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


The discovery of four Late Medieval burial pits containing executed individuals in a prehistoric barrow cemetery at Berghem prompted an investigation into the phenomenon of reusing prehistoric barrows as execution sites and/or sites for displaying the bodies of executed individuals. Based on an inventory of such reused sites, this discussion of this phenomenon in the southern part of the Netherlands supplements earlier studies centered on the northern part of the Netherlands. The focus of the present study was how the locations of execution sites relate to the medieval/Early Modern landscape. It was found that the majority of the sites lay along arterial roads and at the boundaries of territories, as previously also observed in the northern part of the Netherlands. Such locations were chosen partly for practical purposes, the gallows were intended to serve as deterrents and in those locations they would confront as many people as possible with the severity of the penal system in the area concerned. The locations concerned however also had a more symbolic meaning. Burying executed convicts at the boundaries of territories and outside the hallowed ground of a churchyard was a way of banishing them from the community for eternity.

A second important point in the discussion was the question why specifically barrows were reused for this purpose. This can likewise be explained in terms of practical considerations and symbolic meaning. Erected on an elevation, the gallows were visible from a great distance and afforded an impressive visual impact. At the same time the meaning that was assigned to barrows in the Middle Ages as places of evil will have strengthened the thought that these places were ideal for the burial of executed individuals and other outcasts. It should be added that not all gallows/execution sites were prehistoric barrows. In some cases a natural elevation was used or a new mound was constructed. As a mound is not practically necessary for the erection of a gallows, this construction of a new mound may even refer to the old custom of reusing a barrow for this purpose, the symbolic meaning of which may have been lost in later times.

The earliest gallows hills in the Netherlands date from the late Middle Ages. In historical sources they are mentioned for the first time in the first half of the 14th century (Anloo’s Galgenberg (Drenthe) ). The medieval burials at the Berghem cemetery yielded 14C dates between the 13th and 15th centuries. In the Duchy of Brabant these dates coincide with the introduction of stricter administration of justice as a result of the expansion of the central authority of the Duke of Brabant. The key principle of the stricter laws was the concept of retribution, with crimes being punished by a wide variety of corporal punishments. There are indications of the introduction of severe corporal punishments going hand in hand with the development of central authority elsewhere, for example in Anglo-Saxon England, where the appearance of separate cemeteries for executed criminals is associated with the establishment of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. An interesting point of study for future research would be to compare the appearance of execution sites in different northwest European countries, notably Germany, France and the Scandinavian countries. The neglect of these countries in favour of England in the above comparative discussion is partly due to the local situation being far less well studied than it is in England.


Table 1 Prehistoric, Roman and Early Medieval monuments associated with gallows/execution sites in the southern part of the Netherlands.

(see endnotes for information on archaeological aspects, historical sources and folklore/tradition; abbreviations: LNEO (Late Neolithic); BA (Bronze Age); MBA (Middle Bronze Age); LBA (Late Bronze Age); IA (Iron Age); EIA (Early Iron Age); RP (Roman Period); EMA (Early Middle Ages); Archis (Database of Dutch Archaeological Sites and Monuments); NMA (National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden) ).