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)

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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.

4.2 The Zevenbergen barrow cemetery in the medieval landscape

In political-geographical terms the Zevenbergen cemetery formed part of the Duchy of Brabant from the early 13th century onwards. It lay in the Meierij of ’s-Hertogenbosch, one of the six districts into which the Duchy was divided. In the course of the 13th century the Meierij itself was divided into five administrative units. The villages lying closest to the Zevenbergen cemetery - Oss, Berghem, Heesch and Nistelrode – then came to lie in what was termed the Kwartier Maasland (Van Asseldonk 2002, 72). The cemetery was situated in the gemeint (the southern equivalent of the marke of the province of Drenthe; see above): the uncultivated moors between Oss, Berghem, Heesch and Nistelrode. In spite of being uncultivated, such areas were of great economic importance to the local communities. They were used for pasturing cattle, cutting turfs and chopping wood (Van Asseldonk 2002, 159). Initially the Duke of Brabant held the rights to exploit the gemeint. In the late 13th and early 14th centuries these rights were however given on loan to the various villages on payment of a tax. From then onwards the wastelands were communal property. Oss and Berghem, which were in the 13th century still united in ecclesiastical and administrative terms, acquired their gemeint in 1286. Nistelrode followed in 1296 (Van Asseldonk 2002, 173).

The Zevenbergen barrows and the barrows surrounding the so-called Vorstengraf (‘Chieftain’s Burial’) of Oss a little further west will have been major landmarks in the vast moor that constituted the greater part of the gemeint between Oss, Berghem and Nistelrode in the Middle Ages. As such they also served as orientation points in the landscape, as can be inferred from the oldest known maps of this area: the 1794 map by Verhees (illustrated in Van Asseldonk 2002, fig. 41.3) and the 1809 map by Kraaijenhof (illustrated in Fokkens & Jansen 2004, 23). Medieval roads, which were often little more than a series of cart tracks, in principle ran along the shortest routes between orientation points: in the first place the church spires of individual villages, which will have been visible from afar, and secondly other striking landmarks in the landscape such as ancient trees, large boulders and barrows (Fokkens & Jansen 2004, 25). As can be seen in the maps by Verhees and Kraaijenhof, the road from ’s-Hertogenbosch to Grave ran straight onto the moor from Heesch, in the direction of what is indicated as ‘Hans Joppenberg’. This Hans Joppenberg has recently been identified as the large barrow in which the aforementioned Vorstengraf of Oss, a rich Early Iron Age burial, was discovered in 1933 (Fokkens & Jansen 2004). The road can be seen to bend at Hans Joppenberg, and it then continues along Zevenbergen straight ahead in the direction of Schaijk. Zevenbergen itself seems to have been the orientation point for the road from Nistelrode to Berghem and Oss. In Kraaijenhof’s map the Zevenbergen barrows lie precisely at the point where the road from Nistelrode forks, with the two branches heading towards Oss and Berghem.

During the archaeological excavation of the Zevenbergen cemetery, Early Modern cart tracks were found all over the site. They were oriented northwest-southeast and ran in the direction of the centres of Oss and Berghem, which in the open moor would have been recognisable by their church spires. The carts evidently avoided the largest barrows (barrows 2, 3, 6, 7 and 8) – the tracks unmistakably run around the mounds – but rode straight across the lower ones (barrows 9-12), which were by then probably no longer recognisable as such. It is not clear how old the cart tracks are, but they must predate the period 1809-1837, when the entire site was planted with pine trees (Van der Linde & Jansen 2009).


Figure 7 The medieval landscape around the Zevenbergen cemetery (barrows after Bourgeois 2004; roads and gemeint boundary after the 1794 map by Verhees; landweren (after Van der Linde 2007).

