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

5.1 Before Christianisation

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It would seem that attitudes towards prehistoric barrows were on the whole positive before the full Christianisation of society, which in the Netherlands occurred around the year 1000. There is hardly any archaeological evidence of a hostile attitude towards barrows to the south of the Rhine in the Roman and Merovingian periods (Roymans 1995, 9-12). In the Frankish areas in general there was even a brief revival in the erection and reuse of barrows after the mid-7th century, which is assumed to reflect deliberate use of pagan burial rites in reaction to the expansion of Christianity (Sippel 1980, 146). In the Saxon areas outside the Frankish Empire small cemeteries were often sited close to prehistoric barrows well into the 8th century, a custom that is generally associated with Saxon ancestor worship (Thäte 1996). This practice was indeed so common that the Carolingian emperor Charlemagne felt the need to issue a law to ban it when these areas were annexed to the Carolingian Empire at the end of the 8th century. This Capitulatio de partibus Saxoniae stipulates that Christian Saxons were from then onwards no longer to be buried ad tumulus paganorum but in Christian churchyards (Sippel 1980, 139). This is a first sign of a changing attitude towards the pagan barrows.

In the course of the Carolingian era new churches were founded in many places and the land was gradually divided into parishes. There is however still no clear evidence that prehistoric burial monuments were deliberately destroyed. On the whole they appear to have remained respected elements of the landscape (Roymans 1995, 9).

5.2 The demonisation of prehistoric burial monuments

It was not until the High Middle Ages (11th-13th centuries), after the more or less complete Christianisation of society, that the perception of the prehistoric burial monuments changed drastically. This was a period of agricultural expansion and land reclamation during which the prehistoric cemeteries in the areas that were brought under cultivation were destroyed, both unintentionally and deliberately. In many cases prehistoric monuments survived as visible elements only in the peripheral parts of the landscape, the ‘wastelands’ between the villages.

This deliberate destruction of prehistoric burial monuments is associated with the expansion of Christianity, which now also reached other parts of the population besides the elite to which it had initially been largely restricted. This led to a transformation in the cosmological order of the local communities, who began to see the world around them in terms of an ‘inner circle’ and an ‘outer circle’ (Roymans 1995, 9-12). The inner circle comprised the part of the landscape that was organised and cultivated by humans, with the church at its centre. The outer circle consisted of the uncultivated wastelands, including moors and bogs, which had very negative connotations. The destruction of prehistoric cemeteries in the inner circle was not only the inevitable consequence of reclamations and economic expansion, but a deliberate policy to cleanse this zone of unchristian, pagan elements (Roymans 1995, 18-19). Only in the liminal parts of the outer circle, dangerous uncivilised areas where spirits and other demons resided, were the ancient barrows still tolerated. There they became surrounded by myths. They were the homes of goblins, witches and spirits, an ancient pagan world in stark contrast to the Christian village with its surrounding cultivated fields.

The rich folklore associated with prehistoric cemeteries and burial mounds implies that they had a strong symbolic meaning for the local farming communities. The myths surrounding the barrows contain numerous pagan elements suggesting that the prehistoric cemeteries were important sacred places for pagan religion before Christianisation (and probably a long time after). This may well explain why these places were demonised under the church’s influence, as can be inferred for example from the fact that non-Christian mythical creatures acquired ever more evil features. Pagan gods and goddesses were transformed into demons and witches. Interestingly, many of the myths associated with barrows featuring witches and cats (the latter being witches in a different form) contain the element of collective celebrations. The prehistoric cemeteries may have been places where people in pre-Christian times assembled for rites and religious celebrations (Roymans 1995, 15-17).

To return to the execution sites of the late Middle Ages and the Early Modern period, it is to such demonic places that criminals and other people who had forfeited their right to a Christian burial were banished. On the one hand, the burial of outcasts in the prehistoric cemeteries confirmed and enhanced the demonisation of these pagan sacred places (Roymans 1995, 16). And on the other, as already explained above, it formed a symbolic part of the punishment, banishing the convict from society for eternity. In this perception prehistoric barrows came to be the obvious places for executing convicts and displaying their corpses.

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.