Journal of Archaeology in the Low Countries 1-2 (November 2009)Quentin Bourgeois; Luc Amkreutz; Raphaël Panhuysen: The Niersen Beaker burial: A renewed study of a century-old excavation

2 Discovery and rediscovery

In the summer of 1907, Dr Jan Hendrik Holwerda, curator and later director of the National Museum of Antiquities, was invited by HM Queen Wilhelmina to investigate several burial mounds in the vicinity of Niersen, at her estate on the Veluwe (Holwerda 1908). The year before Holwerda had received a similar invitation on her behalf to investigate barrows on the Royal Estate at Hoog-Soeren (Holwerda 1907). Apparently archaeology and the relics from the past in general were of special interest to Her Majesty (Van der Waals 1973; see also Holwerda 1909, 320).

2.1 In Her Majesty’s service: discovery

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Holwerda arrived at the Royal Estate in the summer of 1907. He was allowed to investigate eleven burial mounds at two locations, labelled G1-7 and D1-4. Holwerda noted that three of the mounds (G1-3) had already fallen victim to ‘urn diggers’, and directed most of his attention to mound G4. Holwerda (1908) is not explicit on the methods and strategy he used to excavate mound G4. Based on his description, some of the drawings and photographs, and the excavation data of mounds G5 and D4, it is likely that he excavated the mound in layers, occasionally preserving one profile bank across the mound (e.g. Holwerda 1908, Pl. III.1). It is certain that he cleared away all larger sections when he encountered the first traces of the grave and completely opened up the area of the entire mound (ibid., Pl. I.1a). After removing the surface and top layers of the mound, during which he uncovered several secondary interments, Holwerda discovered a large circular feature consisting of charcoal and following the contours of the hill. He interpreted it as belonging to a burnt cylindrical construction on top of the original graves. In addition, he found a pavement of cobbles below the entire burial mound which, according to him, were placed there on purpose. In the centre, there was a large upright stone, of c. 60 cm in length, partially protruding from the cobble pavement, marking the area of a possible second primary interment (cf. infra). He then describes the primary grave (Holwerda 1908, 4-7), which he, not bereft of any enthusiasm, characterizes as a find of a highly rare nature and extreme importance. In the midst of the cobble floor, he identified an ovoid area devoid of stones and ‘surrounded by a burnt lining’,[1] which he interpreted as a burnt wooden fence marking off a small burial pit. Inside the pit at a depth of c. 30 cm below the cobble floor, the remains of two interments were discovered. Holwerda alerted local physician Dr Hanedoes van Almkerk from nearby Vaassen, who made a preliminary assessment of the burial. He described several of the most important bones that were visible. The description is of importance since it is the only field assessment of the skeletal elements that were visible from above, which was subsequently sealed by plaster.

Holwerda interpreted the observed features and in effect the complete barrow as the remains of a collapsed mortuary house. A photograph of a model was added to the article, the model itself was sent to Her Royal Majesty, Queen Wilhelmina. The next year, he re-interpreted his observations and considered the (Neolithic) barrows to be remnants of large wooden beehive-like constructions or koepelgraven, which he linked to the corbelled vaults found at Mycenae (Holwerda 1910, 21-30). He made a new model, sent it to the Queen, and asked her to destroy the old model as it was no longer up to date. This later reconstruction received some (deserved) criticism (e.g. Van Giffen 1930, 143ff.).

2.2 The lifting of the grave

The main reason why Holwerda chose to lift and preserve the grave en bloc can be found in the description of the bones by Hanedoes, who describes them as grey with a soapy consistency. Holwerda literally argues (Holwerda 1908, 5-6) that further excavation of the skeletons in the field would make any preservation impossible and would hinder an adequate and detailed analysis of the bones. This is why he decided to have the area where the bodies were deposited covered in plaster and moved as a block to Leiden. He reasoned that in case of a failure to preserve the bones in this manner, the plaster would at least allow him to make an adequate cast (Nieuwenhuis 1908, 19). In order to do so the grave had been isolated by removing the surrounding sand to a depth of about 30 cm. The resulting block was subsequently covered in a thick cap of plaster, reinforced with iron rods and angle-pieces (ibid.) and several wooden boards were inserted under it. The pretty voluminous and heavy block in its wooden crate was then moved by horse and cart to the station and transported by train to Leiden.

The plaster cap was turned upside down in Leiden and the bones were cleaned under better conditions. It should be noted that, because of this, we are looking at the underside of the grave and as such have a mirrored view compared to the field situation. The work was carried out and supervised by Dr A. W. Nieuwenhuis, a well-known anthropologist. His report (Nieuwenhuis 1908) follows the initial report on the excavation.

