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
4.6 The barrow cemeteries in the medieval/Early Modern landscape (fig. 10)

Swalmen and Beesel have a complex political and geographical history. After the end of the 13th century the two villages both belonged to the County of Gelre (the Duchy of Gelre after the 14th century). The villages lay in the administrative district of Ambt Monfort, which formed part of the ‘Overkwartier of Gelre’, one of the four districts that together constituted the Duchy of Gelre. From the mid-16th until the early 19th century the villages were subsequently under Spanish, Austrian (only Swalmen), French and finally Dutch control. In the Middle Ages the territories of both villages bordered the Duchy of Jülich to the east (more or less along the present Dutch/German border) (Giesen 2010a; 2010b).

From historical sources we know that the Swalmen-Bosheide group of barrows was the site of the gallows/execution site of Beesel. The site is also known as ‘Grietjens Gericht’. This toponym probably relates to the execution of one Margareta Gysberts, who was sentenced to death in 1651 for murdering her newly born baby. Margareta was beheaded and her body was displayed on a wheel (Luys 1981).

This execution site lay far away from the town centre of Beesel, in the gemeint that was collectively exploited for gathering wood, cutting turfs and pasturing cattle. The area consisted largely of wetlands and moors. Grietjens Gericht also lay at the boundary between Beesel and Swalmen and at the boundary between the Duchies of Gelre and Jülich. The present Dutch/German border also runs through this group of barrows, with border post 425 being positioned on barrow 6. On 17th-century maps the gallows/execution site can be seen to lie at a crossroads, the point where Grensweg (marking the boundary between Beesel and Swalmen) intersects Prinsendijk (along the Gelre/Jülich boundary). The course of Prinsendijk, also referred to as Steenweg and Keizer Karelsweg, largely coincides with that of the Roman road from Xanten to Heerlen (De Groot & Prangsma 2008; Giesen 2010b).

Before the Swalmen-Hoogterras group of barrows was reused as the gallows/execution site for Swalmen, the execution site was located elsewhere, or perhaps Swalmen had two gallows/execution sites. A map drawn by Muliex in 1662 shows an execution site at a point at which Rijksweg-Noord intersects Grensweg in the southwesternmost part of the territory of Swalmen (Giesen 2010a). There are two mounds here which are assumed to be barrows, Swalmen-Turfheide tumuli 1 and 2 (Lanting & Van der Waals 1974). These mounds have however never been excavated, so in this case there is no archaeological evidence to validate the historical sources. This site also lies along a thoroughfare and at the boundary of two jurisdictions (in the 18th century one of the barrows at this site bore a shield marking the boundary between Austrian (Swalmen) and Dutch (Beesel) territory (Giesen 2010a) ). And once again the site lay in the collectively exploited wastelands, in this case also close to the landweer ‘Wolfsgraaf’, which according to historical sources was constructed before 1457 (Luys 1983; Brokamp 2007, 133).


Figure 10 The medieval/early modern landscape surrounding the cemeteries of Swalmen-Bosheide (A), Swalmen-Turfheide (B) and Swalmen-Hoogterras (C). (barrows after Lanting & Van der Waals 1974 (figures 2 and 16); roads and boundaries after Lanting & Van der Waals 1974 (figure 1); Roman road after De Groot & Prangsma 2008, figure 10; landweren after Brokamp 2007, figure 50).

From an anonymous map indicating the Swamer Galgenberg we know that the site of the Swalmen-Hoogterras barrows was being used for executions in the second half of the 17th century. The map, which is actually little more than a simple drawing, shows a mound surrounded by some smaller mounds, presumably barrows (Giesen 2010a). On the gallows hill are a wheel and a gallows structure comprising two posts. The map shows the site at a conspicuous point in the landscape, on a high tongue to the north of the river Swalm. In the Middle ages/Early Modern period the site lay in the gemeint of Swalmen, at the boundary between Swalmen and Brüggen, which also formed the boundary between the Duchies of Gelre and Jülich. It must have been clearly visible from the thoroughfare between Swalmen and Brüggen. As can be inferred from the aforementioned anonymous map, part of the Roman road in the territory of Swalmen was still in use in this period. The map shows a road running along the foot of the high terrace called ‘Keizer Karelsweg’ (the continuation of Beesel’s Prinsendijk). Unlike the Roman road, which continued across the river Swalm, ‘Keizer Karelsweg’ stops just north of the river, where it probably joined Bosstraat. Close by was also another stretch of the aforementioned ‘Wolfsgraaf’ landweer (Luys 1983). So the execution site at the Swalmen-Hoogterras barrows also lay in a kind of no man’s land, along arterial roads and at the boundaries of territories.

The examples presented above show that there are several ways of determining whether a barrow was used as an execution site, such as archaeological remains, historical sources or toponyms. In very few cases do we have all forms of evidence together. Even so, a literature review has shown that there were more such sites in the southern part of the Netherlands. The identified sites are summarised in table 1 (see also fig. 1). Insofar as can be ascertained, many of these sites lay close to a road or at the boundaries of territories. The following section will discuss another characteristic of these sites, namely that many of them are barrows specifically reused for this purpose. The focus will be on the perception of these monuments in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period.