remove them.
The team found that people often only removed sections of artifacts from some graves, such as portions of swords in France and parts of belt sets in Bavaria. This was made clear by studying the imprints that removed elements left in the soil. The fact that only fragments of some objects were taken from the burials is further proof that the people reopening graves were not looking to “maximize returns” by gathering the whole assemblage – they went into a grave looking for specific objects and even though it meant picking them out of rotting flesh and clothing, some of those artifacts were taken – even if they were falling apart too.
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“Robbing” Graves…For Socially Positive Reasons
Finally, it’s worth mentioning that the study found many of the graves were reopened before coffins had fully decayed. According to the research team, this means people were revisiting the burials of people in their parents or grandparents generation. Dr. Klevnäs says that the dead didn’t get much of a chance to “rest in peace” in some of the cemeteries the researchers studied:
“Robbing graves sounds like a negative act, but it actually seems to be socially positive here. People carried on burying the dead in cemeteries, alongside repeated events of reopening graves. We can even see that some cemeteries with reopening customs were used for longer than ones where the dead were left in peace.”
Now that the researchers have made the true nature of this mortuary practice known, they hope that future research will help explain why it became such a popular, widespread practice across the region in a short span of time.
Top Image: Grave from France where the individual was moved around. The reopening of graves to move bodies or remove artifacts was a widespread Medieval practice. Source: Éveha-Études et valorisations archéologiques/ Antiquity
By Alicia McDermott