Medieval Elite Burials in Eastern Mecklenburg and Pomerania

By Biermann, Felix | Antiquity, March 1, 2008 | Go to article overview
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Medieval Elite Burials in Eastern Mecklenburg and Pomerania


Biermann, Felix, Antiquity


Introduction

Eastern Mecklenburg and Pomerania on the south side of the Baltic Sea (Figure 1) were settled by the Slavic tribes of the Pomeranians, Rugians (Rani) and Luticians during the early medieval period. During the late eleventh and twelfth centuries these territories came under intense pressure. The foundation of central powers caused inner struggles, first of all in the Pomeranian duchy of the Greif family which expanded between AD 1125 and 1128 into the Lutician regions west of the river Oder. At the same time the territory was the target of military aggression by powerful neighbours: the German Empire, the Polish Piasts and the Danish Kingdom. Pomeranians, Rani and Luticians had resisted Christianisation up to the twelfth century, but now missionary activities started with the word and the sword. Well-known events are Bishop Otto of Bamberg's two mission journeys to Pomerania in 1124/1125 and 1128, the Wends Crusade by North German magnates in 1147 and the Danish attacks of the 1160s. The destruction of the famous Rugian Svantevit temple at Arkona in 1168 can be understood as a symbol for the end of paganism in the territories of the southern Baltic Sea coast.

In eastern Mecklenburg and Pomerania the cremation burial custom dominated at least up to the late tenth century (Zoll-Adamikowa 1994: 82). But in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, a group of inhumation burials of very high status briefly appeared (Figure 1). The new burials are characterised by exceptional grave goods, including swords, spurs, bronze bowls and lavish burial structures. Some of them can be described as elite graves, because they reflect a significantly higher level of burial status and contain prestigious, sometimes imported, objects. Their character indicates extraordinary funeral rites (for a definition see Kossack 1974: 4-5; Eisenschmidt 1994: 24; Steuer 2006). The common Slavic burial of that time was a simple inhumation grave with a few items only, such as knives and single pieces of jewellery. Many questions are connected with these elite graves, concerning their social and political meaning, their traditions and possible influences and the role of Scandinavian contacts.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

The goal of this paper is to discuss the context and the interpretation of this group of elite burials, comparing the archaeological and historical evidence. First, one of the most impressive tombs of this type, the recently excavated chamber grave of Usedom will be presented, followed by a brief overview of other burials of the type in eastern Mecklenburg, in Pomerania and in more distant areas. Finally, the article will discuss traditions, foreign influences, social and ethnic conditions relevant for the interpretation of the graves.

The example of Usedom

In the year 2000 Holger Fries excavated one of the most magnificent graves of medieval Pomerania in the town of Usedom (district of Ostvorpommern) on the island of the same name in the Oder estuary (Figure 1, no. 21). The castle-town of Usedom was an economically and politically important harbour and market complex in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. In its initial phase Usedom was probably a capital of a Lutician dominion, and after the Pomeranian conquest, shortly before 1128, it developed into one of the most significant residences of the Greif Dukes (Biermann 2006).

In the neighbourhood of the main stronghold of Usedom a large cemetery of the late tenth to twelfth century was situated in a place named 'am Hain'. There, about 200 graves have been discovered--in most cases poorly furnished inhumation burials. At the periphery of the site, a single grave (no. 135; Figures 2 and 3) was found with traces of a rectangular wooden chamber measuring 3.1 x 2.7m with a depth of c. 0.2m. The limited depth of the chamber is a result of later erosion and long-term agriculture; it also suggests that the grave was originally covered by an earth mound.

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