Introduction: what is a cremation cemetery under level ground?
In the beginning of the Migration period a new cemetery form appears in Estonia and Finland. In Finland it is called "cremation cemetery under level ground" (Fin. polttokenttakalmisto) and in Estonia "stone grave-field without inner constructions" (Est. madala kivistikuga poletusmatuste vali). The two typical features of this cemetery form are weak visibility above ground and collectivity. The cemeteries are typically placed on small moraine hills that are prominent in the topography. The collective character is a significant change in the Finnish funerary custom, as there are only sporadic signs of collective burials during the Roman Iron Age (e.g. Keskitalo 1979). However, in Estonia collective burial was a practice strongly present already in the early Iron Age.
The collective character of the cemetery type is shown through the burned bones and broken artefacts that have been scattered around the cemetery. In the present paper, the collectivity is contrasted with individual deposition of cremation remains. Individuality is defined here as a narrow concentration of metal artefacts in the cemetery. We shall not enter into a detailed discussion about attempts to reconstruct individual burials among the finds found in a collective state (e.g. Magi 2002; Hietala 2003), but we see them as problematic (see below).
The readily distinguishable individual graves are usually weapon burials from the Merovingian and early Viking periods (e.g. Heikkurinen-Montell 1996, 94 ff.; Raninen 2005, 226 ff). These burials are known mainly in Finland. Individual cremation deposits that can be interpreted as female burials or double burials including a female are rare in Finnish level-ground cremation cemeteries, although some are known, for example, in the famous late Merovingian-period cemetery of Ristimaki in Kaarina (Turku) (Tallgren 1931, 78 f.). Most members of the groups that were using the level-ground cemeteries, including some males, were buried collectively.
In Finland weapons are also scattered around the cemetery from the Viking Age onwards, which makes individual burials rarely discernible in the material. The first inhumation graves are situated either inside the cremation cemeteries or in their close vicinity. In Finland they appear at the end of the Viking Age. These inhumations could be understood as a new form of individual deposition after a long period of collective burials (Wickholm & Raninen 2003; Wickholm in print 2).
The cemeteries under level ground are often enormous in size as they have been in use for several centuries, some over 500 years. One of the largest cemeteries in Finland, Kalmumaki in Uusikaupunki, has probably had an original size of 2500 square meters, while Mahittula cemetery in Raisio was believed to have been between 1660 and 2300 square meters before being partly destroyed by road work. In Estonia, Madi cemetery, near Viljandi, was estimated to have been over 1890 square meters, while Maidla II cemetery in West Estonia was more than 2000 square meters before excavations (Konsa 2003, 124; Mandel 2003, 42, 175; Pietikainen 2005, 3; Wickholm 2005). Due to their large size, the cremation cemeteries under level ground have often been interpreted as village cemeteries (Selirand 1974; Meinander 1980). Marika Magi, on the other hand, has argued that in Saaremaa the cemeteries have belonged to just one or two elite families (Magi 2002, 11, 74, 123).
In Finland, rich weapon burials are first and foremost studied from a typological perspective, leaving out all ritual aspects. The collective nature of the cemeteries seems to have dazzled the Finnish researchers. It almost feels as if the collective way of disposal would be too disparaging for them and thus hard to accept. In Estonia the collective nature of the cemeteries seems to have been easier to accept since collective burials are known already from the stone-cist grave tradition. …