2.3 Rediscovery and attempts at modern analyses
The Niersen burial may have been moved to one of the safety depots during WWII, but it was only in 1960 that it was no longer on display, when the exhibition of Dutch antiquities had to be temporarily moved in view of construction works. It was no longer included in one of the later so-called permanent displays and has gradually escaped the attention of the subsequent curators (pers.comm. Prof. Dr Louwe Kooijmans). When a renewed interest in the grave arose as a result of the Ancestral Mounds project, it was thought that the grave had been lost over the years, in spite of the fact that it was an original archaeological object registered in the Museum inventory. An intensive search brought to light a crate which contained the Niersen burial. The crate, measuring 117 by 97 cm, is the original display box, painted white on the inside and is mentioned in Holwerda’s 1908 contribution (Pl. IIa).
Inside the crate, which was covered by a wooden board, a plaster block measuring 108.5 by 92.5 cm was preserved. The remains of the Niersen burial were visible under a thick coat of dust. Apparently the block had been damaged at some point when it was transported, since one of the long sides showed evidence of chipping and crumbling. It is likely the block was damaged when in upright position, either during display or transportation, perhaps during the evacuation of objects during WWII, when it was wedged to the side of the crate. Underneath the block several loose fragments of gypsum and bone were found. However, overall the burial had survived remarkably well (fig. 2).
One of the first actions after rediscovery was cleaning and documenting the burial. Cleaning took place under supervision of the RMO restoration department and much like a century before involved brushes and a vacuum cleaner. During cleaning loose bits and pieces were collected and documented in a 20 cm grid that had been fixed over the burial. It was noted that the whole burial was covered with at times rather copious quantities of glue. Drops of it were also recorded on the bottom of the crate, implying that consolidation had taken place right before or after initial display. A sample of the substance was sent to the laboratory of the Instituut Collectie Nederland (ICN) where it was analysed. As expected the bones seem to have been preserved in organic bone glue (pers. comm. Dr Luc Megens, ICN, July 22nd, 2009).
After initial cleaning, the team provided detailed photographs, a technical drawing and an initial physical anthropological assessment. The limited visibility of some of the bones and the smeared surface due to the glue prevented an adequate analysis of some of the lower lying bones. A view ‘inside’ the block seemed necessary. Assistance was provided by the special technical service of the Dutch National Police, who brought a mobile X-Ray scanner to the museum. This enabled a more detailed view of the layout of the grave. Some of the results of this research are incorporated below.
In view of the unique preservation of the burial and the fact that the bone glue had only affected the outer surface of the bones and the surrounding sediment, it was decided to sample the burial for physical and chemical analysis, up till now however with negative results. Previously fragmented pieces of bone from several locations were sampled and sent off for radiocarbon analysis and isotope research. Unfortunately the lack of sufficient collagen prevented a radiocarbon date (pers.comm. Prof. Dr J. van der Plicht, April 2009). The isotope analysis is still pending and may shed some light on dietary (oxygen, carbon and nitrogen isotopes) and locational (strontium isotopes) aspects (e.g. Haak et al. 2008). If successful, further sampling will involve both individuals as well as analysis of the dental elements. In addition some of the soil below the bones was sampled, to see whether palynological data could be obtained. Unfortunately no pollen was preserved in the sediment. This is generally the case in this type of subsoil. To establish genetic affiliations with contemporary and subsequent populations in the area, analysis of ancient DNA (aDNA) was considered. Mrs E. Altena (LUMC) was invited to assess whether aDNA analysis was feasible. After inspection of the grave she concluded that the preservation of the bone and the post excavation treatment strongly reduced the odds of success for aDNA analysis. Therefore no aDNA analysis was attempted.