Tue, 16.04.2024 13:00

Presentation of the ERC PresentDead Project

Archaeological and Historical Perspectives on Early Medieval Grave Re-opening | by Edeltraud Aspöck and Thom Gobbitt

The ERC project PresentDead (Sept 2023 - Aug 2028) investigates the practical, conceptual and emotional dimensions of human interactions with the remains of the dead in early medieval Europe (5th – 8th centuries CE). The research builds on detailed archaeological studies of re-entries into graves to remove artefacts(aka ‘grave robbery’), where we have identified regularities in object removal and procedures that have led to the formulation of the hypothesis that most of the reopening for removal of artefacts needs to be seen as a practice related to the dead rather than looting for material value.

To further research the meaning of object removal as well as other re-entries into graves the PresentDead project will extend investigations by including all types of practices where graves were re-entered to analyse how humans and artefacts have been treated in the different types of contexts. To complement studies that were primarily set in Western Europe, PresentDead will investigate cemeteries in four central and eastern European regions:
1. Danube valley and the regions to the north and south of the Danube (eastern Austria)
2. South-eastern alpine region (southern Austria and Slovenia)
3. Pannonian Plain(Hungary)
4. Transylvanian Plateau and north-eastern part of the Pannonian Plain (Romania).

Moreover, in order to overcome deficiencies of the archaeological record a novel approach has been developed for the taphonomy-based analysis of graves, that moves from high- to low-resolution analysis. The project will include a critical re-reading of written sources, which since its beginning have greatly shaped how evidence of re-entries into graves has been interpreted by the archaeologists. In our presentation we will outline how written sources have been used in the interpretation of archaeological evidence of grave reopening. We will introduce the kinds of texts that are part of the discussion, how they have been read by historians, and how they have been related to the archaeological evidence by the archaeologists. Whilst legal texts have been hugely influential and shaped the archaeological discussion in the sense that they have created a negative judgement on any interferences with graves in the archaeological literature, the laws themselves already demand a more nuanced reading beyond the simple corollary that a disturbed grave must equate to an illegal grave robbing. Initial studies have shown how some early medieval law-codes, such as those of the Lombards, can quietly leave ‘space’ for familial reopening of graves, providing support to the perspective that reopening for object removal may be related to the practices of the dead. Moreover, other genres of texts, such as historiographies and vitae offer scope for other, more positive readings, which as yet have not been fully integrated into the archaeological discussion.

We will discuss the tension between these different bodies of literature and introduce our approach to the written sources in the project, and outline the aims of the project to bring together and explore the limits and potentials of archaeological data and textual perspectives.


Image Credits:
right: Image from the collections of the Biblioteca Nacional de España, Madrid, MS 413, fol. 18r, ll. 13-21 (showing Edictus Rothari, §14 and the first line of §15) (CC-BY 4.0).
left: detail from the Lombard cemetery at Brunn am Gebirge, NÖ, © E. Aspöck; Aspöck, Edeltraud, "Graböffnungen im Frühmittelalter und das Fallbeispiel der langobardenzeitlichen Gräber von Brunn am Gebirge, Flur Wolfholz, Niederösterreich", Archaeologica Austriaca 87 (2003):  225-64 (at p. 246).



Tuesday, 16 April 2024, 13:00-14:30


Postsparkasse, Georg-Coch-Platz 2, 1010 Vienna
Seminar Room 4 (=4A.1), 4th Floor


ERC The Present Dead: Investigating Interactions with the Dead in Early Medieval Central and Eastern Europe from 5th to 8th Centuries CE


Edeltraud Aspöck
Thom Gobbitt