The Zevenbergen and Vorstengraf barrows had a second important role. They marked the boundary between the gemeint of Berghem and Oss on one side and that of Nistelrode on the other. At a time when boundaries were not yet accurately defined on maps, grateful use was made of dominant fixed elements in the landscape, such as barrows, to mark them. Like the road pattern, the boundary between the two complexes of wasteland in Verhees’ 1794 map probably also indicates the medieval boundaries. In this trajectory the boundary precisely follows the Zevenbergen row of barrows, so it must have coincided with the boundary between the gemeint of Oss and Berghem and that of Nistelrode. In the Middle Ages this area was intersected by another boundary. A little to the east of the barrows lay the boundary between the Meierij of ’s-Hertogenbosch, which formed part of the Duchy of Brabant, and the autonomous Land of Ravenstein, the territory of feudal lord of Ravenstein. In the 14th century this boundary was an important barrier because the Dukes of Brabant and Gelre had several power disputes in this autonomous area. At the end of the 14th century the boundary was physically marked by a landweer. Landweren were structures, often earthworks, with a primarily defensive function that were intended to protect an area against troops of hostile cavalry and bands of raiders that caused havoc in rural areas, in particular after the 14th century. At the Zevenbergen cemetery the landweer comprised an earthen bank, of which no traces remained, accompanied by a series of ditches and rows of posts (Van der Linde 2007; Brokamp 2007).

Several conclusions can be drawn with respect to the landscape context of the Zevenbergen gallows/execution site (fig. 7). The site was created by making use of the two highest burial mounds in a prehistoric cemetery, as a result of which the gallows would have been visible from a substantial distance in the then largely open moor. The site lay in the middle of the gemeint, far away from the village centres of Oss, Berghem, Heesch and Nistelrode, and in actual fact at the boundary of the gemeint of Oss/Berghem and that of Nistelrode. The cemetery lay close to the boundary between the Duchy of Brabant and the autonomous Land of Ravenstein. Although erected at boundaries and far away from the village centres, the gallows did stand at a crossroads and would have attracted plenty of attention.

4.3 Rijsbergen, municipality of Zundert (province of Noord-Brabant)

In the early 19th century several urns containing burnt bone were found near Rijsbergen during the construction of a new road that was to connect the nearby city of Breda to Antwerp. The urns have since disappeared and it is only thanks to a few brief reports that we know about them. From those reports it can be inferred that the urns must have dated from the Late Bronze Age to the end of the Iron Age and that they were found near the Fort Oranje campsite north of Rijsbergen. It is reasonable to assume that a prehistoric cemetery was disturbed at this site, which in the old reports is described as ‘an elevation on the moor’ (Verhagen 1994).

The area where the urns were found a point of contention in a 17th century boundary dispute between the villages of Rijsbergen and Hage (what is now Princenhage, municipality of Breda). The rulers of Hage asked the surveyor J.F. Herrebertus from Antwerp to draw a map to lend force to their claim. The map was duly published in 1690 under the heading of “Caerte figuratief van de limiete tussche De Haegh en Rijsberghen” (Figurative map of the boundary between Hage and Rijsbergen). It shows four mounds near the boundary between the two villages. Three of them are fairly low, probably natural elevations in a coversand ridge. The fourth mound, which Herrebertus refers to as ‘Stoffelenberg’, is higher and steeper than the other three. It lies along the ‘Oude Baan’, the old road from Breda to Antwerp that lay a little to the east of the new road, near the present-day Fort Oranje campsite. This makes it likely that this ‘Stoffelenberg’ is the site where, or near which, the prehistoric urns were found during the construction of the new road (Verhagen 1994).

The name ‘Stoffelenberg’ is based on an event that took place here long before the boundary dispute. In the 16th century a man named Stoffel, who had committed a crime in Rijsbergen, was beheaded on the mound. His corpse was then been displayed on a wheel at this site. The execution is illustrated on Herrebertus’s map (fig. 8).

On present evidence, it is not possible to determine whether Stoffelenberg was a prehistoric barrow. It is indeed possible, as Herrebertus drew a mound with relatively steep slopes, which are rare in the case of natural hills in this area. Furthermore, the urns imply that there was a prehistoric cemetery at this site and it is quite likely that such a cemetery would have contained one or more prehistoric barrows.

As far as its location in the medieval and later landscape is concerned, the same conclusions can be drawn for Stoffelenberg as listed above in relation to the Zevenbergen cemetery near Berghem. It is very likely that the Stoffelenberg execution site lay in a prehistoric cemetery far away from the village centres of Rijsbergen and Princenhage. The site lay along a thoroughfare at the boundary of two jurisdictions.


Figure 8 Stoffel’s beheading on Stoffelenberg near the scheydinghe (boundary) between Rijsbergen and Hage as illustrated on the 17th-century Caerte figuratief by the Antwerp surveyor Herrebertus (after Verhagen 1994).

