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
4 Prehistoric barrows reused as gallows hills: four sites in the southern part of the Netherlands

4.2 The Zevenbergen barrow cemetery in the medieval landscape

In political-geographical terms the Zevenbergen cemetery formed part of the Duchy of Brabant from the early 13th century onwards. It lay in the Meierij of ’s-Hertogenbosch, one of the six districts into which the Duchy was divided. In the course of the 13th century the Meierij itself was divided into five administrative units. The villages lying closest to the Zevenbergen cemetery - Oss, Berghem, Heesch and Nistelrode – then came to lie in what was termed the Kwartier Maasland (Van Asseldonk 2002, 72). The cemetery was situated in the gemeint (the southern equivalent of the marke of the province of Drenthe; see above): the uncultivated moors between Oss, Berghem, Heesch and Nistelrode. In spite of being uncultivated, such areas were of great economic importance to the local communities. They were used for pasturing cattle, cutting turfs and chopping wood (Van Asseldonk 2002, 159). Initially the Duke of Brabant held the rights to exploit the gemeint. In the late 13th and early 14th centuries these rights were however given on loan to the various villages on payment of a tax. From then onwards the wastelands were communal property. Oss and Berghem, which were in the 13th century still united in ecclesiastical and administrative terms, acquired their gemeint in 1286. Nistelrode followed in 1296 (Van Asseldonk 2002, 173).

The Zevenbergen barrows and the barrows surrounding the so-called Vorstengraf (‘Chieftain’s Burial’) of Oss a little further west will have been major landmarks in the vast moor that constituted the greater part of the gemeint between Oss, Berghem and Nistelrode in the Middle Ages. As such they also served as orientation points in the landscape, as can be inferred from the oldest known maps of this area: the 1794 map by Verhees (illustrated in Van Asseldonk 2002, fig. 41.3) and the 1809 map by Kraaijenhof (illustrated in Fokkens & Jansen 2004, 23). Medieval roads, which were often little more than a series of cart tracks, in principle ran along the shortest routes between orientation points: in the first place the church spires of individual villages, which will have been visible from afar, and secondly other striking landmarks in the landscape such as ancient trees, large boulders and barrows (Fokkens & Jansen 2004, 25). As can be seen in the maps by Verhees and Kraaijenhof, the road from ’s-Hertogenbosch to Grave ran straight onto the moor from Heesch, in the direction of what is indicated as ‘Hans Joppenberg’. This Hans Joppenberg has recently been identified as the large barrow in which the aforementioned Vorstengraf of Oss, a rich Early Iron Age burial, was discovered in 1933 (Fokkens & Jansen 2004). The road can be seen to bend at Hans Joppenberg, and it then continues along Zevenbergen straight ahead in the direction of Schaijk. Zevenbergen itself seems to have been the orientation point for the road from Nistelrode to Berghem and Oss. In Kraaijenhof’s map the Zevenbergen barrows lie precisely at the point where the road from Nistelrode forks, with the two branches heading towards Oss and Berghem.

During the archaeological excavation of the Zevenbergen cemetery, Early Modern cart tracks were found all over the site. They were oriented northwest-southeast and ran in the direction of the centres of Oss and Berghem, which in the open moor would have been recognisable by their church spires. The carts evidently avoided the largest barrows (barrows 2, 3, 6, 7 and 8) – the tracks unmistakably run around the mounds – but rode straight across the lower ones (barrows 9-12), which were by then probably no longer recognisable as such. It is not clear how old the cart tracks are, but they must predate the period 1809-1837, when the entire site was planted with pine trees (Van der Linde & Jansen 2009).


Figure 7 The medieval landscape around the Zevenbergen cemetery (barrows after Bourgeois 2004; roads and gemeint boundary after the 1794 map by Verhees; landweren (after Van der Linde 2007).

The Zevenbergen and Vorstengraf barrows had a second important role. They marked the boundary between the gemeint of Berghem and Oss on one side and that of Nistelrode on the other. At a time when boundaries were not yet accurately defined on maps, grateful use was made of dominant fixed elements in the landscape, such as barrows, to mark them. Like the road pattern, the boundary between the two complexes of wasteland in Verhees’ 1794 map probably also indicates the medieval boundaries. In this trajectory the boundary precisely follows the Zevenbergen row of barrows, so it must have coincided with the boundary between the gemeint of Oss and Berghem and that of Nistelrode. In the Middle Ages this area was intersected by another boundary. A little to the east of the barrows lay the boundary between the Meierij of ’s-Hertogenbosch, which formed part of the Duchy of Brabant, and the autonomous Land of Ravenstein, the territory of feudal lord of Ravenstein. In the 14th century this boundary was an important barrier because the Dukes of Brabant and Gelre had several power disputes in this autonomous area. At the end of the 14th century the boundary was physically marked by a landweer. Landweren were structures, often earthworks, with a primarily defensive function that were intended to protect an area against troops of hostile cavalry and bands of raiders that caused havoc in rural areas, in particular after the 14th century. At the Zevenbergen cemetery the landweer comprised an earthen bank, of which no traces remained, accompanied by a series of ditches and rows of posts (Van der Linde 2007; Brokamp 2007).

Several conclusions can be drawn with respect to the landscape context of the Zevenbergen gallows/execution site (fig. 7). The site was created by making use of the two highest burial mounds in a prehistoric cemetery, as a result of which the gallows would have been visible from a substantial distance in the then largely open moor. The site lay in the middle of the gemeint, far away from the village centres of Oss, Berghem, Heesch and Nistelrode, and in actual fact at the boundary of the gemeint of Oss/Berghem and that of Nistelrode. The cemetery lay close to the boundary between the Duchy of Brabant and the autonomous Land of Ravenstein. Although erected at boundaries and far away from the village centres, the gallows did stand at a crossroads and would have attracted plenty of attention.