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
4 Prehistoric barrows reused as gallows hills: four sites in the southern part of the Netherlands

4.1 Berghem, municipality of Oss (province of Noord-Brabant)

In 2004 and 2007 Archol BV and the University of Leiden excavated a prehistoric cemetery bearing the toponym Zevenbergen (‘Seven Mounds’) to the south of Berghem (Fokkens et al. 2009; Fontijn & Jansen in prep.). This excavation focused on several barrows dating from the Middle Bronze Age to the end of the Early Iron Age. Two barrows, i.e. barrow 2 (the 2004 excavation) and barrow 7 (the 2007 excavation), were found to contain evidence showing that they were reused as execution and/or gallows sites in the Middle Ages (Van der Linde & Jansen 2009; Meurkens 2007 [2]).


Figure 4 Zevenbergen, barrow 2. Simplified excavation plan showing rings of postholes, medieval burials and a post of what was probably a gallows structure (after Van Wijk et al. 2009, figure 6.5).

With its height of 1.20 metres, barrow 2 is one of the highest barrows in the cemetery. Its height is further accentuated by the fact that the mound was erected on one of the highest points in the natural landscape. This is a multi-period barrow first built in the Middle Bronze Age. At least two construction phases date from this period, both of which are associated with peripheral structures in the form of post circles. In the Iron Age the barrow was reused for the burial of an urn containing cremated remains. The clearest evidence relating to the medieval reuse of the barrow as a gallows hill was found on the western side of the mound: three burial pits whose patchy, untidy fills differed distinctly from the prehistoric features (fig. 4). One of the burials intersected the Middle Bronze Age post circle. The medieval burial pits were numbered in the field as burials 2, 3 and 4 and were excavated under the guidance of a physical anthropologist. Skeletal remains (poorly preserved) were only found in burials 3 and 4. The absence of skeletal remains in burial 2 is presumably attributable to the fact that this burial was less deep than the others, precluding the preservation of bones. As far as its shape and fill are concerned, this pit is however entirely comparable with the other burial pits (d’Hollosy 2009).

Burial 3 probably originally contained a complete body, but only the two legs, the right foot and part of the pelvis survived (figs 5a-b). Near the foot was a small bronze ring to which a piece of leather was attached – presumably from a shoe. The bones belonged to a young woman (aged at least 16) who was 166 ± 3.5 cm tall. She was buried on her left side with her legs slightly flexed and raised. The body was oriented south-north (head-feet) and seemed to have been deposited in the burial pit with little decorum. The pit was too small, as a result of which the body could only be buried in a flexed position.


Figure 5 Zevenbergen, barrow 2. Medieval burials (© Archol BV Leiden). a-b Burial 3, the detail showing a bronze shoe buckle (actual size). c Burial 4. This individual was buried with his hands tied behind his back.

The skeleton remains in burial 4 are better preserved than those in burial 3. It is that of a young adult male (at least 25 years old) who was 172 ± 5 cm tall (fig. 5c). Like the woman in burial 3, he was buried with little care. The man lay prostrate on his back, and with the floor of the pit being hollow, his pelvis lay deeper than his head and feet. The body was oriented more or less west-east (head-feet). An interesting aspect of this burial is that the bones of the hands were found lying beneath the body, suggesting that the man was buried with his hands bound and crossed behind his back.

These three burial pits are not the only more recent features that were found during the excavation of barrow 2. In different parts of the mound, but concentrated at the top, several deep pits were observed, one of which in particular caught the excavators’ attention. It was a posthole, with a width of 40 cm and an impressive depth of 130 cm, which had been dug into the top of the mound (fig. 6). This substantial depth suggests that the posthole contained a large post that would have projected several metres above the mound, most probably the post of a gallows structure. A wide variety of gallows structures were in use in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period. One of the simplest was a crossbeam between two upright posts on which the convicts were hanged (Jelgersma 1978, 13; Van der Sanden 2010, 14-15). That only one distinct posthole was observed during the excavation of barrow 2 may be attributable to the fact that this hole happened to be contained in one of the transverse sections exposed across the mound. Another possibility is that the post in question did not form part of a gallows but supported a wheel.


Figure 6 Zevenbergen, barrow 2. Cross-section of the posthole of what was probably a gallows structure in the centre of the mound. Graduation 25 cm (after Van der Linde & Jansen 2009, figure 7.5).

Barrow 7 also yielded evidence suggesting reuse as a gallows hill or execution site: a pit containing human bones in a clearly disarticulated state. Barrow 7 dates from the Early Iron Age. In this case, too, smart use was made of the natural relief to make the barrow look larger and higher than it actually was. The medieval burial pit was on the south side of the mound. Only part of it could be excavated because it lay precisely in one of the transverse sections. In terms of depth and fill it is comparable with the burials around barrow 2, only the bones were better preserved in this case. As the post-excavation work on the 2007 campaign is still in progress, no physical anthropological information on the individual(s) buried here is as yet available. Nevertheless, there are a few general observations that can be made with respect to this burial. The dislocated bones show that this was evidently not a formal burial. The body must have been in an advanced stage of decomposition when it was deposited in the burial pit in parts. So this may well be the body of a convict that was put on display for a long time before being buried at the foot of barrow 7.

We have two 14C dates for the medieval burials. Bones from burial 4 in barrow 2 yielded a date in the 13th or 14th century (Fokkens et al., 2009)[3], while the bones from barrow 7 were found to date from the 15th century (Fontijn & Jansen in prep.).[4] The Zevenbergen barrows were thus used as execution or gallows sites for a considerable length of time.