Between Sutton Hoo and Chernaya Mogila: Barrows in Eastern and Western Early Medieval Europe

Article excerpt

This complement to Van de Noort's 1993 contribution to ANTIQUITY extends the pattern in early medieval barrows seen on the British Isles and neighbouring portions of the European continent out to its central and towards its eastern zones.

The article by Robert Van de Noort (1993) attempts an evaluation of problems related to early medieval barrows on the British Isles and in the western part of the European continent. A similar case for the use of burial mounds as a response to Christian imperialism had been made by Carver in the context of the Sutton Hoo excavations (1986; 1992; 1995). In view of his objectives, primarily the study of social aspects and problems of mutual inter-relations between the barrow burial rite and Christianity, Van de Noort focused his interest upon the richly furnished barrows dated to the period 550-750 AD. Barrows of the preceding period 450-550 AD, and of the later period 750-1000 AD, he rightly classifies as belonging to a different tradition. Van de Noort proposes the interpretation of barrows as a single phenomenon within a certain territory; but the present author fails to find in his article the mention that this concerns only some barrows. Van de Noort excludes many barrow sites east of the Elbe River (1993: figure 2, cf. also [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1A OMITTED] in the present contribution).

The article by Van de Noort should be modified in two ways. For the time-period in question, this map does not include a very high number of localities in Central Europe which simply cannot be overlooked - the situation shown on the map differs substantially from the actual conditions. The second modification required is to what might be called the author's inspirative approach. His comparison between barrows from the western and eastern parts of the European continent can, for the time being, only be an outline of expected inter-relations. Except for some selected phenomena, the barrows of the Slavic world have not been studied as a single entity; they may have quite different causes and meaning.

The map presented by Van de Noort [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1A OMITTED] could be called a textbook example of the information barrier. In the regions east of the Elbe River, the features of the map become fuzzy, even the river-courses are wrong - 'hic sunt leones'. As for the occurrence of early medieval barrows, the space on the map within the Slavonic area can be filled by more than 70 barrow cemeteries whose dating is certain [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1B OMITTED]. They are clearly concentrated in the Bohemian basin and along the central course of the Danube. With a few exceptions, most of these burial sites date between 750 and 1000 AD. A few are earlier, and at some sites along the Baltic coast burials in barrows continued up to the 12th century.

The map in FIGURE 2 is much closer to present knowledge of the distribution of early medieval barrows in central and eastern parts of Europe (it is based mainly upon Zoll-Adamikowa 1979; Sedov 1982; Lutovsky 1989). It does include some barrow burial sites of controversial dating or sites whose other characteristics are dubious. A precise chronological classification is not appropriate, because the overwhelming majority of investigated barrows are dated only on the basis of pottery that does not supply very accurate dates. However, FIGURE 2 includes the majority of early medieval barrow cemeteries recorded or preserved in the central and eastern parts of Europe. (Isolated barrows represent rather an exception in the specific milieu.) Barrows continue at an almost undiminished density in the eastern direction up to the nomadic barrows in the Ural Mountains (Mazhitov 1981), which run almost without interruption into the contemporaneous Siberian barrows.

Thus, there appears at several places in early medieval Europe in the course of several centuries, and in many cases clearly independently of one another, the habit of emphasizing burial with a mound. …