Journal of Archaeology in the Low Countries 1-2 (November 2009)Quentin Bourgeois; Luc Amkreutz; Raphaël Panhuysen: The Niersen Beaker burial: A renewed study of a century-old excavation

4 A Re-evaluation of the grave and the burial mound

Holwerda’s excavation was one of the best in its time. It was not ideal, yet the documentation and material still allow us to rework and review his interpretations. Unfortunately no detailed excavation drawing is preserved, and the photographs available are cluttered or not detailed enough. This means that we must almost completely rely on Holwerda’s, at times sketchy, description of the finds. Luckily his observations on barrow G4 are the most extensive of all barrows in this group (barrow G7 only receives a single line of text), allowing us to reconstruct in some detail what Holwerda discovered.

What follows is a revised interpretation of the barrow with each relevant feature discussed, from top to bottom. In figure 5 we have attempted to reconstruct a schematic section of the barrow on the basis of Holwerda’s observations, his photographs and his published excavation drawing. Holwerda made references to two levels in his excavation for the measurement of the depth of features, the first one is the top of the mound, the second one is the ‘ground level’ or begane grond, i.e. the present day surface next to the mound. Holwerda mentions that the mound was 1.65 m high, which implies that both levels are 165 cm apart.


Fig. 5: A schematic profile of the Niersen barrow. a: Fragments of charcoal; b: destroyed part of the barrow; c: the cobble floor under the barrow; d: Large upright stone; e: decomposed organic matter; f: features of which the exact dimensions are unknown; g: cremation remains; h: skeletal remains (for the colour codes see figure 3).

4.1 The burial mound

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The barrow was 18 m in diameter and approximately 1.65 m high.[3] The eastern part of the barrow had been partly excavated, but this damage seems rather restricted. The mound itself was built of red-yellow loamy sand intermixed with some charcoal. Since Holwerda specifically noted the rather loamy nature of the barrow, this would indicate that it was probably loamier than other barrows. This may partially explain why these skeletons were preserved at all. Apparently the conditions below some barrows on the ice-pushed ridge of the Veluwe were relatively favourable for the preservation of skeletal remains and remains of inhumations were discovered underneath several barrows.[4] However, only one of these (Speulde) was lifted and preserved for future generations. The others were exposed and drawn in the field and thus decomposed rapidly.

It is unclear whether or not the barrow was erected in one single period. No mention is made of multiple layers and Holwerda describes the barrow as one homogenous unit. We therefore suppose that the barrow was erected in one single event. The description of the profiles of barrows G5 and D4 (Holwerda 1908, 7-8 and 11 respectively) indicates that if distinct multiple mound-periods were present, he may have observed them, although maybe not recognized them as such.

Holwerda implicitly assumed that the present day surface outside the barrow was also the level of the old surface underneath the barrow. He therefore situates the old surface at 1.65 m below the top. However, features which would normally become visible under the barrow indicate that the old surface was about 15 cm higher. At that level the first traces of a palisaded ditch were discovered and an oval discolouration indicated the presence of the primary grave.

The cobble floor mentioned by Holwerda probably originated due to cryogenic sorting of the sediment and is not an anthropogenic feature. Several old and new barrow excavations in the region show a similar feature (cf. Holwerda 1910, 5-7; Fontijn in prep.; Arnoldussen et al. 2008, 181).

4.2 Secondary graves

The first feature Holwerda encountered was ‘a big lump of burnt bones’, a cremation grave dug into the top of the barrow (Feature 1). In all likelihood this represents a secondary grave, from a much later date, dug into the already existing barrow. The barrows D1-4 at nearby Dobbe Gelle, described in the same article, show similar types of graves. There the associated pottery and a bronze pair of tweezers suggest a date in the Late Bronze Age or Early Iron Age (cf. Jockenhövel 1980, 58). It appears that the cremation remains were not preserved after the excavation, at least no mention of them is made in the inventory lists.

