When you die, what will you want to take into the afterlife with you? A beloved pet, perhaps, or a faithful steed? Your fanciest outfit? A whole-ass entourage? Or perhaps, like one woman in early medieval Bavaria, you’ll just want to pull up a deck chair, grab a steak, and chill the heck out.
“It’s the second discovery of an iron folding chair from the early Middle Ages in Germany,” said Mathias Pfeil, Head of the Bavarian State Office for the Preservation of Monuments (BLfD), in a statement. “[It] is an absolute rarity.”
The chair wasn’t the only grave good found in the excavation – the woman was buried wearing a necklace made from multicolored glass beads and pearls, brooches, jewels, and a spindle whorl hanging from her belt. Those beads allowed the excavation team to date the finds, BLfD archeologist Hubert Fehr told Live Science: “most beads were made of glass during that time period, but the styles changed rapidly in respect to their color and shape,” he said. “Yellow was primarily used around 600 CE.”
And not only would she look bomb in whatever afterlife she was headed to, she would also be well-fed – the excavators found a rib bone at her feet, which they say was once likely an offering of cow meat. Meanwhile a second grave – a man’s this time – was found lying next to the woman’s tomb, replete with a full set of weapons including a lance, a shield, and a longsword, a bone or ivory comb, and a bronze-buckled waist belt.
But grave goods like this, while interesting, are not exactly rare. A folding iron chair is something special, though – it’s only the sixth found across the entire continent of Europe, making these burials “of the greatest cultural-historical interest,” per Pfeil. “It gives an insight into the burial equipment of prominent sections of the population, and into the early use of furniture.”
Because they’re so rare, folding chairs are thought to be “special gifts”, the researchers explained, reserved for the graves of only the most powerful and important in society. It “had a very specific symbolic meaning,” Fehr told Live Science, “and was used as an insignia or sign of power for bishops, priests, officers and others with high social ranking, which were often men in patriarchal Germany.”
Strangely, though, “most of the chair burials that have been found are related to female graves,” he added. “[It] shows that women were also linked to this general language of symbols related to signs of power.”
Being made from iron gives the find a leg up on most other examples of folding chairs found in Europe – a total of 29 have been discovered, but the vast majority were made from organic materials like wood or ivory. These, along with the leather and fabric of the seat, would rot away over the centuries, and for a long time these finds were misidentified as things like skewers or fishing hooks.
But with an entire folding frame to hand, the researchers have a golden opportunity – or perhaps an iron opportunity – to investigate exactly what this chair might have looked like.
“The iron of the chair is covered with corrosion layers, and sometimes within those layers you'll find parts of wood and leather that have survived,” explained Fehr.
With X-ray imaging, and the careful preservation work of BLfD restorers, the team hope to discover more about the chair’s construction, any decoration it may once have had – and maybe even a clue as to who this powerful woman used to be.