How the Bodies Are Buried

25 Sep

There are aspects of the study of the middle ages which I know are important but I don’t know much about – and don’t feel I need to know. I always hold up numismatics and philology as examples. I don’t need to know the details of how those folks go about their work to understand the significance of a coin find or how, exactly, a researcher determines when a change in word usage signifies a major societal shift to understand its significance.

I’ve never fit archaeology into this category. I can sit through a K’zoo session on archaeology and follow the discussion perfectly well, even enough to ask a question if I feel the urge.

When it comes to Late Antique burial patterns and practices, this is not true. I know how researchers go about a dig, roughly. What I don’t have is a clear enough handle on how they reach their conclusions. I had no idea this was a problem until last fall when I read Guy Halsall’s Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568. At several points in the book Halsall delineates the argument over whether burial ritual can be taken to indicate the presence of Barbarians settling within the Empire in the 4th century. (153-61) That was an eye-opener, as was his discussion of archaeology and ethnogenesis. (466-68) What was interesting was how Halsall provided a strong, powerful argument in favor of his views – many of which contradict those of Peter Heather, who also presents a strong, powerful argument. From that point it was clear to me that, when I found the time, I would have to dive into the issue of how people were buried in Western Europe from the 4th through 6th centuries, and the significance of the finds. The differences between Halsall and Heather are important and I want to figure out what I think, whether that means I fall into one “camp” or the other, or somewhere else.

So a couple of months ago I picked up several books on the topic and looked for some journal articles. The first book I opened was Bonnie Effros’ Merovingian Mortuary Archaeology and the Making of the Early Middle Ages. I’m not typically a big fan of books which spend a great deal of time on historiography though it shouldn’t be ignored either. However this topic is very intertwined with 19th and early 20th century research. My comments on this book will be brief – my ignorance regarding the topic will keep it that way. Also, the first 118 pages covered the evolution of studies of burial finds. I’m not going to track that other than to say it was comprehensive and well done, detailing the research done on burial finds from the High Middle Ages to the present and how she believes that many of the conclusions of previous researchers, particularly regarding ethnicity, are unsupportable.

I could almost sum up the final two chapters as Effros saying, “Those grave goods – they likely don’t mean what you think they mean,” in conjunction with, “Be careful about assigning motivation to finds,” particularly when it comes to ethnicity. I think that a couple of examples might be useful..

An example of a conclusion which, on its surface, would appear obvious is that of sexing the occupant of a grave based on the presence of weapons and/or jewelry – gender-linking artifacts. While there is a positive correlation between such artifacts and gender, detailed analysis at some sites, including DNA, has shown that this is far from perfect and frequently women were buried with weapons and men with substantial jewelry and no weapons.

Another example is the case of abnormal burials. In this case the discussion centers around graves where the occupant was buried in an unusual position, such as face down or facing in a direction other than the majority of the graves and, specifically, where the head was separated from the body – or absent altogether. Initially it was proposed that these graves represented an individual who had been executed. Recent investigation has found that in many cases these represent individuals whose remains had been disinterred and removed to another location, that the head had been removed from the body well after death and this was a sign of respect and even reverence, a lay parallel to the movement of relics of a saint.

One area in which she believes some conclusions may be drawn is regarding the relative amount and value of burial goods. She believes that lavish burials are a sign of social competition, that by showing themselves capable of extensive burials, families were engaging in a visible show of their clout – or what they wanted others to believe was their clout. By the later 6th and 7th centuries, less extensive burials indicate an increasingly static social hierarchy, one in which such displays were unnecessary.

There’s a lot of info in this book, many specific characteristics of finds which she discusses. Even so, this is something of an overview where she spends just a few pages on each characteristic. For more detailed information I need to pick up her, Caring for Body and Soul: Burial and the Afterlife in the Merovingian World. This book made a useful starting point but it’s clear that I need to read a lot more on this and I need to start going through journals, such as Medieval Archaeology. I also need more time – 30-hour days anyone?

Books cited:

Effros, Bonnie, Merovingian Mortuary Archaeology and the Making of the Early Middle Ages. Berkeley: University of California Press (2003). ISBN: 9-780520-252440.

Effros, Bonnie, Caring for Body and Soul: Burial and the Afterlife in the Merovingian World. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press (2002). ISBN: 978-0271021966.

Halsall, Guy, Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2007). ISBN: 978-0-521-43543-7.


