Medieval people reopened graves to honour family

May 16, 2017, Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO)
Medieval people reopened graves to honour family
Credit: Shutterstock

According to archaeologists, a reopened grave usually indicates grave robbery. Martine van Haperen, however, draws a different conclusion. Mediaeval people presumably reopened graves to strengthen the ties with their family ancestors: they would take objects with a strong symbolic significance. Van Haperen even acted as a detective and reconstructed the contents of such a robbed grave. She will defend her doctoral thesis on Tuesday 16 May at Leiden University. Her research was funded from the NWO programme PhDs in the Humanities.

In the early Middle Ages (450 - 800 AD), dead people were often buried with valuable items such as jewellery, weapons and earthenware pots. Martine van Haperen discovered that the people who reopened the graves certainly did not take everything. They mainly took the objects with an important symbolic significance, such as swords and shields from the male graves and jewellery from female graves. These were possibly viewed as the carriers of mythical and ancestral powers.

The archaeologist from Leiden University investigated more than 1300 graves from 11 mediaeval cemeteries in the Netherlands and Belgium. More than 40 percent of the graves had been reopened. According to Van Haperen, this probably happened when the cemeteries were still in use and in half of the cases, this was even within a single generation after the funeral.

How was she able to reconstruct what had been taken? 'I compared the content of the reopened graves with that of intact graves. Furthermore, the reopened graves often contained remainders of broken objects that had been taken. I was able to determine the original content of the graves, in part, thanks to these remains.'

Male graves were reopened the most

The graves were probably marked above ground, so that people knew who lay where. It is striking that mainly male graves were reopened, even though these contained relatively less valuable materials, such as jewellery made from precious metals. Graves that contained solely 'neutral gifts', such as pots and knives, were opened the least. In the English County of Kent and the German state of Bavaria, comparable differences between male and female graves were observed.

These exhumations were probably performed for a variety of reasons, says Van Haperen. Legal documents from the period state severe punishments for grave robbery. However, in view of the high percentage of graves reopened and the selective approach of the diggers, it is unlikely that this was always viewed as robbery. Van Haperen: 'The reopening of a grave was possibly often a communal ritual in which people came together at the , recalled memories and collected memorabilia or relics.'

The reopening of graves could have been a form of ancestor worship as well. Various historic documents reveal that people in the early Middle Ages considered the lineage via the paternal line to be particularly important. 'This could explain why graves with typically male objects were reopened more often. Then the diggers could strengthen their power position as legitimate heirs.'

In her , Van Haperen makes recommendations for archaeological practice and future excavations. The idea of fellow archaeologists that 'disrupted' graves are less valuable for research means that, up until now, many of these graves have not been well documented. In some cases, the disruption has not even been safeguarded due to a rigorous restoration of broken objects. Van Haperen: 'The reopening of graves played an important part in the way people dealt with the dead. Such graves therefore deserve extra attention.'

Explore further: Medieval women better dressed than men

More information: In touch with the dead. A study of early medieval reopened graves. … jects/i/08/8108.html

Related Stories

Medieval women better dressed than men

May 5, 2016

Women in the Middle Ages often wore better quality clothes than men. This is one of the conclusions drawn by Leiden archaeologist Chrystel Brandenburgh, who studied textile remnants from the period from 400 to 1000 A.D. PhD ...

Evidence of early medieval Muslim graves found in France

February 24, 2016

Archaeological and genetic analysis may indicate that three skeletons buried in medieval graves in France may have been Muslim, according to a study published February 24, 2016 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Yves ...

Breakthrough model holds promise for treating Graves' disease

September 3, 2013

Researchers have developed the first animal model simulating the eye complications associated with the thyroid condition Graves' disease, a breakthrough that could pave the way for better treatments, according to a recent ...

Thyroid disease risk varies among blacks, Asians, and whites

April 15, 2014

An analysis that included active military personnel finds that the rate of the thyroid disorder Graves disease is more common among blacks and Asian/Pacific Islanders compared with whites, according to a study in the April ...

Searching for clandestine graves with geophysical tools

May 13, 2013

It's very hard to convict a murderer if the victim's body can't be found. And the best way to hide a body is to bury it. Developing new tools to find those clandestine graves is the goal of a small community of researchers ...

Recommended for you

Matter waves and quantum splinters

March 25, 2019

Physicists in the United States, Austria and Brazil have shown that shaking ultracold Bose-Einstein condensates (BECs) can cause them to either divide into uniform segments or shatter into unpredictable splinters, depending ...

How tree diversity regulates invading forest pests

March 25, 2019

A national-scale study of U.S. forests found strong relationships between the diversity of native tree species and the number of nonnative pests that pose economic and ecological threats to the nation's forests.


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.