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

1 Introduction

The past few years have seen an increasing interest among archaeologists in the reuse or reinterpretation of ancient monuments in the past (Bradley 2002; Roymans 1995; Williams 1997, 1998). The present article focuses on one specific form of such reuse, i.e. that in which ancient (mostly prehistoric) burial mounds were granted a second life in the Middle Ages and more recent times as gallows hills, execution sites and/or sites where the corpses of executed individuals were publicly displayed. In the Netherlands, many burial mounds that were reused for such a purpose can be identified on the basis of toponyms. Moreover, a recent inventory of more recent human skeletal remains from burial mounds in the province of Drenthe has shown that burial mounds without an immediately evident toponym may also have been used as execution sites (Luning & Van der Sanden 2010). The discovery of four late medieval burials of executed individuals in a prehistoric barrow cemetery near Berghem (province of Noord-Brabant) prompted an investigation of this phenomenon in the southern Dutch provinces of Noord-Brabant and Limburg, for which no surveys were yet available.


Figure 1 The sites mentioned in the text and in table 1.

The present article discusses the Berghem cemetery and three other sites in the southern part of the Netherlands that were reused as execution sites and/or sites for the public display of the corpses of executed individuals (fig. 1). It will first focus on the archaeological remains relating to this reuse, such as burials and remains of gallows structures. It will then consider the location of these sites in the medieval/Early Modern landscape and what this can tell us about the significance of such places in the periods concerned. Furthermore, I will discuss whether burial mounds were deliberately chosen for this reuse and what this tells us about the perception of prehistoric funerary monuments in the Middle Ages and later times. The presentation of the case studies will be preceded by a brief discussion of the practice of displaying the corpses of executed criminals, as was customary until 200 years ago.