The last laugh

In his latest column, Sherds explores the medieval phenomenon of reopening graves, not to steal valuable treasures, but to reclaim heirlooms and other types of selected artefacts. What does it tell us about how past societies remembered and celebrated their loved ones?

Sherds has often wondered why graves containing valuable materials were not more routinely robbed in the past – after all, recently filled graves are highly visible. Was it respect for the dead, fear of being caught, fear of the spirits of the dead and the revenge they might wreak? Perhaps grave goods were seen as being far too personal. It has been theorised that early medieval jewellery, for example, was made for the individual – given as a parental gift, perhaps, to a daughter on her marriage, or made for an individual by an itinerant bronze-caster to the wearer’s own specification.

Clearly Sherds is not alone in speculating along these lines, because a paper in the June 2021 volume of Antiquity looks at the evidence for the practice of reopening graves in the early medieval period. ‘Grave robbing’ is a misleadingly simplistic term for what they find. It implies illicit robbery or desecration for economic gain unconnected with the original burial rite. Instead, the authors argue that ‘the practice of reopening and manipulating graves soon after burial and the removal of selected artefact types’ was a widespread ritual practice.

LEFT A sketch by Dante Gabriel Rossetti of Lizzie Siddal, his wife. After her death, he reopened her grave in order to retrieve a bound manuscript of his love poems that he originally buried with her.
A sketch by Dante Gabriel Rossetti of Lizzie Siddal, his wife. After her death, he reopened her grave in order to retrieve a bound manuscript of his love poems that he originally buried with her.

Led by Alison Klevnäs, of Stockholm University, Sweden, the researchers looked at the ‘row-grave’ cemeteries dating from the 5th to 8th century and found all over western and central Europe. Such cemeteries are characterised by single inhumations arranged in loose rows orientated east to west. The clothed body is placed in a wooden container with dress accessories, jewellery, and weapons. Visual display prior to the closure of the grave is probably part of the ritual, but one that is followed at a later date by the reopening of the grave and the removal of some of the contents. The intriguing question is why are some objects retrieved and others left in the grave?

Microscopic metal flakes, soil stains, disturbed stratigraphy, and back-filling all provide archaeological evidence for the subsequent removal of objects that had been part of the burial assemblage. Some object types were almost always removed, particularly swords, seaxes (large single-edged knives), and brooches. Often, the more valuable items were left behind: for example, at one site in Kent, brooches were removed from the clothing of the deceased, but precious metal pendants and a necklace of glass beads, garnet, and silver remained in the grave.

Alison Klevnäs believes the pattern of removal is best explained as the recovery of significant heirlooms, leaving items personal to the individual behind. Supporting this theory is the fact that some of grave goods appear to have been in poor condition when removed – broken or partial swords, for example.

The authors conclude that grave reopening was practised over a number of generations and over a wide geographical area as part of a complex system of interactions between the living and the dead, not unlike that practised in the Neolithic. They also point out that many cultures today continue to interact with the remains of their deceased relations, sometimes on a specific day of the year, or by means of traditional festivals.

Coffin contents

Perhaps the most famous example in recent times of a grave being reopened for object retrieval was that of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), who placed a bound manuscript of his love poems in the coffin of his late wife Lizzie Siddal, then decided to retrieve his manuscripts and publish the poems some seven years later. His public image suffered greatly as a consequence, and many of the poems had been rendered illegible through damp, decay, and the liberal application of disinfectant during the exhumation process.

Attitudes to furnished burial seem to have fluctuated back and forth over the centuries. Some female religious leaders were buried clothed and bejewelled in their beds in the early medieval period (see CA 281 and 343), but burial practices changed to become much simpler under Church influence in the 7th century. Furnished graves smacked of paganism, along with the idea that worldly goods should be laid in the grave for the use of the deceased in the afterlife. Simple burial in a shroud, in imitation of the burial of Christ, became the norm. Yet clerics themselves could be buried in their vestments and with croziers, chalices, or other symbols of their office, as was shown by the excavation of the graveyard of Old St Pancras Church to make way for the Channel Tunnel rail link.

