Medieval Europeans regularly opened graves – and not to rob them

Hundreds of graves dating from the 5th to 7th centuries AD in an area that stretched from Transylvania to England were opened as part of regular funeral customs to remove artifacts, transport corpses and even a dog for burial to add, so newly published research in the journal Antiquity.

In 10 to 15 graves, the dead had their feet removed or their skull turned around, showing the living were concerned that the dead might walk again, lead author Alison Klevnäs, an archaeologist and researcher at Stockholm University, told CNN.

In one case, a dog was added to the grave, which Klevnäs said was a “very unusual example” demonstrating that people wanted to please the dead.

“What we have is another dimension of burial practices this time,” she said.

Most of what we know about the early Middle Ages comes from studying these cemeteries, Klevnäs added.

“Usually they (grave openers) treat the graves and the corpses in them with total negligence,” she said, but practice has shown that the dead and their burial remains important after their burial.

The periods of time a grave was reopened could be anywhere from a few months to several decades after the person was buried, Klevnäs said. Occasionally graves were reopened more than once.

While grave robbery is viewed as a negative act, Klevnäs said that reopening gravesites is “socially positive”.

Grave robbers were likely not responsible as the items removed from the graves were not selected for their value, the researchers concluded.

Brooches and swords could be taken, while very valuable items such as gold or silver necklace pendants could be left behind, experts said.

The research is the result of a joint effort by Klevnas and four other archaeologists who combined their data to get a better idea of ​​the vast extent of the reopening of tombs in a wide geographic area and over a thousand reopened tombs in dozens of cemeteries describe.

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“The custom of reopening spread across Western Europe from the late 6th century and peaked in the 7th century,” said Astrid Noterman, an archaeologist and postdoctoral fellow at Stockholm University, who studied 40 affected sites in northern France, in a press release.

“It fizzled out in most areas in the late 7th century, leaving many cemeteries with one final burial phase without reopening.”

Klevnäs told CNN that she now wants to investigate why people bury objects with the dead and the meaning of different types of grave goods.


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