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Proceedings of the 10th Nordic TAG conference

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Kalle Sognnes

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N-TAG TEN. Proceedings of the 10th Nordic TAG conference at Stiklestad, Norway 2009

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Merovingian men fulltime warriors?
Weapon graves of the continental Merovingian Period of the Munich
Gravel Plain and the social and age structure of the contemporary society
a case study
Doris Gutsmiedl-Schmann
Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universitt Bonn

The main archaeological sources of the continental Merovingian Period are cemeteries and graves. Many of these graves are richly
furnished. Furthermore their respective grave goods show a close connection to the buried person. In mens burials weapons are often
seen as dominant, but they are by far not the only objects that followed the deceased into the grave. In recently excavated Merovingian
cemeteries the archaeological analysis of the grave goods was supplemented by an anthropological analysis of the skeletons of the
dead thus not only details of the grave and its grave goods are available for these burials but information about the age and diseases
of the buried persons as well.
Four sites of the Munich Gravel Plain, Upper Bavaria, Germany, are considered in this paper: The cemeteries of Aschheim-
Bajuwarenring, Altenerding, Mnchen-Aubing and Pliening, which have all been published with both archaeological evaluation of the
graves and anthropological analysis of the deceased.
Assuming that men with weapons can be seen as warriors, this paper wants to show the different social dimensions that are exposed in
mens burials, as found in the cemeteries included in this case study, and hence ask, how visible warrior identity was in the daily life
of a continental Merovingian society.


In mens graves weapons and armament are commonly seen

as the main grave goods, or at least as the most dominant
ones especially when Merovingian archaeology,
particularly the male role in Merovingian society, are
presented to a wider public. Hence, all major exhibitions
regarding time and people, i.e. exhibitions regarding the
Bajuwarians (Dannheimer and Dopsch 1988), the Franks
(Wieczorek, Prin, v. Welck and Menghin 1996), and
the Alemanni (Archologisches Landesmuseum Baden-
Wrttemberg1 1997), presented warriors when intending
to visualise Merovingian male clothing (fig. 1). In the
catalogue of the exhibition on sixth century Franks Frank
Siegmund explicitly writes: Mag der gelebte Alltag des
Mannes auch anders ausgesehen haben, im Tod zeigte
er sich als Krieger2 (Siegmund, 1996:700). Yet, it is
easily overlooked that weapons and armoury are not the
only objects that followed the deceased into their graves.
Therefore I want to ask the following question in this case
study: Were Merovingian men really fulltime warriors?
And if not, which other social identities can be deduced
from the grave goods displayed in their burials?

In this context the evidence presented by the early medieval

Reihengrberfelder (row grave cemeteries) with their rich
and ornate furnishings, which include parts of clothing,
weapons, jewellery, tools, and items of daily life, represent

State Museum of Archaeology of Baden-Wrttemberg
Even if every-day life of a [Merovingian/common] man might have Fig. 1: A typical Merovingian man? (Dannheimer and
looked quite different, in death he presented himself as a warrior. Dopsch 1988, 243 fig. 167).


a major source for investigation. These graves usually 213-214; Sage 1984, 10-11). The necropolis consisted of
contain the remains of a single individual; his or her gender 1521 burials (Sage 1984, 14), which makes the site the
and age can be determined by anthropological methods largest one included in this study. Some of the graves had
(see Alt and Rder 2009, 94-110). Regarding the Munich to be saved under most difficult conditions before regular
gravel plain, such interdisciplinary data pools exist for the archaeological excavation began (Sage 1984, 9-10). Thus,
early medieval grave cemeteries of Altenerding (Losert skeletal material could be evaluated by anthropological
2003; Sage 1984), Aschheim-Bajuwarenring (Gutsmiedl- methods only for 1321 burials; comprehensive osteological
Schmann 2010), Mnchen-Aubing (Dannheimer 1998), analysis was undertaken by Hermann Helmuth (Helmuth
and Pliening (Codreanu-Windauer 1997) which are on 1996). 441 of the deceased were determined to be boys
the one hand the largest early medieval cemeteries on the or men, 480 to be girls or women (Helmuth 1996, 10).
Munich gravel plain, and on the other hand the only ones 318 of the boys or mens graves contained grave goods,
that are in use during the whole Merovingian Period. First, and hence could be analysed also with archaeological
I will briefly introduce these sites. methods, as could 382 of the girls or womens graves (see
table 1, figure 2). The oldest graves from Altenerding date
The necropolis of the case study to about 450 A.D, the youngest ones to 670/680 (Losert
2003, 492-494).
The cemetery of Altenerding was systematically excavated
by Walter Sage from 1966 to 1969 and in 1973 (Sage, 1973,

