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Europeans used to open their relatives’ graves to recover heirlooms

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A grave in Vitry-la-Ville, France, that shows historical signs of being disturbed

Courtesy Éveha-Études et valorisation archéologiques

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In the Early Middle Ages, many European people reopened their relatives’ graves to recover family heirlooms. The practice had previously been interpreted as grave robbing, but closer examination has revealed patterns in the objects that were taken.

Alison Klevnäs at Stockholm University in Sweden and her colleagues compiled data from dozens of cemeteries dotted across Europe, from Britain and France in the west to Transylvania in the east. All of the graves dated from between AD 500 and 800.

Many of the graves had been reopened and objects removed, as evidenced by leftover traces such as metal flakes from a sword, but not the most valuable items. For example, at one site in Kent, brooches were removed from the corpse’s clothing, but silver gilt pendants and a necklace with glass beads were left behind. “They’re absolutely not trying to maximise profit from each reopening,” says Klevnäs.

Instead, it seems the items removed were ones that had been passed down through generations, such as swords and brooches. Items that were personal to the individual, such as knives, were left in the graves. “They go back into those from living memory, so it’s something about connection to the relatively recent dead,” says Klevnäs.

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A small fraction of the graves show evidence of being disturbed for a more sinister reason. “There are a few graves spread over the whole area where it looks like people are doing things to the bodies that suggest they are afraid of the undead,” says Klevnäs. “For example they turned the skulls around and prop it into place with stones backwards, or they might cut off feet.” But these graves account for less than 1 per cent of the total, she says.

The idea that corpses would be buried and then left entirely undisturbed is far from universal, says Klevnäs. Late Stone Age graves were designed to enable people to revisit the bodies. “We know there are these extended mortuary customs,” says Klevnäs. Today, many cultures have customs or festivals in which people interact with relatives’ remains.

Journal reference: Antiquity, DOI: 10.15184/aqy.2020.217

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