4.4 Goirle, municipality of Tilburg (province of Noord-Brabant)

In 1937 the Department of Archaeology at Groningen University excavated a group of barrows near Goirle on a moor called ‘Rechte Heide’ under the supervision of A.E. van Giffen (Van Giffen 1937). The group was referred to by the toponym ‘Vijfberg’ (Five Mounds). One of the barrows (tumulus 2) yielded evidence in the form of medieval or Early Modern human skeletal remains showing that it had been used as a gallows/execution site. Unfortunately, the remains were not examined any further at the time. Van Giffen had heard old rumours claiming that Vijfberg had been used as a gallows/execution site, but in his report he does not specify the precise content of those rumours. They may have been partly based on the name of the moor on which the barrow group was situated. A map dating from 1792 shows this as “Regt Heide”, suggesting a connection between the site and rechtspraak, the Dutch term for the administration of justice.

In the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period, Vijfberg also lay in the gemeint, far away from occupation centres. The barrows lay close to the boundary between Goirle and Alphen.

4.5 Swalmen/Beesel, municipality of Roermond (province of Limburg)

In 1936-1938 and 1969-1979, teams from the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden, led by F.C. Bursch, and the Department of Archaeology of Groningen University, led by J.N. Lanting and J.D. van der Waals, investigated several groups of barrows near Swalmen and Beesel (Lanting & Van der Waals 1974). Of relevance here are the investigations of the groups of barrows at Swalmen-Bosheide and Swalmen-Hoogterras. From historical sources we know that both sites were in the past used as gallows/execution sites. However, only Swalmen-Hoogterras has yielded indisputable archaeological evidence of this.

Swalmen-Bosheide was originally the site of eight Late Neolithic barrows. Many of them (barrows 3,4,6 and 8) have disappeared over the centuries. The barrows were erected on the late glacial low terrace of the Meuse, at the foot of the high terrace. Mounds 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 lay fairly close together whereas the others were more isolated. The concentration of barrows lies near boundary post 425 marking the Dutch/German border. Although the two teams of excavators did not find any evidence to show that this site was used as a gallows/execution site, there is an old report suggesting that it was. At the end of the 19th century, labourers planting pines at this site found a skull along with some cervical vertebrae. The remains were still attached to an iron chain that would have been used to hang the body from a gallows or tie it to a wheel (Luys 1981; Giesen 2010b).


Figure 9 Swalmen-Hoogterras, barrow 5. Plan of the excavation showing the subrecent burial pit (marked by the arrow) and detail of the pit at two different levels (after Lanting & Van der Waals 1974, figure 22).

The Swalmen-Hoogterras group consists of eleven Bronze Age barrows prominently sited in the landscape, at the point where the valley of the Swalm intersects the Meuse high terrace, creating a narrow elevated tongue. On 19th-century maps this tongue and the barrows on it bear the toponym ‘Suvenberg’ (‘Seven Mounds’), although there are actually more than seven burial mounds. Ten barrows lie at the very tip of the tongue, the eleventh about 300 metres further north. On the western side the tongue is steeply sloped, the relief decreasing by about 10 metres across a relatively short distance. Five of the barrows (mounds 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5) lie in a row just above this steep slope (Lanting & Van der Waals 1974).

The 1937 excavation by the National Museum of Antiquities uncovered medieval or Early Modern human skeletal remains in barrow 3. Unfortunately no further information is available on these remains (Lanting & Van der Waals 1974, 37). The excavation of barrow 5 that was carried out by the Groningen Department of Archaeology in 1970 revealed a pit that had been dug into the centre of the barrow (fig. 9). It had clearly been dug from the top of the mound, but it could not be excavated in its entirety as it lay in the transverse section. Investigation of the pit did however show that it actually consisted of two separate pits. The largest contained a west-east (head-feet) oriented skeleton whose skull and top vertebrae were missing. The body was lying on its back. The skull and missing vertebrae were found in the second pit, which had been dug through the original burial pit more or less at the point of the pelvis. The human remains were found to derive from a young adult, probably a male. The skeleton’s condition suggested that the person in question had died by beheading, although a physical anthropologist was unable to find any unambiguous evidence of this (Lanting & Van der Waals 1974, 52).

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.