Death culture: barrows in Noord-Brabant

I updated the death culture page with some ancestral worship and ghostly folklore at the Noord-Brabant barrows:

Barrows in Noord-Brabant

For an example, and a more in depth view of death culture in North-West Europe, let’s go to the area where I live, Noord-Brabant in the Netherlands. Best known from Brabant, and best preserved for studying death culture, are the burial hills known as barrows. From the Late Neolithic period on, people would raise barrows for their dead, though the early barrows were only meant for specific persons – all of them apparently male. The later barrows were also not meant as universal means of burying. In this period only about 15% of people who died found their resting place in a burial barrow. Of the other 85% not much has been found. Remember that when you keep on reading.

Throughout the bronze age, a difference can be seen between how the north and the south of the Netherlands treated their dead.  In the north, burial without cremation was habitual as of old. In the south however, cremation became common while burial without cremation became the exception. From finds it appears that only some of the burned bones were kept – what happened with the rest of the burned body varied greatly between different short periods and different communities. A common means was to put the remains in a put that was then buried, but the remains could also be placed in a pit, a hollow tree stem, a piece of fabric or simply on or in the ground. Very rarely a token was taken into the grave, and sometimes traces of jewellery of amulets have been found.

It is remarkable that people who were placed in the burial barrows (the ‘primary’ graves, which could be either man, woman or child) were relatively often unburned; this is true for about half of the dead found in burial barrows. The related dead who were placed in secondary graves (mainly women and children) were cremated in 90% of all cases, and a third of them were placed in urns. Because of the way that the seconday graves were situated (they never touch each other) it is thought that they were marked, and probably even planned beforehand. From this we can conclude that for the ancient people in Noord-Brabant burial was an important event that took a lot of preparation.

Most barrows from the Middle Bronze Age so far have been found south of Tilburg and especially in the area called De Kempen, near the Belgian border. Unfortuntaly, many barrows have been lost through time or they have simply been removed. The ones that are left to us are situated in areas that never were considered important or of any use: heaths on high sandplains. Some of these barrows are still in the heaths, others were spared when the heaths were  cultivated during the twentieth century.

The bronze age barrows were built on the heather fields that stem from the late Neolithic. Often special locations, especially higher places, were chosen. In an open field the barrows could be seen from afar. It is not known how far from the settlement the barrows were situated, but it is almost certain that the world of the dead was strictly seperated from the world of the living. The barrows were a place in the ancestral landscape that the settlements could focus on, since these settlement weren’t always fixed in the landscape.

In any way, the place of a new barrow was carefully sought out. Sometimes it was built on an older barrow. Plants and weeds were removed, sometimes (but not always) a pit was dug, and archeologists think that rituals took place. Near some of the barrows, mysterious pits have been found that were probably used for making fire. Before or after placing the human remains on or in the barrow, a ditch was dug around the grave. Other details can vary from barrow to barrow – and there doesn’t really seem to be a chronological order in those details. Some barrows were surrounded by an earthen ring, other by one or more rings of wooden poles, sometimes in combination with a ditch. The types that can be described as small barrows surrounded by a ring wall have apparently also been found in England. The ditches and wooden poles can also be found on later iron ages graves. Another question that archeologists have is what the wooden poles looked like. They probably didn’t last longer than a few decades before the rotted away in the ground and would fall over. Were they simple poles, or were they decorated, carved and/ore painted? Your guess is as good as mine.

The associations of the barrows with death has always lingered, even in times when people didn’t consciously know anymore what these hills were.  Into modern times, tales about ghosts and witches were told about these places. Well known in De Kempen is the barrow at the Eerselsedijk in Bergeijk. Many stories about witches and dancing cats surround this place. Other barrows in De Kempen were said to be inhabited by friendly gnomes. We must be careful about our association of these folk tales with ancient beliefs about death and burial barrows – it is simply not known where the connection comes from and how old the tales are – all we know is the tales and their connection with death and the barrows is there. The barrows certainly have interesting names, such as the Blackmountain near Hoogeloon and a lost barrow near Eersel that was called the Glowing Englishman!

That the barrows were seen as heathen and unhallowed is made clear by a find at barrow near Alphen. Human remains were found there, most likely from a hanged person. Execution of criminals and exposing their corpses on burial barrows was not uncommon in Noord-Brabant. It was most likely an extra punishment, since these criminals would never be buried in the hallowed ground of a christian churchyard.

…Read more here.

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