Close to this grave Holwerda found a large patch of charcoal (F2), although it was already partly destroyed. A sherd found close by was dated as ‘Germanic’ i.e. Iron Age. Unfortunately the sherd can now no longer be traced. The patch of charcoal may represent the remnants of a funerary pyre, as has also been seen at barrow D4 (Holwerda 1908, 11), and barrow 3 at Apeldoorn-Wieselse weg (Fontijn in prep.).


Fig. 6 The redrawn excavation plan of the Niersen barrow (after Holwerda 1908, Pl.I.2). The scale is estimated on the dimensions of the surrounding feature and the length of the skeletons drawn by Holwerda. The correct position of the skeletons is depicted here. a: stretches of charcoal; b: estimated destroyed part of the barrow; c: anthropogenic features; d: large stones; e: estimated position of the surrounding feature; f: circumference of the total barrow as given by Holwerda; g: skeletal remains (for the colour codes see figure 3).

4.3 The surrounding feature

The next feature Holwerda describes is the surrounding feature of the primary mound period (F3, fig.6). At a depth of 1.5 m below the top of the mound, thus at the level of the old surface, a ‘burnt strip’ was found with a circumference of about 10 m. In all likelihood, the burnt feature Holwerda describes was an orange-reddish discolouration typical for soil features in the region (Fontijn & Van der Linde in prep). In this case we are dealing with a trench under the foot of the primary barrow. At some places the outer edges of the ditch are said to have been lined with charcoal, creating two concentric circles 60 cm apart. That it really was charcoal is supported by one of the barrows at nearby Vaassen, where tumulus III also had a 3 m long stretch of charcoal in the fill of the ditch (cf. Lanting & Van der Waals 1971, fig.9). These charcoal stretches give us the approximate width of the ditch. The depth of the feature is not mentioned.

The lines of charcoal probably represent the outer sides of superficially charred posts or burnt wickerwork running in between posts. Holwerda also mentions that at regular intervals, the soil was burnt more intensely than in other places. In our opinion this may indicate that posts had stood in this trench, as these would show a different discolouration than the fill of the ditch. Palisaded ditches are commonly found around Neolithic barrows in the region (cf. Vaassen, tumulus I and III, Lanting & Van der Waals 1971; or Emst Hertekamp, tumulus 5, Holwerda 1910, 8-9).

Holwerda’s description and reconstruction of the barrow is, however, not without problems. The trench would have had posts which stood upright, creating a wooden cylinder, not much unlike the reconstruction suggested by Modderman (1984, 57; for a similar reconstruction see Lawson 2007, 168). That the barrow represents the remains of a collapsed house or roof (Holwerda 1908, 16) can be refuted since the area within the palisaded trench would have been filled in with sods and sand. Whether or not the palisaded trench would have been pulled out before the barrow was erected is still subject to debate (cf. Lanting 2008, 62). Either way a barrow was built on top of the grave.

4.4 A wooden burial chamber

The first traces of the primary grave were observed at the level of the old surface (i.e. 15 cm above the ground level, cf. supra). The grave itself consisted of a rectangular pit with rounded corners (F4). The first traces of the skeleton were discovered 30 cm below the surface (or 45 cm below the actual old surface). Since the skeletal remains are at least 15 cm thick, the grave pit must have been dug at least 60 cm into the old surface. On the basis of the small excavation plan,[5] the grave pit is estimated to be at least 2.5 m by 1.5 m.[6] Holwerda mentions that the sides of the pit were burnt, but in all likelihood the traces of discolouration he observed were the remnants of a burial chamber or planks supporting the sides of the pit. It is uncertain whether or not these planks were burnt, effectively leaving charcoal, or that only a discolouration was visible.

The sequence of events which can be established from the current data prior to the construction of the barrow is as follows. First a pit was dug 60 cm beneath the old surface, the sides of which were lined with wooden planks. Whether or not the bottom was also covered with planks is unknown, although this occasionally occurs in some Late Neolithic graves (Lanting 2008, 61). This construction in effect created a small open burial chamber, 2.5 by 1.5 m wide, and 50-60 cm deep.

