In touch with the dead. A study of early medieval reopened graves

Graves from the Merovingian period (500-750 AD) were often reopened after burial. This project explores the various possible interpretations of this phenomenon, focusing on cemeteries from The Netherlands and surrounding regions.

Project description

Research question: What were the socio-political contexts of grave reopenings in the Merovingian period?

Duration: 2011 – 2015

Funding: Individual NWO grant, PhD’s  in the Humanities program

Keywords: Mortuary practice, Archaeology, Merovingian grave reopenings, Social context, Personhood, Heritage

Main contact: Martine C. van Haperen

Traditionally, grave reopenings are thought of as robberies, but there are many other possible interpretations.  (Source: Thrane 1978)

Traditionally, grave reopenings are thought of as robberies, but there are many other possible interpretations. (Source: Thrane 1978)

Reopened graves

Graves from the Merovingian period (500-750) were often reopened after the funeral. The participants dug into the grave and changed its layout by moving, removing and possibly adding objects and bones. This happened while the cemeteries were still in use, sometimes within a few years after the burial.

What does it mean?

Since Merovingian graves contained many valuable grave goods, reopenings are often assumed to be cases of economically motivated grave robbery. However, there could have been many other motivations for opening a grave, such as ancestor cults and secondary burial rites.

Reopened graves often have a rummaged appearance (Source: Grünewald 1988)

Reopened graves often have a rummaged appearance (Source: Grünewald 1988)

Methodology

This research project aims to gather detailed data about reopened graves from old excavations in the Netherlands and surrounding regions. Attention is paid to all aspects of the funerary context, including skeletal layout, grave goods, grave construction and fill. These data will allow us to explore and verify various possible interpretations. We will also take into account contemporary historical sources.

Why Leiden University?

The Faculty of Archaeology in Leiden has is a lot of expertise on all aspects of mortuary practices, both cultural and osteological. Several members of staff and graduate student specialize in the early medieval period, making Leiden an ideal location for conducting this research.

Last Modified: 06-01-2016