Restless Corpses: `Secondary Burial' in the Babenberg and Habsburg Dynasties

By Weiss-Krejci, Estella | Antiquity, December 2001 | Go to article overview
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Restless Corpses: `Secondary Burial' in the Babenberg and Habsburg Dynasties

Weiss-Krejci, Estella, Antiquity


Distinguishing various formation processes that shape the state of burials is a major challenge for archaeologists. One such process is secondary burial. In many archaeological reports the term is loosely applied to burials where corpses show signs of alterations and do not represent complete and fully articulated bodies (Williams & Beck 2001: 1). The causes of `secondary burial' formation vary widely (Orschiedt 1997) spanning both cultural formation processes (treatment of the corpse, reclamation and disturbance processes) and environmental formation processes, e.g. `faunalturbation [sic]' (Schiller 1987). Nevertheless, in the archaeological record the reasons behind disarranged bones may be obscured.

This article discusses `secondary burial' formation in two dynastic mortuary samples. The need for such analysis developed out of the author's focus on ancient Maya mortuary behaviour (Krejci & Culbert 1995). Disarticulated skeletal remains are frequent in the Maya area and are variably interpreted as dismembered victims of sacrifice, exhumed and reburied venerated ancestors or disturbed corpses (Krejci 1998: 218; Sievert 2001). Some disarticulated and incomplete skeletal parts have been identified as the remains of Maya rulers or have been discovered in `royal' contexts (Welsh 1988; Martin & Grube 2000: 150). Since many tombs probably held the remains of members of ancient Maya royal houses, the interpretation of the differing states of body articulation may be supported by a cross-cultural analysis of formation processes of dynastic mortuary records.

The Babenberg and Habsburg dynasties

Mortuary records from historic Europe provide useful comparative data sets, since special treatment of the deceased and continuous rearrangement of the dead are not only prevalent but also well documented, revealing the underlying motivations. Burial records from Babenbergs and Habsburgs and data from related European dynasties allow a detailed analysis of the circumstances that led to `secondary burial' formation from the Middle Ages to modern times.

The Babenbergs enter history in 976 when Leopold I was given a small margravate in the present day province of Lower Austria. As margraves and dukes, the Babenbergs ruled Austria for 270 years (Lechner 1976). Their holdings were taken over by Rudolph I of Habsburg in 1278 who had been elected German Roman King five years earlier. The Habsburgs ruled Austria for 640 years. In 1740 the dynasty died out in the male line, but continued to rule as the Habsburg-Lorraine dynasty until 1918 (Hamann 1988a).

The analysed sample includes all people that belonged to one of the two dynasties through birth or marriage, as well as spouses of other houses, totalling 868 individuals who died over a period of 1000 years. The analysis proves that very varied processes are at hand to produce what an archaeologist simply calls a `secondary burial'. In the present sample the main responsible agents are multi-stage burial programmes, postfuneral relocation and disturbance.

Multi-stage burial programmes

Most medieval kings and queens had burial places assigned or constructed years before death. But high mobility in the Middle Ages resulted in people rarely dying where they had planned to be buried. Records from the 10th and 11th century prove that the wish for the royal burial place was taken seriously by the survivors, since several corpses of Holy Roman emperors of the Ottone and Salian dynasties were transported from the place of death to the burial place (Gerbert et al. 1772 (4,2): 62-3). Before that time the wish was only occasionally followed and even a mighty emperor such as Charlemagne did not have his way in death. While he wanted to be buried in Paris at St Denis beside his parents, he was instead buried at Aachen (FIGURE 1) where he had died (Schaller 1993: 66). What was royal standard by the 10th century was soon exercised on nobles of lesser rank who were also transported long distances from their death to their burial places (Schafer 1920: 491).

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Restless Corpses: `Secondary Burial' in the Babenberg and Habsburg Dynasties


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