In Early Medieval Europe, being dead and buried wasn’t necessarily the end. Archaeologists have recently highlighted that a surprising proportion of graves across Europe from the fifth to eighth centuries CE had been reopened shortly after the person was buried. It was previously thought these people were the victims of grave robbers, but it’s now speculated that this is actually evidence of macabre mortuary rituals.
“For over a hundred years, archaeologists in many European countries have discovered graves from the early medieval period which look like they were robbed soon after burial,” Dr Alison Klevnäs from Stockholm University who led the new research, said in a statement sent to IFLScience, “but over the decades, many excavators have realized that something stranger is going on.”
In a new study, published in the journal Antiquity, researchers from Stockholm University in Sweden, Austrian Academy of Sciences, and Leiden University in the Netherlands identified hundreds of graves from dozens of cemeteries across Europe, from Transylvania to England, that had been reopened. Since the graves appear to have been opened and meddled with before the bodies were fully decomposed, it suggested they were cracked open shortly after they were laid to rest.
The reason behind this strange practice (strange to us 21st-century humans, at least) likely varied from region to region, influenced by each culture’s own traditions. Broadly speaking, however, the researchers believe the graves were disturbed to remove selected objects, remove particular body parts, or manipulate the corpses.
Although the practice remains relatively rare, the researchers found persistent evidence of bodies being dug up and their skulls being removed or rearranged. In an especially peculiar case, the study authors identified a grave in Bavaria that was reopened for the purpose of adding the body of a (presumably dead) dog.
In regards to the objects being removed, this isn't considered an act of grave robbing because most of the objects would have been in such poor condition when retrieved they would have little practical use or economic value. Perhaps instead, they were retrieved as a small memento of the dead.
Although it's worth reiterating that the motivation for these acts is unclear, the researchers argue that the act of reopening graves was generally a positive practice, most likely used as a way for people to come to terms with the death of loved ones or members of the community.
“Robbing graves sounds like a negative act, but it actually seems to be socially positive here. People carried on burying the dead in cemeteries, alongside repeated events of reopening graves,” said Dr Klevnäs. “We can even see that some cemeteries with reopening customs were used for longer than ones where the dead were left in peace.”