Posted by on September 25, 2010 in Archaeology, Books


Tags: , , , , , ,

9 responses to “How the Bodies Are Buried

  1. Jonathan Jarrett

    September 27, 2010 at 11:56 am

    Medieval Archaeology is thoroughly worthwhile, and not even too expensive to subscribe to. Meanwhile, this is a really useful post, one I know from reading it that I will link to again and again. I must also read Professor Effros's book. As to Halsall vs. Heather, there's no doubt at all that Professor Heather is a fearsomely brilliant scholar, but in this respect his tendency to offhandedly dismiss archæological evidence as unimportant leaves me preferring to follow Guy here…

  2. Medieval History Geek

    September 27, 2010 at 10:38 pm

    I can read Medieval Archeaology with a one-year delay for free. I'm figuring for me, who doesn't have to be cutting-edge, that will be good enough. I probably shouldn't try to define their differences just yet, but to me it isn't so much (for Halsall) that Heather doesn't use archaeology, but that he uses tenuous (in Halsall's opinion) archaeology to buttress equally tenuous textual sources.IOW, Halsall looks at an issue and thinks that if either the archaeology or text stood alone, and you'd discount it, then you shouldn't put the two together and consider them, combined, to be any more reliable. However he believes that Heather does this, an equation of: tenuous archaeology plus tenuous textual evidence = reliable (to a degree) evidence overall.From p 159 of Barbarian Migrations, related to 4th century grave finds in northern Germany, "The archaeological data permit no association of these graves with trans-Rhenen settlers. Without assumptions based on the simplistic use of written sources no archaeologist would assume these were the graves of immigrants."There's a lot for me to think about and figure out here. Or maybe I'll just be lost in thought forever …

  3. Medieval History Geek

    September 28, 2010 at 2:05 am

    I should clarify that the above quote isn't in relation to Heather but Halsall's used similar arguments in his case too.

  4. Jonathan Jarrett

    December 20, 2010 at 1:14 am

    I now learn, by the way, rather later than one might think I should have, that Guy also has a book about burial, specifically, and has had for some time, Early Medieval Cemeteries. An Introduction to Burial Archaeology in the Post-Roman West (Glasgow: Cruithne Press, 1995). Presumably this is cited in Barbarian Migrations (actually next on my to-read shelf) but in case not or obscurely, I thought I'd mention it.

  5. Medieval History Geek

    December 20, 2010 at 4:05 am

    He has a brand-spanking-new book out, Cemeteries and Society in Merovingian Gaul: Selected Studies in History and Archaeology, 1992-2009 which I hope to be able to read. It's a Brill publication so I doubt I'll be buying it but maybe Purdue Libraries will pick it up. The book you mention is out of print though I may be able to find it.His book on Metz also sounds very interesting and is more in my budget. His Warfare and Society in the Barbarian West is 2nd on my to-read shelf after Barbara Rosenwein's Emotional Communities in the Early Middle Ages. Too many books, too little time. What else is new?

  6. Anonymous

    February 4, 2011 at 8:59 am

    Curt, you have again proved yourself to be a more acute reader of these things than many a porofessional medievalist. A narrative from a dubious source can't be propped up by archaeological evidence which was itself interpreted to fit a view of history drawn – a priori – from said dubious narrative (before it was shown to be dubious). You end up in a circular argument at best. Heather's technique is more on the lines of 'mansplaining': Halsall

  7. Curt Emanuel

    February 4, 2011 at 11:38 am

    I wish I'd started reading a bit more critically a while ago. I'm afraid that at times I've been taken in by persuasive arguments based on an appeal to logic rather than grounded in evidence. Sometimes that type of argument has to happen but not when there's evidence to use.Thanks for the link – I was unfamiliar with that term (now I have to find a use for it!).

  8. Michael

    August 19, 2013 at 1:07 pm

    I’m coming almost three years late to the discussion, but if you’d like a recent contribution to discussions on the (mis-)interpretation of archaeological finds, see Signals of Belief, eds. Martin Carver, Alex Sanmark and Sarah Semple (2010). It discusses the archaeological evidence for Anglo-Saxon paganism, and I found Carver’s piece to be particularly interesting.

  9. Curt Emanuel

    August 19, 2013 at 2:32 pm

    Thanks Michael. I own some of Carver’s Sutton Hoo books and have three others, including this one, wishlisted. He’s always good. Once I get to my AS reading (at this rate it may be the next decade) I’ll look for it.


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