Nieuwenhuis reports that he and several others were invited by Holwerda to further excavate the burials. Nieuwenhuis established that the grave had been lifted in its entirety, whilst removing the sandy and slightly gravelly subsoil. To carefully isolate and preserve the vulnerable bones they used little wooden sticks and brushes made of badger hairs. Loose sediment was removed with a vacuum cleaner. Nieuwenhuis also describes how the soil colour in the vicinity of the burial changed to a reddish colour, while the sediment surrounding the bones was more like a solid black mass. The bones themselves were in a very poor condition, which is why they were eventually consolidated with glue. After excavation and consolidation the burial was on view in the Dutch exhibition of the RMO for many years (NN 1930, 17-18).

While in later years several more attempts were made to lift other burials en bloc (Holwerda 1910, 4), it is probable that the one at Niersen was the first ever Dutch case. In any case it allows us to re-examine and reinterpret the find.

2.3 Rediscovery and attempts at modern analyses

The Niersen burial may have been moved to one of the safety depots during WWII, but it was only in 1960 that it was no longer on display, when the exhibition of Dutch antiquities had to be temporarily moved in view of construction works. It was no longer included in one of the later so-called permanent displays and has gradually escaped the attention of the subsequent curators (pers.comm. Prof. Dr Louwe Kooijmans). When a renewed interest in the grave arose as a result of the Ancestral Mounds project, it was thought that the grave had been lost over the years, in spite of the fact that it was an original archaeological object registered in the Museum inventory. An intensive search brought to light a crate which contained the Niersen burial. The crate, measuring 117 by 97 cm, is the original display box, painted white on the inside and is mentioned in Holwerda’s 1908 contribution (Pl. IIa).

Inside the crate, which was covered by a wooden board, a plaster block measuring 108.5 by 92.5 cm was preserved. The remains of the Niersen burial were visible under a thick coat of dust. Apparently the block had been damaged at some point when it was transported, since one of the long sides showed evidence of chipping and crumbling. It is likely the block was damaged when in upright position, either during display or transportation, perhaps during the evacuation of objects during WWII, when it was wedged to the side of the crate. Underneath the block several loose fragments of gypsum and bone were found. However, overall the burial had survived remarkably well (fig. 2).

One of the first actions after rediscovery was cleaning and documenting the burial. Cleaning took place under supervision of the RMO restoration department and much like a century before involved brushes and a vacuum cleaner. During cleaning loose bits and pieces were collected and documented in a 20 cm grid that had been fixed over the burial. It was noted that the whole burial was covered with at times rather copious quantities of glue. Drops of it were also recorded on the bottom of the crate, implying that consolidation had taken place right before or after initial display. A sample of the substance was sent to the laboratory of the Instituut Collectie Nederland (ICN) where it was analysed. As expected the bones seem to have been preserved in organic bone glue (pers. comm. Dr Luc Megens, ICN, July 22nd, 2009).

After initial cleaning, the team provided detailed photographs, a technical drawing and an initial physical anthropological assessment. The limited visibility of some of the bones and the smeared surface due to the glue prevented an adequate analysis of some of the lower lying bones. A view ‘inside’ the block seemed necessary. Assistance was provided by the special technical service of the Dutch National Police,[2] who brought a mobile X-Ray scanner to the museum. This enabled a more detailed view of the layout of the grave. Some of the results of this research are incorporated below.

In view of the unique preservation of the burial and the fact that the bone glue had only affected the outer surface of the bones and the surrounding sediment, it was decided to sample the burial for physical and chemical analysis, up till now however with negative results. Previously fragmented pieces of bone from several locations were sampled and sent off for radiocarbon analysis and isotope research. Unfortunately the lack of sufficient collagen prevented a radiocarbon date (pers.comm. Prof. Dr J. van der Plicht, April 2009). The isotope analysis is still pending and may shed some light on dietary (oxygen, carbon and nitrogen isotopes) and locational (strontium isotopes) aspects (e.g. Haak et al. 2008). If successful, further sampling will involve both individuals as well as analysis of the dental elements. In addition some of the soil below the bones was sampled, to see whether palynological data could be obtained. Unfortunately no pollen was preserved in the sediment. This is generally the case in this type of subsoil. To establish genetic affiliations with contemporary and subsequent populations in the area, analysis of ancient DNA (aDNA) was considered. Mrs E. Altena (LUMC) was invited to assess whether aDNA analysis was feasible. After inspection of the grave she concluded that the preservation of the bone and the post excavation treatment strongly reduced the odds of success for aDNA analysis. Therefore no aDNA analysis was attempted.