Holwerda’s observations are valuable, but limited nonetheless. His foresight in lifting the grave, however, is what has allowed us to re-study the grave and to reconstruct the sequence of events as they unfolded almost five millennia ago.
Around 2500 BC (give or take a few centuries), a grave pit was dug and the edges were lined with planks. A small wooden burial chamber of modest dimensions was thus created. Several features in the vicinity of the burial chamber point to activities prior to the construction of the barrow. At least three post holes point to a construction standing close to the grave, the nature of which cannot be ascertained. Several long stretches of charcoal on the old surface indicate that a fire had burnt on the site before the barrow was built, perhaps representing the remains of burnt posts.
Within the grave the disarticulated bones of at least one individual were repositioned and carefully arranged in the northern part of the grave. The presence of the third tibia is difficult to interpret, was it placed in the grave by chance (they collected bones of what they thought was one individual, by chance mixing in a third) or was it a deliberate act? Admixture of additional bones is common when bones are defleshed and no longer easily recognisable. Either way the admixture of additional bones gives us insight into the way bones or the deceased were treated in the Late Neolithic.
Whatever the case, the body of a mature woman was then placed in the southern part of the grave. She was lying with her back to the disarticulated bones, her head oriented east-south-east looking south-south-west. Her body was placed on her left side, with her knees semi-flexed and her arms placed in front of her thorax. Several bones of a large mammal (a cow or a horse) were placed beneath the buttocks of the crouched burial.
Once the woman was placed in the grave the burial chamber was sealed off, creating a small open space. After several years, the chamber probably collapsed under the weight of the barrow, crushing at least one of the top lying long bones of the disarticulated remains.
The small burial chamber was probably not the only grave underneath the barrow. Another pitlined with stones was dug next to the burial chamber. At the bottom of this pit completely decomposed remains were found, probably representing a second primary grave.
Surrounding the grave, a palisaded trench was constructed, delineating the place where the barrow was to be built, whether or not the palisade was left in place is unsure. The traces of charcoal suggest that some form of wickerwork might have run through the posts, or that the posts themselves were set on fire. Once the palisaded trench was built, a barrow made up of loamy sand was erected on top of all the features, sealing off the primary graves.
It is only some 1500 years later that the barrow was re-used for burial and a pyre was constructed on the top of the barrow. Probably at the same time a large volume of cremation remains was placed in a pit dug on the top of the barrow.
The biography and the sequence of events that can be reconstructed from this barrow all point to the importance of a grave such as the Niersen burial to the understanding of burial ritual in the Late Neolithic. The exceptionally rare preservation of bones on the sandy uplands does not allow us many insights as to who exactly was buried in these graves. The disarticulated remains tell us that human bones were apparently manipulated (and carried around?) once the body had fully decomposed. At least in the case of the grave at Ottoland Kromme Elleboog, the disarticulated remains were from a person who had died at least a century before being placed in the grave alongside another person. Equally interesting are the animal bones found in the grave. Apparently cow bones, and probably horse bones did play a role in the burial ritual.
Both the grave and its position within the wider barrow landscape are unique in the Netherlands. Lying on a 6 km long barrow road, the Niersen barrow occupies prime position (fig. 7). A discussion on this linear formation would take us beyond the scope of this article, but is deserving of future interest.
Summing up, many avenues of research are opened up by the lifting and preservation of such a find. In the future, a CT scan of the grave will be taken, to recreate a complete 3D image of the burial, hopefully shedding some light on the bones still covered by the sediment. As has already been stated above, isotope analysis on the grave is still pending, but if successful, the results will shed light on dietary and locational aspects of the interments. In particular, the comparison between the two individuals would provide interesting insights into the composition of Late Neolithic society.