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New publication investigates curious shift of 7th century burial practices

At the end of the 7th century something curious occurs in Northwestern Europe. Suddenly, people start burying the dead next to their dwellings instead of in communal cemeteries. Professor Frans Theuws recently published a book on this phenomenon. ‘We wanted to know if the study of these farmyard burials could contribute to a better understanding of the processes of change at the end of the Merovingian period.’

The cover page of the book.
The cover page of the book.

Complicated situation

The sudden shift in burial practice appears to have regional differences, further complicating the situation.

‘In the south of Germany,’ Theuws explains, ‘not many grave goods are found in settlement burials. While graves in the southern Netherlands start to feature-rich finds, in contrast to the immediate period before. Moreover, these grave goods often come from far away.’ The third element that is striking is that these burials take place in newly founded settlements.

So, what would explain these characteristics? ‘It could be that the people introducing this new burial practice are not from here. It might have been a statement claiming land. Planting a flag as it were,’ Theuws notes. ‘By burying your ancestors at the farmyard, you are stating that this is your home.’

Restructuring society with new burial practices

Theuws’ book Distributing the Dead contributes to a wider debate about this intriguing period. ‘Our interpretation is that the changing burial rites are more a strategy to convey a message instead of representing past society. We note, for example, that farmers are buried with the regalia of horseback warriors.’ This odd phenomenon disappears as quickly as it pops up, though. ‘The second generation is no longer buried with grave goods. Another striking feature is that not all members of a household were exclusively buried in these settlements. Instead, in this phase, the burials are scattered across cemeteries, farmyards, and chapels. They are distributing the dead.’

The start of the excavation of the Veldhoven settlement burials. They are visible as brown colorations in the yellow soil. The settlement had already been excavated and was located to the left, where the black arable soil is (Photo: ADC Archeoprojecten/ARCHOL).

The dead are used to recreate society. ‘The burial practices are reorganized, recreated, and reinvented. Archaeological research can contribute to the narrative of this process.’ In this, the study of burials is crucial. ‘It is incredibly important to see how people act with their dead, since this is related to basic and important values in society.’

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