Death culture

Even though lots of magical folklore abounds, there have always been people who don’t believe in so-called supernatural phenomena; yes, even in older times. Many fables have been told and written down about this tension between belief and scepsis. One tells about a man who says he doesn’t believe in life after death and invites a dead person for diner. He is punished for his disbelief once this dead person actually shows up.

The cult of the dead has always been of great importance to cultures all over the world. Of course, Christianity plays a large role in our death rites, but here and there other influences that are probably heathen shine through. Death is dark and dangerous, and everything associated with it carries a sort of magical contagion with it. Many customs, such as dressing up for the funeral and rearranging certain things in the house, are not just to mourn and commemorate a dead loved one. They are also meant to confuse the spirit, so that it won’t be able to return and haunt their former home. This belief in life after death is much older than Christianity, and holds a very different view of what death is. When a person died, the people who had touched the dead persons or came in close proximity, couldn’t do labour or any other community work, because being associated with death they were temporarily placed outside of the living community. Their work was taken over by other people, such as their neighbours.

At the same time, people kept connections with their dead ancestors. Sometimes these relationships were quite intimate. One could remember and seek contact with their own direct ancestors in several wasy. There are also many stories – myths and legends – of important figures who were ancestors to whole peoples. In many cultures across the world ancestor worship is still very much alive. It is also becoming more and more important to modern heathenry – to some heathens it is even the central tenet of their belief.

Obviously, death plays a big part in our lives. For this section of the website I will stick specifically to pre-christian/pagan beliefs about death, death rituals and death magic in Northwest-Europe (mostly Germanic and Celtic) . Pretty sure that will still give me a lot to write about!

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.

The Urnfield Culture in the Netherlands

Following up the barrows from the late Neolithic and Bronze periods is the so-called Urnfield Culture. The Netherlands are not part of the central area of the Urnfield Culture, which is the predecessor of Celtic culture. This culture gets its name from the mysterious urnfields – large burial fields containing urns buried in the ground. Fields from the late Urnfield periode have been created in the Netherlands up until the coming of the Romans. The Dutch urnfields differ from the central area fields in that on an urn grave, a small artificial hill is built, encircled by a ditch. These hills have been eroded so much, that nowadays they can only be found when one notices a discoloration in the earth. Sometimes, urns are buried with other goods, such as pots, oil lamps or possessions such as necklaces or fibulae (decorative brooches). Urn fields have been found in Vaassen (province Overijssel), Veldhoven (province Noord-Brabant) and the Boshoverheide near Weert (province Limburg). The field in the Boshoverheide dates from 1000 to 600/400 BCE. It contains about a hundred small hills, which is appr. 10-15 % of the original number of urn graves.

More rich graves have mostly been found in the province of Drente. Lots of these graves have horse attire in them. In Wijster, a 5th-century grave has been found of a Roman-Germanic soldier, surrounded by graves that have horses in them. Another connection with the mediterranean world in Drente is the grave in Meppen, which contains a bronze bucket that was made in South-Europe.

The largest grave hill, however, can be found in Oss, Noord-Brabant. It is considered an actual royal grave, and stems from the Hallstatt period, ca. 600 BCE. This grave lies close to other graves, some of which have been found as recently as 2009. It has a diameter of 53 m, and the 60-80 cm high inner structure was built from turf. The man buried here was between 40 and 60 years old, and his spine was deformed because of diabetes. This points towards a wealthy, perhaps even decadent life. The grave finds confirm this. Well known is the bronze situla* (bucket) which contains a convolute sword. It is the oldest known sword in the Netherlands, and was deformed this way to be an offer to the dead or the gods of the underworld. It’s a typical Hallstatt sword, and was probably made in what is now South-Germany. Other objects found in the grave are a knife, razor, two parts of horse-headgear, three fibulae and an axe. This grave lies over a much older grave from ca. 1800 BCE. Near the royal grave, a so-called house of the dead can be found. The exact function is not clear; did the corpse lay here for a while, or was it a monument for the dead? A little further from the grave an urnfield has been discovered. It looks like this area was a sort of ‘land of the dead’ – people did not live here, but used the area exclusively to bury their dead, for what seems to be a period of over a thousand years.

*Some more information about the situla: a situla is a wine vessel that has the shape of a bucket. They were imported from the mediterrenean to northern Europe. In this area, they were not just vessels, but were obviously elite displays, and probably also had a particular ritual and/or religious function. Clerinx (see sources) asks whether the situla in a grave might be an echo of the use of urns in even earlier times.

