The Context of Early Medieval Barrows in Western Europe

By Noort, Robert van de | Antiquity, March 1993 | Go to article overview

The Context of Early Medieval Barrows in Western Europe


Noort, Robert van de, Antiquity


In his article 'Time regained: the creation of continuity', Richard Bradley, reassessing monuments at Yeavering, Sutton Hoo, the Boyne tombs and other sites in Britain and Ireland, concludes that in the early Middle Ages '. . . the past was being used in a more active manner, in order to promote the interests of a social elite' (1987: 14-15). The present article elaborates on this theme of active use of the past and prehistoric monuments in the early Middle Ages. It investigates a relative short period in the early Middle Ages, wherein prehistoric burial mounds were reused and new barrows were constructed in England and on the Continent. It will be argued that this funerary practice was a response to the church-graves which had created an opportunity for elaborate and longstanding monuments for the deceased. Not only were barrows a monumental answer to the church-graves but, because of their association with prehistory, burial mounds also expressed the opposition of non-Christians to the Christian elite.

Synthetic approaches to early Medieval barrows have been presented before, most notably Ament (1975) and Shephard (1980). Significantly, neither of these crosses the Channel. The force of this paper lies in studying the early Medieval barrows on the Continent and in England as a single phenomenon and consequently I have drawn heavily from these publications, as well as Meaney (1964).

Many of the barrows, of prehistoric, Roman and Medieval date, were excavated in the 19th and early 20th centuries. One of the great barrow diggers of that time was Mortimer (1905). As a consequence of these early activities, it is not always possible to find accounts of the antiquarian studies and the dating of the finds is often unjustified and unreliable. Several hundred burial mounds were built in the Middle Ages, but only a minority has been securely dated, which will be reflected in the distribution map presented here.

Although the setting of the barrows is not discussed here, recent excavations often reveal that barrows were part of larger cemeteries: e.g. Basel Bernerring (Moosbrugger-Leu 1982), Dittigheim in Alamannic Baden Wurttemberg (Stork 1985), Moos-Burgstall in Niederbayern (von Freeden & Kohler 1981; von Freeden 1987) and Spong Hill in East Anglia (Hills 1977; 1980). In the past, the archaeological context of burial mounds has often been misinterpreted. At Sutton Hoo, for example, recent re-excavations revealed a much greater prehistoric use of the cemetery than was previously known (Carver 1989). Detailed discussion of early Medieval burial mounds is severely limited by the quality of archaeological research in the 19th and early 20th centuries (cf. Shephard 1979: 49).

On the Continent, recent research has added many new sites of early Medieval burial mounds to the published list of Ament (1975). In England, new additions to Meaney's Gazetteer (1964) are relatively scarce. It seems reasonable to suggest, therefore, that the recovery of barrows in England has been much greater in the, past than on the Continent.

An overview

In the distribution of all Early Medieval (AD 450-1000) barrows, three regions stand out: Scandinavia, England and western Germany plus northern Switzerland, especially the area along the Rhine and the upper Danube. The burial mounds of Scandinavia can be considered as a separate tradition from western Europe on the basis of early origin and likely continuity. This burial custom in Scandinavia goes back to at least the later Roman Iron Age with huge mounds at Hogom in Norrland, continuing in Uppland and Bertnem and ending in the Vestvold and in Jutland in the 10th century (Ramqvist & Muller-Wille 1988). There was a certain amount of mutual inspiration in aspects of funerary behaviour between Scandinavia on the one hand and England and the Rhine/upper Danube area on the other. The boat burials covered by mounds (Muller-Wille 1968/9) and the presence of Frankish weapons in the barrow graves in Hogom and Uppland (Ramqvist & Muller-Wille 1988) are examples of this connection. …

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