Microtaphonomy and interpretation of reopened graves

in Central Europe from the late Neolithic to the early Middle Ages

Frequently, human remains buried in graves are not left to ‘rest in peace’ eternally. There is a wide range of historically and ethnographically documented reasons and circumstances for the reopening of graves. Throughout the world, graves have been reopened as part of funerary rituals, for the removal of grave goods or body parts for symbolic reasons such as ancestral rites, or they may simply have been looted for materialistic reasons.

The starting point of this project is a view that the reopening of graves is an historical source, which informs us about past attitudes and beliefs related to graves, objects and human remains in graves. The aim is to improve our understanding of prehistoric and early historic people by investigating the phenomenon of grave reopening and its background diachronically in the respective archaeological and historical setting. The investigations will examine recently excavated reopened graves from the Late Neolithic to the Early Medieval periods in central Europe, with the main focus on the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age as well as the late Roman and Early Medieval periods in eastern Austria. In these periods, a large number of reopened inhumation graves were found where in most cases grave goods were removed – hence the common label being ‘grave-robbery’.

The project is multidisciplinary, synthesizing science- and humanities-based objectives and research methods. It will proceed on the basis that an understanding of a grave’s microtaphonomy is a crucial element of the research on reopened graves: taphonomy includes all natural and human processes that formed archaeological evidence. Hence, the methodological objective of this project is to develop a new taphonomy-based method of analysis of reopened graves. The method will be used to analyse records from previous excavations and to offer new evidence-based interpretations of reopened graves. The methodological part of the project will include fieldwork to investigate what can be learnt from the archaeological evidence of reopened graves if excavated with a specific focus on a grave’s reopening. Results of the method of ‘Anthropologie de Terrain’ (now called ‘Archaeothanatology’, Duday 2009) will be integrated in the methodology.

Early Bronze Age inhumation grave Weiden am See

In autumn 2013 we excavated a reopened early Bronze Age inhumation grave in Weiden am See, Burgenland with a microstratigraphic protocol to maximize information about the formation processes of the grave. The analysis of the soil thin sections brought important results about the taphonomy and reopening of the grave (Aspöck, Banerjea 2016).

The detailed photographic documentation of the grave during the excavation made it possible to create a 3D model, which in turn produced a small movie reconstructing the excavation process of the grave and showing the position of the evaluated soil thin sections.

Movie of a reopened early Bronze Age inhumation grave in Weiden am See, based on 3D model (© S. Stuhec 2016) 

Grave Reopening Research (GRR) Group

In January 2017 the symposium Grave disturbance in early medieval Europe. International symposium 2017 took place at the Department of Archaeology and Classical Studies, Stockholm University. The workshop was organized by Alison Klevnäs for the Grave reopening research working group. New results on 6th century AD grave reopenings in northeastern Austria were presented.

Presentations (selection)

Vorträge (Auswahl)

  • Reopening of Langobard-period graves in eastern Austria (6th c. AD) (E. Aspöck), International Symposium ‘Grave disturbance in early medieval Europe’, Stockholm University (12.1.2017).
  • Reopening the dead: a microtaphonomic approach to post burial practices (E. Aspöck, R. Y. Banerjea), Research seminar, University of Reading, UK (25.2.2016).
  • Microtaphonomy of reopened graves in context, session: Grave disturbances (E. Aspöck), EAA Glasgow (3.9.2015)
  • Interpreting reopened graves: a multi-dimensional approach to the archaeological evidence (E. Aspöck), Conference ‘Expanding boundaries’, UCL London (24.10.2014)
  • Analysing the (micro)taphonomy of reopened graves (E. Aspöck), Conference ‘Motifs through the Ages’ Bytów, Polen (16.10.2014).



  • E. Aspöck, R. Y. Banerjea, Formation processes of a re-opened early Bronze Age inhumation grave in Austria: The soil thin section analyses, Journal of Archaeological Science Reports 10, 2016, 791–809. DOI: 10.1016/j.jasrep.2016.07.003.
  • E. Aspöck, Book review: Angelika Abegg-Wigg, Nina Lau (Hrsg.), Kammergräber im Barbaricum: Zu Einflüssen und Übergangsphänomenen von der vorrömischen Eisenzeit bis in die Völkerwanderungszeit. Internationale Tagung, Schleswig, 25.–27. November 2010. Schriften des archäologischen Landesmuseum, Ergänzungsreihe 9. Wachholtz, Neumünster – Hamburg 2014, 448 Seiten, 266 Farb- und s/w Abbildungen, Paperback, ISBN 978-3-529-01879-4, Archaeologia Austriaca 100, 2016, 300–303. DOI: 10.1553/archaeologia100s300.
  • E. Aspöck, M. Fera, 3D-GIS für die taphonomische Auswertung eines wiedergeöffneten Körpergrabes, AGIT – Journal für Angewandte Geoinformatik 1, 2015, 2–9. DOI: 10.14627/537557001.
  • E. Aspöck, Cross-cultural interpretations and archaeological context: a reopened early Bronze Age grave in Weiden am See, Austria. In: L. Gardeła, K. Kajkowski (eds.), Limbs, Bones and Reopened Graves in Past Societies. Motifs Through the Ages 2, Bytów 2015, 21–46.
  • E. Aspöck, Funerary and post-depositional body treatments at the middle Anglo-Saxon cemetery Winnall II: norm, variety and forms of deviance? In: Z. L. Devlin, E.-J. Graham (eds.), Death Embodied. Archaeological Approaches to the Treatment of the Corpse. Studies in Funerary Archaeology Series, Oxford 2015, 86–108.
  • E. Aspöck, Book review: Chris Fowler. The Emergent Past: A Relational Realist Archaeology of Early Bronze Age Mortuary Practices. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2013, 352pp. 26 b/w illustr., 14 maps, 6 charts, 25 tables, hbk, ISBN 978-0-19-965637-0, European Journal of Archaeology 18, 4, 2015, 731-734. DOI: 10.1179/1461957115Z.000000000150.
  • E. Aspöck, Über die Variabilität von Totenpraktiken. Oder: Probleme einer dichotomen Auffassung von Toten- bzw. Bestattungsbrauchtum. In: N. Müller-Scheessel (ed.), Irreguläre Bestattungen in der Urgeschichte: Norm, Ritual, Strafe ...? Akten der Internationalen Tagung in Frankfurt a. M. vom 3. bis 5. Februar 2012. Kolloquien zur Vor- und Frühgeschichte 19, Frankfurt am Main 2013, 25–38.