People living across Europe around 1,400 years ago had a habit of reopening graves and taking out objects for reasons that archaeologists are trying to understand, according to a new study.
“The practice of reopening and manipulating graves soon after burial, traditionally described — and dismissed — as ‘robbing,’ is documented at cemeteries from Transylvania to southern England,” a team of researchers wrote in a paper published June 18 in the journal Antiquity.
In their study, the researchers reanalyzed previously excavated cemeteries from five regions of Europe. They found that between roughly the sixth and eight centuries A.D., people frequently opened graves and took out objects for reasons that don’t seem linked to grave robbery.
“They made a careful selection of possessions to remove, especially taking brooches from women and swords from men, but they left behind lots of valuables, even precious metal objects, including necklace pendants of gold or silver,” lead study authorAlison Klevnäs, a researcher at Stockholm University, said in a statement.
The researchers also found that many of the items removed from the graves were in poor condition, particularly the swords, and would have had no practical use or economic value, the researchers said.
“Results show burials most commonly being reopened within about a generation of interment, and sometimes less,” the team wrote. “The most frequent time frame for reopening was after soft tissue decay, but before any wooden container had collapsed or become filled with sediment.”
Since it takes just a few years for bodies to rot in most conditions, “those graves were opened very soon after burial,” Klevnäs told.
Why people removed items from the graves is unknown, but the archaeologists believe the motivations probably varied from place to place. “Grave reopening became part of a repertoire of possible engagements with mortuary remains over a wide geographic area, but motivations were probably driven as much by local concerns as by broadly shared understandings of death and its rites,” the team wrote.
The fact that swords and brooches were often taken suggests some kind of symbolic motivation. “Swords and brooches are some of the most symbolically laden objects in the graves,” Klevnäs told Live Science in an email. “These were given as gifts and passed on as heirlooms; they’re objects used to link people, including across generations. They bring stories and memories. So it’s likely that they are retrieved for these reasons.”
The practice of reopening graves did not last long. “The reopening custom spread over western Europe from the later sixth century and reached a peak in the seventh century,” study co-author Astrid Noterman, a postdoctoral researcher at Stockholm University, said in the statement. “In most areas, it peters out in the later seventh century.”