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, the grave pit is estimated to be at least 2.5 m by 1.5 m. 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.