Today, furnished burial seems to be fashionable again, with objects of significance to the deceased placed within or on top of the coffin. Co-op Funeralcare says that half of all the burials they handle include a photograph, and teddy bears accompany a quarter. Jewellery is involved in a fifth of burials and letters in another fifth. Books accompany a mere tenth of all interments, and the same number include a bottle of the favourite drink or food items of the deceased (including beefburgers, fish and chips, whisky and, in Bob Marley’s case, a cannabis plant, which he believed was ‘the herb of life’).

In a tenth of cases, the burial requests include a mobile phone – presumably in case the deceased revives and wants to be exhumed (it does happen!). Some requests reflect a person’s profession (violin, guitar, a pair of clown shoes) or a hobby (tennis ball, playing cards, skis), but what are we to make of an Argos catalogue, a dustpan and brush, half a bar of chocolate, a wedding dress, and a Russian doll? There is material here for many a short story or detective novel, revealing the significance of the object to the deceased, and a warning for archaeologist that the obvious interpretation might not be the whole story.

Last laugh

Grave goods, as archaeologists like to call them, are essentially private once they are in the ground – out of sight and out of mind. By contrast, church monuments and gravestones are a visible reminder of a person’s life story. Sherds has a particular fondness for the florid epitaphs of the 18th century, which present the deceased as a paragon of perfection in every department of life – an inscription in Winchester cathedral, for example, describes one Elizabeth Montagu as a woman who ‘might justly be deem’d an ornament to her Sex… possessing the united advantages of Beauty, Wit, Judgement, Reputation, and Riches’, all of which multiplicity of talents ‘she deployed uniformly for the benefit of Mankind and Country’.

A more scabrous approach to death has turned a cemetery in Romania into one of the country’s top tourist destinations. Located in the village of Săpânța, 600km (360 miles) north-west of the county’s capital, Bucharest, the Orthodox cemetery has a collection of more than 1,000 elaborately painted and carved oak crosses that depict scenes from the life of the deceased with brief epitaphs, which invariably draw a moral from the experiences of the departed soul.

LEFT The cemetery in the village of Săpânța in Romania has more than 1,000 elaborately painted and carved oak crosses that depict scenes from the life of the deceased with brief epitaphs, warts and all.
The cemetery in the village of Săpânța in Romania has more than 1,000 elaborately painted and carved oak crosses that depict scenes from the life of the deceased with brief epitaphs, warts and all.

‘Don’t work too hard’ is the moral of one truck driver, whose exhaustion led him to be run over by his own vehicle. The seductive dangers of Paris, western Europe, and gambling are the theme of another tale of a young man who committed suicide in the ‘cursed Paris metro’. Another begs passers-by to go quietly and not to wake the deceased, because if she wakes she will only scold and nag her son-in-law as she did in life. There are stories of infidelity and others telling of a fondness for alcohol (for example, ‘Here I rest. Stefan is my name. As long as I lived, I liked to drink. When my wife left me, I drank because I was sad. Then I drank more to make me happy.’).

Local carver Stan Ioan Pătraş (1908-1977) began the tradition of erecting warts-and-all memorials in the 1930s, working in local folk-carving traditions to create his miniature masterpieces. These proved to be surprisingly popular, despite highlighting people’s foibles and peccadilloes. Dumitru Pop, who continues the tradition, says that ‘there’s no hiding in a small town… families actually want the true life of the person to be represented on the cross’. The carved scenes often depict the deceased in characteristic tasks: cutting down trees, scything the fields, working hard in the kitchen, caring for their farm animals. An extra layer of significance comes from the use of symbolic colours: green for life, yellow for fertility, red for passion, black for death, and blue for heaven and the afterlife.