Arrangement and Distribution of Grave Offerings in Princely Inhumation Graves from the First Half of the First Millennium AD in Northern and Central Europe
Jan Schuster 1  
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Instytut Archeologii Uniwersytetu Łódzkiego, ul. Uniwersytecka 3, 90-137 Łódź
Wiadomości Archeologiczne 2014;LXV(65):5–44
Arrangement and distribution of grave offerings in princely inhumation graves from the first half of the first millennium AD in northern and central Europe Summary In the richly furnished “princely graves” of the Roman Iron Age and the Migration Period we encounter a range of luxury objects imported from the territory of the Roman Empire, and often, also objects manufactured locally from precious metals or decorated with gold and silver, personal effects and animal bones remaining from the offerings of meat. In better documented inhumation graves of this group there is an evident system of distribution of the grave offerings, usually interpreted as an expression of the division of the sepulchral space into different “living” areas arranged for the buried individual. From this perspective all the elements of the grave furnishing are meant to serve the dead in the afterlife. In this article discussion is made of the construction and dimensions of princely graves as “containers” used in preserving the dead individual, its furnishings, and the meaning of selected elements of the grave goods are examined at more length. In the process emphasis is placed on the possible function played by individual elements found inside the grave, the question of whether they were arranged to suit the needs of the dead individual, their possible direct association with the deceased – because of the function they played during the burial ceremony. In other words: is a grave an expression of individual identity only, or possibly, of a group identity as well? In literature the phenomenon of princely graves has been examined in association with the concept of a grave chamber. In the case of richly furnished graves the term “chamber” is related to two matters: first, it stands for the construction which encloses a specific space, second, it is an architectural element, a structural stage setting for the dead body and objects deposited with it. The point is to situate the dead individual appropriately, but even more importantly, his or her possessions and grave offerings – in an arrangement in which they are needed during the burial ceremony and/or to the dead individual once the grave has been sealed – in the afterlife. If, during the Younger Roman Period it is common for the princely graves to have a grave chamber, analysis of their counterparts dating to the Early Roman Period shows that during this age in the Central and the Northern European Barbaricum grave chambers are rare. Pieces of furniture such as a bed, tables, chairs, etc. are also absent in graves built before the Younger Roman Iron Age. Possibly, this is evidence of the evolution of the idea of the princely grave within the Germanic Barbaricum very likely, inspired by Roman customs. The form and the construction design of the princely graves is not uniform. Next to classical chamber graves we can distinguish graves with a very large but flat chest-like coffin, graves with a burial deposited under the floor and graves with an extremely long grave pit. An interesting phenomenon, quite characteristic for princely graves, is the deposition of additional dress accessories in the grave. The presence of multiple sets of clothing or its elements is confirmed already for burials dated to phase B1. Not once, the dress accessories, like brooches, appeared to have been made specifically solely for the purpose of the funeral/burial. Their significance was only symbolic – they were meant to “glitter” during the presentation of the dead individual emphasizing its position. Other objects of this sort are also marks of status, e.g., neckrings and finger-rings. In a number of burials some of the dress accessories evidently had been treated differently from the rest, deposited inside pouches or caskets. The impression is that some of these “additional” brooches did not really have a utilitarian function but had been placed there for their precious metal, possibly as a symbol of power or status, or as a “personal treasure”. One of the principal features of princely graves is the presence of imported vessels in their inventory. The frequent recurrence of the same vessel forms, used within the Empire in making libations, has been explained by the adoption of the Mediterranean custom of symposion by the barbarian elites. In many Early Roman Iron Age graves bronze vessels have been found in an inverted position, as if to protect glass and silver vessels deposited under them, alternately, some vessels were placed inside other vessels – they were not meant to demonstrate the personal wealth of the buried individual, their arrangement was not prepared with the intention of making a status display. Things are somewhat different during the Younger Roman Iron Age, but we cannot be sure whether a given vessel is not a remnant of the funeral ceremony and feast held at the grave, so-called Totenmahl. After being used the vessels were ritually buried in the grave to protect them from desecration – perhaps also for this reason bronze vessels are often found wrapped in some way. As for the Roman silver cups, everything seems to indicate that they were adopted in the Germanic world as symbols used in the local system of status display; needless to say, this process was set off by contacts with the Roman Empire. The position inside princely graves of imported vessels and vessels of local manufacture does not indicate, at least not during the Early Roman Period, the adoption by the local elites of the tradition of the symposion. It seems that vessels made of bronze, silver and glass were more likely to play the role of marks of status and/or rank of the dead individual within the social hierarchy in the Barbaricum. One of the main features of princely graves from the Roman Period is supposed to be the absence of weapons. This argument is problematic as it assumes a close relationship between inhumation, the ritual of princely burial and the absence of weapons. Not only does it overlook the fact that some princely graves have contained weapons, but also that the absence or presence of weapons could have be dictated by local custom. In a territory where no weapons or only their small number is found in princely graves this is probably the consequent of more general rules prevailing there, known to us from egalitarian cemeteries. In interpreting the inventory of a princely grave it is worth bearing in mind that the furnishings of the grave not only reflect the prosperity of the dead individual but, to a great extent, perhaps even more so, that of his/her kin. We also need to note that the composition of the inventory, and how the dead individual was presented during the funeral ceremony, was decided by the remaining members of the kin group, descendants or heirs of the dead individual. During the burial ceremony the deceased was presented according to its rank and the one pretending to succeed to power presented himself as someone worthy of being the successor. The yet unsealed grave may be understood to have served as a stage for a symbolic piece of drama at a time of change then taking place in the social structure of the group.