Pit burials in Schagen (Noord-Holland, Netherlands)

During an excavation in Schagen of an ancient settlement, several curious pits with human remains have been found. One contains seven inverted pots, each covering a small amount of cremated bone. It’s hard to tell because the pots have collapsed under the weight of the peat in which they were buried, but researchers think that the bones may all belong to the same person. Included in this pit were some horse bones.

Other plits include badly damaged remains of a baby, a young woman, and a young man whose feet are missing. Another pit holds the better preserved remains of a middle-aged man, on whose chest was placed the left wing of a mallard.

Some animal burials have been found, too: a horse whose legs were positioned in a unnatural, crossed fashion and who got several ‘gravegoods’ (?) such as a polished bone object and red samian ware. The animal missed three of its feet. Two dog burials have been found: one dog was buried with several bones of other animals, while the other dog got nothing it seems – however, seven of its toes have been cut off.

Note that the missing footbones mentioned above have been found in accompanying pits! In fact, the same site also contains many deeper pits with all kinds of materials deposited in them. Some of these pits also contain bones and thus have been linked to the shallower grave pits by researchers.

The early medieval practice of opening graves in the Netherlands and other parts of Europe

Throughout Europe, many graves show traces of reopening after burial. It is often assumed that the reasons for these reopenings are mostly robbery and desecration – although other reasons have also been proposed. The ways of and the reasons for reopening can vary wildly even in smaller areas. However, new research shows that from the 5th to the 8th centuries (roughly the Merovingian period), in Western and Central Europe including the Netherlands, it appears that some graves were opened with a particular purpose of the removal of certain grave goods.. For example, in some graves simple items were taken away while silver jewelery was left on the corpse. The reopenings usually happened within about a generation after internment. A minority of the graves were already opened when the body had not even decomposed yet. The cemeteries were still used after the reopenings and many of these cemeteries were in proximity of the settlements of the living, indicating that there was probabl no secrecy concerned. It has been opted that this may be a practice in the context of remembering the dead.

M.C. van Haperen has researched ten cemeteries in the Netherlands and Flanders where these reopening have been found. His theory points towards “interactions between the living and the dead”. They mostly happened within a time periode from the late 6th into the 7th century; the same as in Bavaria, Northern France and England. Note that in this period the Netherlands (and many other parts of Europe) were not christianized yet. The study that I’m basing my text on this not speak specifically about pagan or christian graves, however. There are some indications that child-sized graves were avoided, but then again, in other areas graves of children were targeted just as much as graves of adults. In the Netherlands too it were not the most costly grave goods that were removed. Apparently some of the goods were intentionally damaged, but this is hard to demonstrate.

The kinds of goods that were removed vary a lot – this goes for the graves in all of Europe. Sometimes the goods were even in bad condition when taken out of the graves. Bodies were sometimes manipulated too, but this is far from the case in all graves and in any way does not seem the purpose of the opening of the graves. The fact that there was no preference for ages, gender, close kin or other groups and the fact that reopened graves are distributed across cemeteries, suggests that the grave (or the persons in the graves) were perhaps not seen as individuals, but as representatives of the “community’s dead as a collective entity”. However, we have to keep in mind that the reasons for reopening may also vary from area to area.

Follow this link for more in depth information about the reopening of graves in early medieval Europe.

Death rituals in the Netherlands

As is usual with people who work with the dead, much superstition surrounded them. The aanspreker (speaker), also known as lijkbidder (corpse prayer), was someone in Dutch folkore who worked with sick, dying and dead people. When an aanspreker would sit on someone’s chair, that person would soon die. According to one anecdote, an aanspreker in Breukelen (province of Utrecht) visited a sick man, and sat down on the chair of the man’s brother. The man got better, but the brother died.

Sources

Clerinx, H. (2005) Kelten en de Lage Landen. Leuven: Davidsfonds. (Second ed.)

Klevnäs, A., Aspöck, E., Noterman, A., Van Haperen, M., & Zintl, S. (2021). Reopening graves in the early Middle Ages: From local practice to European phenomenon. Antiquity, 1-22. doi:10.15184/aqy.2020.217

Laan, K Ter. (2005) Folklore en Wijsheden in Vlaanderen en Nederland. Utrecht: Het Spectrum. (Third ed.)

Looijenga, J.H. (1997). Runes around the North Sea and on the Continent AD150 – 700; texts & contexts. Proefschrift Rijksuniversiteit van Groningen.

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