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

4.5 Swalmen/Beesel, municipality of Roermond (province of Limburg)

In 1936-1938 and 1969-1979, teams from the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden, led by F.C. Bursch, and the Department of Archaeology of Groningen University, led by J.N. Lanting and J.D. van der Waals, investigated several groups of barrows near Swalmen and Beesel (Lanting & Van der Waals 1974). Of relevance here are the investigations of the groups of barrows at Swalmen-Bosheide and Swalmen-Hoogterras. From historical sources we know that both sites were in the past used as gallows/execution sites. However, only Swalmen-Hoogterras has yielded indisputable archaeological evidence of this.

Swalmen-Bosheide was originally the site of eight Late Neolithic barrows. Many of them (barrows 3,4,6 and 8) have disappeared over the centuries. The barrows were erected on the late glacial low terrace of the Meuse, at the foot of the high terrace. Mounds 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 lay fairly close together whereas the others were more isolated. The concentration of barrows lies near boundary post 425 marking the Dutch/German border. Although the two teams of excavators did not find any evidence to show that this site was used as a gallows/execution site, there is an old report suggesting that it was. At the end of the 19th century, labourers planting pines at this site found a skull along with some cervical vertebrae. The remains were still attached to an iron chain that would have been used to hang the body from a gallows or tie it to a wheel (Luys 1981; Giesen 2010b).


Figure 9 Swalmen-Hoogterras, barrow 5. Plan of the excavation showing the subrecent burial pit (marked by the arrow) and detail of the pit at two different levels (after Lanting & Van der Waals 1974, figure 22).

The Swalmen-Hoogterras group consists of eleven Bronze Age barrows prominently sited in the landscape, at the point where the valley of the Swalm intersects the Meuse high terrace, creating a narrow elevated tongue. On 19th-century maps this tongue and the barrows on it bear the toponym ‘Suvenberg’ (‘Seven Mounds’), although there are actually more than seven burial mounds. Ten barrows lie at the very tip of the tongue, the eleventh about 300 metres further north. On the western side the tongue is steeply sloped, the relief decreasing by about 10 metres across a relatively short distance. Five of the barrows (mounds 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5) lie in a row just above this steep slope (Lanting & Van der Waals 1974).

The 1937 excavation by the National Museum of Antiquities uncovered medieval or Early Modern human skeletal remains in barrow 3. Unfortunately no further information is available on these remains (Lanting & Van der Waals 1974, 37). The excavation of barrow 5 that was carried out by the Groningen Department of Archaeology in 1970 revealed a pit that had been dug into the centre of the barrow (fig. 9). It had clearly been dug from the top of the mound, but it could not be excavated in its entirety as it lay in the transverse section. Investigation of the pit did however show that it actually consisted of two separate pits. The largest contained a west-east (head-feet) oriented skeleton whose skull and top vertebrae were missing. The body was lying on its back. The skull and missing vertebrae were found in the second pit, which had been dug through the original burial pit more or less at the point of the pelvis. The human remains were found to derive from a young adult, probably a male. The skeleton’s condition suggested that the person in question had died by beheading, although a physical anthropologist was unable to find any unambiguous evidence of this (Lanting & Van der Waals 1974, 52).