Book Review

F. THEUWS & M. VAN HAPEREN (ed.). The Merovingian cemetery of Bergeijk-Fazantlaan (Merovingian Archaeology in the Low Countries 1). 303 pages, numerous colour and b&w illustrations. 2012. Bonn: Habelt; 978-3-7749-3776-5 hardback €79.

Review by Bonnie Effros
Department of History, University of Florida, USA / Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton University, USA (2013–2014)
(Email: beffros@ufl.edu)

Effros image

This volume is the first in a series on Merovingian cemeteries in the southern and central Netherlands supported by the ANASTASIS project. Seeking to stimulate greater scholarly interest in early medieval burial ritual, Frans Theuws and doctoral student Martine van Haperen have revisited evidence from the cemetery of Bergeijk-Fazantlaan (Noord-Brabant). Excavated in 1957 and 1959 following its discovery during the construction of a private house, the site was never published due to lack of funding. With support from the Nederlandse Organisatie voor het Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek (NWO), the Universities of Amsterdam and Leiden, the town of Maastricht and the ODYSSEE programme (which is directed at reducing the backlog of unpublished Dutch excavations), Theuws and van Haperen have been able to uncover much of interest in the cemetery's 117 known graves—among the largest group known in the Kempen region. Although the state of preservation of the human remains was poor due to soil conditions, and almost no skeletons survived intact, the cemetery's attractions include its relatively undisturbed surface and its location not far from the roughly contemporary farmhouse burials of Dommelen, a site that has figured large in Theuws' earlier research (Theuws 1991).

The challenges of identifying and publishing the data from a site excavated more than six decades earlier were great. With the help of surviving field notes, drawings and maps by the archaeologist J. Ypey and his draughtsman G.J. de Vries, black-and-white photographs and an 8mm film of the excavation made by the property owners, and the few publications that made reference to the site, Theuws and van Haperen reopened a quintessential 'cold-case'. They had, for example, to track down extant artefacts held in private and public collections; due to these less than ideal circumstances, they limited their analysis of grave material (some of which had been subjected to extensive handling and restorative treatment) to macroscopic inspection. This lavishly produced volume renders the results of this work accessible through an enviable number of colour photographs, drawings, maps, graphs and charts, and the detailed presentation and interpretation of the site will be of great value to early medieval archaeologists and historians. While the layout, photography, and the quantity and quality of the maps and tables are of the highest standard this reader has seen to date, it is unfortunate that grammatical and spelling errors litter the text. These shortcomings are unfortunate but should not detract from the publication's achievements.

Theuws and van Haperen, supplemented by contributions from S. van Lith, R. Panhuysen, C. Brandeburg and L. Smits, provide a description of the region, the history of the excavation, and a detailed account of the specific features of the site. Where possible, included in their analysis of Bergeijk are detailed measurements of the grave pits and internal containers for burying the dead, assessments of the cemetery's topography (which included a Bronze Age tumulus), thoughtful discussion of evidence of post-burial rituals (in which many of the graves were reopened), and a descriptive and comparative analysis of the artefactual and human remains. The last part of the volume comprises an inventory of each grave and provides detailed information and illustrations of their contents. The volume succeeds in providing a wealth of information from the site despite the limits imposed by the original documentation and technology available to the excavators more than 60 years ago.

The authors estimate that a burial community of approximately four to five families at any one time used the cemetery over roughly a century and a half, from c. AD 570 to 720/730. Drawing from the approximate dates of the depositions, they chronicle three phases in the cemetery's use. The first two were marked by extensive reopening of graves at the site decades after the funerals, possibly for the purpose of reclaiming personal artefacts. Addressing this evidence of post-mortem interaction with the dead, Theuws and van Haperen take the provocative (and convincing) stance that these incidents should not be categorised as grave robbery but instead reflected rituals that helped memorialise or maintain bonds with ancestors through removal of items (and possibly bones) associated with the dead. The final phase of the cemetery, lasting roughly 50 years, saw the abandonment of this rite and the declining use of grave goods during a period of significant regional change sparked by the arrival of Christianity, the formation of new political alliances with the rise of the Carolingians and the growing strength of emporia as powerhouses of exchange. It is possible that the population using the cemetery also changed around this time. After the 720s, however, inhabitants abandoned Bergeijk in favour of a new, as yet unidentified, location. This decision was part of a wider trend of founding burial sites in new locations, often near farmhouses or settlements. Theuws and van Haperen conclude that it is unlikely that they were near churches as would be the case in the mid tenth century.

We should be grateful that Theuws and van Haperen have produced a rare archaeological site report of a Merovingian-period cemetery in which presumed ethnic or social identities of the deceased are not the main focus of the interpretive discussion. In the absence of this paradigm, the authors have had space to think outside the box and to contextualise the community that used this cemetery in a variety of shorter- and longer-distance exchange networks (defined loosely as motivated by trade, political relationships, gifts and migration) of the Meuse, Moselle and Rhine valleys. Theuws hopes that these observations from a relatively modest cemetery will allow readers to see early medieval peasants as active participants in networks of material exchange rather than as passive recipients of elite culture. He ends the work by challenging archaeologists to include in future publications more revealing distribution maps with necessary information about find contexts rather than exclusively geographical locations. This approach will allow future readers to weigh cemetery evidence in more meaningful ways than those shaped primarily by ethnically ascribed artefactual typologies.

Reference

  • THEUWS, F. 1991. Landed property and manorial organisation in northern Austrasia: some considerations and a case study, in N. Roymans & F. Theuws (ed.) Images of the past: studies on ancient societies in northwestern Europe (Studies in Prae- en Protohistorie 7): 299–407. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.