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

5.3 Barrows as sites marking boundaries and boundaries as execution sites

In spite of the negative connotations that prevailed from the High Middle Ages onwards, the barrows in the wastelands remained important landmarks. This is evident from the fact that they were used rationally to mark the boundaries of territories. An early reference to barrows as such boundary markers dating from around the year 780 is known from a charter describing the estates of Fulda Abbey (Germany), which refers to antiqua sepulchra. Other German sources refer to alte Gräber (ancient burials), Hünengräbern (megalithic tombs[5]) and Heidengräbern (heathen burials) in boundary charters (Sippel 1980, 139).

A comparable relationship between boundaries, (burial) mounds and gallows/execution sites has also been observed in the northern part of the Netherlands (Luning & Van der Sanden 2010). As far as the southern part of the country is concerned, in addition to the archaeological examples discussed in the present article we also know of various chronicles and other official documents revealing this relationship between burial mounds, execution sites and boundaries. There is for example a document from 1420 defining the boundaries between Vierlingsbeek and Sambeek into the Peel region. This document tells us that one boundary runs from a pit near a farm called “ten Henegot” to the mound (a barrow?), where old father Morren was hanged.[6]

A second example concerns an early 16th-century chronicle by Peter van Os (Van Lith-Droogleever Fortuijn et al. 1997). This is an exceptionally interesting passage as it may be a historical reference to the gallows of the Zevenbergen cemetery. Van Os writes that in 1365 a list was drawn up of the rights of the Duke of Brabant in the Land of Herpen (later known as Land of Ravenstein, see above). The chronicle quotes as evidence that in the early 14th century the boundary between the Land of Herpen and the village of Nistelrode was been defined under the supervision of the high sheriff of ‘s Hertogenbosch, Jan van den Plas.[7] Seven occupants of Nistelrode were selected to point out the boundary, and this they did as follows.[8] They walked from Nistelrode:

[..] to the Witte Scilbergen [mounds] and pointed to a post where Sir Jan, the aforementioned sheriff, had installed the gallows; the aforementioned seven men then walked on from the Witten Scilbergen to Dedweg [a road] and from Dedweg on to Slabroek and from there on to Hanenberg [another mound], from there to Sleekberg [yet another mound] and into the centre of Erpt.[9]

Many of the landmarks that are here referred to as boundary markers are ‘mounds’, probably artificially created elevations, so including burial mounds. We know for sure that there was an urnfield at Slabroek (Van Wijk & Jansen 2010). As noted above, the barrows near Berghem marked the boundary between the gemeint of Oss/Berghem and that of Nistelrode, but they also lay at the boundary between the Duchy of Brabant and the Land of Herpen (later Land of Ravenstein). This makes it very likely that the Zevenbergen cemetery was one of the landmarks pointed out by the seven occupants of Nistelrode. Insofar as their route can be reconstructed on the basis of surviving toponyms, the Witte Scilbergen (unfortunately the exact meaning of this toponym remains elusive) may very well relate to the Zevenbergen and Vorstengraf groups of barrows. In that case the reference to a gallows at this site, erected in the early 14th century by the high sheriff of ‘s-Hertogenbosch Jan van den Plas, could in fact relate to the gallows the remains of which were found during the excavation of the Zevenbergen cemetery.