Open burial chambers are rarely attested in Late Neolithic burials. In most cases the discovered remains were either too badly preserved to draw these conclusions or they were not thoroughly excavated. Open burial chambers can sometimes be identified at sites with good preservation conditions for skeletal material and where good excavation techniques were employed. Grave I at Molenaarsgraaf showed a similar burial construction (Louwe Kooijmans 1974, 243-249). There, a boy aged 15 was buried inside a wooden burial chamber, probably after choking on the fin ray of a pike. Post-mortem, the skull rolled away from the body, which is only possible if the burial chamber was open during the decomposition of the body.

At Niersen, the displacement of the skull of the crouched inhumation is also indicative of an open burial chamber (cf. supra). The position of the woman’s head is a difficult matter to interpret. Either it was already detached from the body, and placed some distance away from the shoulders, or, as we think is more likely, the skull moved away due to taphonomic reasons and was displaced at least 25 cm from where we expected it to be. Corroborating the latter scenario would be the observation that one of the long bones lying on top of the disarticulated deposition is completely shattered, suggesting that the roof of the chamber collapsed on top of the bones. The bones lying on the bottom of the grave are then better preserved, but the top ones, receiving the full blow, were more heavily damaged. Although several other bones also show post-mortem breakages, it is difficult to attribute these to the collapsing of the roof. They might also have occurred during the recovery of the grave and its subsequent transport. Another argument in favour of an open burial chamber would be the observation that when a body decomposes in an open space, the decomposition is intensified and bones from the thorax survive very badly. Longbones and the skull are usually the best preserved parts, as is the case with the woman’s remains (Panhuysen 2005, 126-130). All in all, the evidence would point to an open burial chamber, rather than intervention in the grave (of which no clear cut trace can be seen in the soil), or an already detached skull.

Once the burial chamber was constructed the deceased were placed in it, including the disarticulated remains of at least one individual and the inhumation of a female. The following two scenarios can be suggested for the activities at the site:

The burial chamber remained accessible for a long time (several years), while people buried at least two individuals in it. The older decomposed bones were moved aside to make room for the new skeleton.

The burial chamber represents a single event, in which the decomposed bones of at least two individuals were collected from elsewhere and subsequently placed in a burial chamber together with a recently deceased woman (the crouched inhumation).

Whatever may have been the case, the disarticulated bones were first placed in the grave. Both the position of the bones as can be observed on the present surface of the burial, as well as the information from the radiographs indicate that the crouched inhumation was stratigraphically placed over the disarticulated deposition, and thus the last person to be deposited in the burial chamber.

The disarticulated bones were not ‘shoved aside’ as Holwerda claims, but picked up and carefully positioned in a bundle, where at least one femur was placed inside a mandible, with the other bones placed next to it. The skull and a fragment of the pelvis were placed to the west of the bundle. It is impossible to say whether or not the disarticulated bones decomposed here in the grave, or if they decomposed elsewhere and were brought to the grave at the moment of burial of the crouched inhumation. At least some of the bones are more robust than the female, which might suggest that we are dealing with the bones of at least one male (cf.supra).

After the disarticulated bones were placed in the grave, the inhumation of a mature woman (40 years or older) was added. She was lying on her left side with her head oriented towards the east-south-east, facing south-south-west. Her legs were drawn up in a semi-flexed position and her arms were placed in front of her thorax, a classical Hocker-position.

As far as we know, no grave goods were found in the grave, although Holwerda does mention a small fragment of pottery. The fragment was re-traced (e1908/1.21), but is so small and weathered that it is very likely that the find was made in a secondary position. Below the pelvis of the crouched inhumation, two animal bones could be identified. One of these is the metapodal of a large mammal, a cow or horse (cf. supra), the other could not be identified. These bones must have been intentionally deposited in the grave pit and might be considered as a grave gift.

