The Headless Horseman is a legend common to folklore around the world. In Ireland, he’s the terrifying dúlachán; in India, the heroic jhinjh?r. But in Germany, it seems something got lost in translation – instead of a headless man on a horse, they apparently got it the other way about.
An archaeological excavation of an ancient cemetery near Knittlingen, in southern Germany, has revealed a perplexing discovery: the 1400-year-old grave of a man buried with a decapitated horse.
Exactly who the man was is unclear, although he likely “stood in a ‘chain of command’ with the Merovingian kings on its top,” Folke Damminger, one of the archaeologists in charge of research at the site, told Live Science.
As such, he would have been “obliged to participate in the king's campaigns,” Damminger added – and in the Merovingian dynasty, that was a full-time job. In the almost 300 years of Merovingian rule, their realm grew from a tribe of Franks living on what is now the border of France and Belgium to a vast kingdom that spanned from the edge of modern Spain in the West to the middle of Germany and Austria in the East. Depending on exactly when the rider lived, he could have been engaged in battle against the Romans (486 CE); the Visigoths (507 CE); the Burgundians (532 CE); the Raetians (537 CE); the Ostrogoths (536 CE); the Slavs (c. 629 CE); or the Merovingians (more or less constantly. And you think your family has problems!)
Our skeletal horseman was not alone in the cemetery: the excavation team revealed a wealth of discoveries from around the same time, with women’s and girl’s graves turning up jewelry like pearl necklaces, fibulae (decorative robe clasps), earrings, and bracelets, as well as belt hangers with decorative disks and everyday utensils like knives and combs. Meanwhile, speaking to the bellicose nature of the time, male burials were often found containing artifacts like swords, lances, shields, and arrowheads.
“Despite their fragmentation as a result of ancient robbery, the finds provide indications of the social position of the dead,” Damminger explained in a statement for Stuttgart Regional Council. The dead were buried with ceramic pots containing food – the excavation team even found animal bones and eggshells still inside – and bronze bowls in the style of courtly tableware.
And this may give a clue as to why the mourners of the time decided to bury a near-complete horse, Damminger explained.
“One function of this [burial] ceremony was the ‘staging’ of the deceased in his former status and wealth as a claim of his successors to maintain this status,” he told Live Science. In other words, the horse should be thought of not as a sacrifice but as a grave good, sent over to the afterlife with his rider to make sure everybody remembered how important he – and by extension, his surviving family – was.
“Most probably the decapitation [of the horse] was part of the burial ceremony,” Damminger added.
While the actual excavation project is set to be complete by spring, the team hopes to learn more about the mysterious rider by analyzing teeth and bones for clues about his age, health, and cause of death. Meanwhile, the Knittlingen cemetery continues to turn up archaeological treasures – the team have also recovered prehistoric ceramics from 4,500-5,000 years ago at the site, as well as more modest grave goods from the Medieval period.
Perhaps, if everything goes well, they’ll have found the horse’s head by spring.