Reopening graves a widespread practice in early medieval Europe, research reveals

The practice appears to have begun in central Europe sometime before the 6th-century AD, and then spread across the continent before reaching its peak around two-hundred-years later.

Recent investigations of early medieval cemetery sites across Europe have revealed that the reopening of burials was a widespread practice between the 5th and 7th centuries AD.

Evidence of intentional post-burial disturbances and manipulation of artefacts and remains within early medieval graves is commonly reported across European cemeteries, from southern England to Transylvania. These disturbances are recognised by traces of metal oxidisation on bones, or where grave goods are incomplete or disordered, and so reopened burials are often assumed to have been robbed.

However, to further explore early medieval peoples’ motivations for reopening burials, five archaeologists carried out separate regional studies of cemetery sites in England, France, Germany, Belgium, Romania and beyond, and pooled the data together.

Grave from Vitry-la-Ville cemetery, France, where the individual was moved around during the stages of decomposition. Photo: Éveha-Études et valorisations archéologiques.

The findings, published in Antiquity, reveal that reopening graves was a major widespread funerary phenomenon. The practice appears to have begun in central Europe sometime before the 6th century AD, and then spread across the continent before reaching its peak around two hundred years later.

Most of the graves were reopened within one or two generations of the deceased being interred – after skeletonisation but before the coffin had fully decayed. Thus, the graves targeted belonged to those in living memory.

According to the research, certain types of artefact were removed, irrespective of their monetary worth, suggesting that the key motivation for reopening graves was not in fact robbery. Objects such as swords and brooches were almost always selected, whilst valuable pieces of jewellery and other rich funerary furnishings remained.

‘It seems really surprising that someone would take copper alloy brooches from a decaying corpse, but leave behind a necklace with silver pendants,’ said Dr Alison Klevnäs, a researcher from Stockholm University who is the paper’s lead author, ‘evidently they felt they could only take certain kinds of belongings from the dead.’

Other activities involved in grave reopening included the deliberate rearrangement or removal of skeletal elements, the addition of other grave goods and, in one case, the inclusion of a dog. Evidently, the social importance of the dead and their possessions continued, even after they were laid to rest.

Further research is set to explore the local variations in this widespread mortuary custom, and to uncover the beliefs and motivations that helped galvanise it.