After deposition of the crouched inhumation, the burial chamber was sealed and a barrow was constructed on top of the grave.

4.5 A second primary grave?

Another pit was discovered to the south-east of the burial. The pit was lined with stones, one of these can be seen standing upright in one of the photographs (Holwerda 1908, pl.I-1). Holwerda claims that this stone was partially weathered, although re-examination of this stone at the museum does not indicate any such weathering. The stone is weathered on one side and less on the other. It is clear that the stone (e1908/1.24; dimensions: L. 59 cm x W. 27 cm x T. 16 cm, weighing 41 kg), stood on the side of the pit, yet how far it protruded above the old surface is difficult to say. The other stones with which the pit was lined were not collected. The dimensions of the pit can be estimated at 0.5 m by 1.5 m, although the depth of the pit is unknown. Holwerda mentions that the feature contained the unrecognisable remains of some decomposed matter. Whether we are dealing with another grave pit containing the completely decomposed remains of an inhumation, or a pit, perhaps unrelated to the barrow, containing some other type of material is unclear. Grave pits lined with stones do occur in Late Neolithic contexts (e.g. Eext Kerkweg tumulus 3, Lanting 1973, 270-271; Diever, tumulus 1, Lanting 2008, 173-177).

4.6 Pre-barrow activities?

To the east of the wooden burial chamber three post holes were discovered, although Holwerda does not clarify their function. They were covered by the barrow, although it is unclear whether they are related to the burial ritual. No structure can be inferred from these three posts but the mound was partly dug away in that section. Another option is that they are not related to the barrow and the burial activities taking place. In that case they may belong to settlement activities on the site prior to its function as a burial place. 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? Whatever the case, before the barrow was erected, several activities took place on the site, including the building of a construction and the burning of long posts.

Pottery found the year after the excavation indicates that the site may have been used as a domestic site in the funnel beaker (TRB) period. Many sherds belonging to multiple vessels were discovered during the ploughing of the terrain close to the barrow, including at least twenty TRB-sherds and possibly many more.

Together with the TRB-pottery, many other sherds were discovered. Next to several hundreds of undecorated sherds of pot-grit tempered pottery, two groups of decorated sherds can be identified. They belong to two large pot-beakers. Only parts of the rim and the body are preserved, no bottom sherds were found, indicating that they were probably deposited upside down (Lehmann 1965). Whether or not these activities are contemporaneous with the barrow is unknown, but the presence of pot-beakers close to barrows has been noted before. Possibly, we are dealing with a different type of burial ritual contemporaneous with the construction of the barrows (Louwe Kooijmans 1974, 291-292).

4.7 Dating of the barrow and the burials

In general it can be assumed that the grave dates to the Late Neolithic, the combination of the crouched burial, the east-west orientation of the female and the palisaded trench surrounding the grave are all typical for the Late Neolithic[7] in the region (Lanting & Van der Waals 1976). However, the exact dating of the barrow and its primary grave is proving difficult. No charcoal was preserved in the lifted grave and attempts at radiocarbon dating the skeleton have so far proven futile. There are no inorganic grave gifts. Only a tiny fragment of pottery was found in the fill of the grave. Holwerda claims that it is a fragment of a beaker vessel, but it is so small that nothing can be said of its age, neither of its association with the grave. The quartz-temper and two nail-impressions, however, do not oppose a Late Neolithic date.

Two sherds of a Veluwe Bell beaker were found in the mound, but their exact position is unknown, so their relevance for dating the barrow is limited. They may have been brought up with material used in the construction of the mound and thus give a terminus post quem, or they may have been deposited on top of the already existing barrow and thus deliver a terminus ante quem (cf. Van Giffen’s extensive critique, 1930, 144-154).

