Journal of Archaeology in the Low Countries 2-2 (November 2010)Lucas Meurkens: The late medieval/Early Modern reuse of prehistoric barrows as execution sites in the southern part of the Netherlands
5 The afterlife of prehistoric barrows in the medieval Low Countries

5.2 The demonisation of prehistoric burial monuments

It was not until the High Middle Ages (11th-13th centuries), after the more or less complete Christianisation of society, that the perception of the prehistoric burial monuments changed drastically. This was a period of agricultural expansion and land reclamation during which the prehistoric cemeteries in the areas that were brought under cultivation were destroyed, both unintentionally and deliberately. In many cases prehistoric monuments survived as visible elements only in the peripheral parts of the landscape, the ‘wastelands’ between the villages.

This deliberate destruction of prehistoric burial monuments is associated with the expansion of Christianity, which now also reached other parts of the population besides the elite to which it had initially been largely restricted. This led to a transformation in the cosmological order of the local communities, who began to see the world around them in terms of an ‘inner circle’ and an ‘outer circle’ (Roymans 1995, 9-12). The inner circle comprised the part of the landscape that was organised and cultivated by humans, with the church at its centre. The outer circle consisted of the uncultivated wastelands, including moors and bogs, which had very negative connotations. The destruction of prehistoric cemeteries in the inner circle was not only the inevitable consequence of reclamations and economic expansion, but a deliberate policy to cleanse this zone of unchristian, pagan elements (Roymans 1995, 18-19). Only in the liminal parts of the outer circle, dangerous uncivilised areas where spirits and other demons resided, were the ancient barrows still tolerated. There they became surrounded by myths. They were the homes of goblins, witches and spirits, an ancient pagan world in stark contrast to the Christian village with its surrounding cultivated fields.

The rich folklore associated with prehistoric cemeteries and burial mounds implies that they had a strong symbolic meaning for the local farming communities. The myths surrounding the barrows contain numerous pagan elements suggesting that the prehistoric cemeteries were important sacred places for pagan religion before Christianisation (and probably a long time after). This may well explain why these places were demonised under the church’s influence, as can be inferred for example from the fact that non-Christian mythical creatures acquired ever more evil features. Pagan gods and goddesses were transformed into demons and witches. Interestingly, many of the myths associated with barrows featuring witches and cats (the latter being witches in a different form) contain the element of collective celebrations. The prehistoric cemeteries may have been places where people in pre-Christian times assembled for rites and religious celebrations (Roymans 1995, 15-17).

To return to the execution sites of the late Middle Ages and the Early Modern period, it is to such demonic places that criminals and other people who had forfeited their right to a Christian burial were banished. On the one hand, the burial of outcasts in the prehistoric cemeteries confirmed and enhanced the demonisation of these pagan sacred places (Roymans 1995, 16). And on the other, as already explained above, it formed a symbolic part of the punishment, banishing the convict from society for eternity. In this perception prehistoric barrows came to be the obvious places for executing convicts and displaying their corpses.