The large cremation grave that was dug into the barrow delivers a more reliable terminus ante quem. This practice is dated to the Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age. The cremation remains were not preserved and could thus not be directly dated.

The orientation of the grave is no help either, since west-east orientation occurs throughout the Beaker period (e.g. Lanting 2008, 35, 60). The Hocker-position of the crouched inhumation (lying on its side, with the arms in front of the body and the knees drawn up at a right angle to the body) is also typical during the entire Beaker period.

The repositioning of secondary decomposed remains in the same grave is, albeit extremely rare, not unknown. In a Bell Beaker grave at Ottoland-Kromme Elleboog, a skeleton was found with its head orientated to the east and facing south. At the feet of the skeleton, a bundle of longbones belonging to a second individual was found (Louwe Kooijmans 1974, 312). The similarity between both graves is striking. A radiocarbon date of the disarticulated longbones from the Ottoland burial, places it between 2450 and 2140 cal. BC (GrN-6384; 3820±45BP; Louwe Kooijmans 1974, 312). Recently a new radiocarbon date was obtained from the skeleton which can be dated between 2280 – 1955 cal. BC (GrA-15919; Lanting & Van der Plicht 1999/2000, 92). In this case it would thus seem that the disarticulated bones belonged to at least one individual who had died roughly a century before being placed in the grave pit.

Equally rare is the deposition of faunal remains within grave pits, which are rarely well documented. At Emst-Hanendorp tumulus II, Holwerda (1911, 19) discovered the skull of a cow (he interpreted it as a horse, but close inspection of the glass negatives of the photograph of the object, kept at the RMO, reveals the specific dental patterns of a cow; Wentink in prep.). In the grave, an All Over Ornamented beaker was found, together with a smaller beaker, a Grand-Pressigny dagger and several flint flakes, allowing the grave to be dated to the period 2600–2450 BC (Lanting & Van der Plicht 1999/2000, 81). The grave is interesting in its own right, since it is part of the so-called Bell Beaker road (Bakker 1976) on which the barrow of Niersen is also situated. The Emst barrow lies some 3 km to the north of the Niersen barrow.

At Garderen-Solsche Berg, also on the Veluwe, the silhouette of a large mammal (probably a cow) was found in a grave pit under a barrow (Bursch 1933, 69-70). The primary grave was associated with a GP-dagger, a flint axe and amber beads, dating the grave to the second half of the Late Neolithic A. Faunal remains deposited in graves also occur in later Beaker contexts (cf. Zeijen and Molenaarsgraaf; Louwe Kooijmans 1974, 321-323).

Indirect dating evidence comes from parallels in the structure of the grave and the surrounding feature. Reliable parallels for palisaded ditches are found all over the Netherlands, dating to the second half of the Late Neolithic A (cf. Eext, Van Giffen 1939, 6-8) or the earlier half of the Late Neolithic B (e.g. Lunteren-Vlooienpol, Bloemers 1981, 49; Bennekom-Kwade Oord, Van Giffen 1954).

Rectangular large grave pits, with planks lining the edge of the pit, occur in the same period (N=23). Two such graves at Anlo were radiocarbon dated to the Single Grave culture (grave A and E, Waterbolk 1960, Jager 1985, fig. 22). A three-period barrow at Mol (Belgium) had three maritime Bell Beakers in its primary grave. A patch of charcoal on top of the (primary) barrow was dated between 2565 and 2300 cal. BC. Molenaarsgraaf grave I is also a close parallel, but dates several centuries later, between 2130 and 1900 cal. BC (Louwe Kooijmans 1974, 249).

The Niersen grave can thus, on the basis of parallels, be dated to the Late Neolithic. It might be possible to refine this dating range to 2600 till 2200 BC, if we combine the evidence of the surrounding feature, the grave pit, and the parallels for animal burials and secondary depositions. However, this is only a suggestion; direct dating of the grave would of course be preferable. If the conservation conditions permit it, radiocarbon dating of teeth enamel will be attempted in the future.