Boys or Mens Graves with

Girls or Womens Graves

Girls or Womens Graves
Boys or Mens Graves
Number of Graves

with Gravesgoods
Excavated in



Altenerding (AE) 1966-1969, 1973 450-670/680 1521 441 318 480 382
Aschheim-Bajuwarenring (ASH) 1997-1998 480/490-670/680 444 179 123 193 158
Mnchen-Aubing (AU) 1938; 1961-1963 late 5th century beginning 8th century 881 198 110 185 145
Pliening (PLI) 1937; 1972 around 500 end of 7th century 231 60 39 51 38

Table 1: Table of the cemeteries used in this case study: Altenerding (Sage 1984; Losert 2003), Aschheim-Bajuwarenring
(Gutsmiedl-Schmann 2010), Mnchen-Aubing (Dannheimer 1998), Pliening (Codreanu-Windauer 1997).

Fig. 2: Map of the

area, where the
cemeteries used in
this case study are
1: Mnchen-
Aubing, 2: Aschheim-
Bajuwarenring, 3:
Pliening, 4: Altenerding.

Doris Gutsmiedl-Schmann: Merovingian men fulltime warriors?

The first graves of the necropolis of Aschheim- results not only included sex analysis of the individuals but
Bajuwarenring were found during construction works also a morphological determination of age at death (fig. 2).
in 1997. The whole cemetery was excavated in the In some cases it was impossible fit the age of an individual
spring of 1998; the excavation was undertaken by ARDI into the established age groups. In such cases the findings
Archologische Dienstleistungen GbR, an excavation were prorated to the respective age groups according to
company run by the archaeologists Hans-Peter Volpert and the following pattern: one half of the data of the grave
Mauritz Thannabaur (Gutsmiedl-Schmann 2010, 19-21). and grave goods of, for example, a man belonging to the
The cemetery contained 444 graves (fig. 2) and dates to age group adultus-maturus was added to the age group
the period of 480/490 to 670/680 (Gutsmiedl-Schmann adultus, the other half to the age group maturus.
2010, 113-114). Osteological analysis of skeletal remains
was undertaken by Anja Staskiewicz. 179 individuals Some thoughts on the Origin and Development of
were determined to be male skeletons; of these 123 had Burial Evidence
been buried with grave goods. 193 graves were identified
as girls or womens graves, and of these 158 had been Graves and their inventories are those material remains of
furnished with grave goods (Staskiewicz 2007, 39). burial ceremonies and grave rituals that are still visible to
us today. The graves of the so-called Reihengrberfelder
In the late 1930s some early medieval graves were are a good starting point for developing an understanding
discovered in a gravel pit, situated in the district of of burial rites based on archaeological evidence, and hence
Aubing, city of Munich. Immediately after the discovery a of the community the deceased had been taken from. The
first excavation was begun, lasting from autumn to winter normal burial practice/rite is based on single inhumations
of 1938. During this campaign 358 burials of the northern in these burial grounds; a grave and its particular inventory
part of the cemetery could be recovered (Dannheimer 1998, can therefore generally be allocated to a single individual.
11). Because the skeletal material was lost during World The grave thus represents the closest connection between a
War II, no anthropological data exist for these burials deceased person and his or her surrounding material culture
(Dannheimer 1998, 37), even though the archaeological that can be found in the archaeological record (Hrke 2003,
evidence survived. In 1960 Hermann Dannheimer Hofmann 2008, 360-363). In the ritual context of the burial
searched for the remaining graves in the southern part ceremonies it can be assumed that clothing and equipment
of the necropolis of Aubing. The remaining graves were of the individual deceased were carefully chosen. This
excavated from 1961 to 1963 (Dannheimer 1998, 12-13). pushes grave finds close to intended tradition like written
All in all 881 graves were excavated (Dannheimer 1998, records and narrative historical sources. Nevertheless, the
24). Skeletal remains were preserved from 523 graves incompleteness of burial evidence, due to the differential
for anthropological evaluation, which was undertaken by preservation of many materials, has to be taken into
Gerfried Ziegelmayer and Ingo Hertrich (fig. 2). 198 of account (Hrke 1997, 23-25; Sasse 2007, 47).
the grave were determined to be graves of boys or men,
110 of these contained archaeological findings as well. Individuals who take part in burial rites can be allocated to
185 individuals were determined to be girls or women, three groups: the first comprise the deceased themselves,
of these 145 were buried with grave goods (Dannheimer the second are those individuals who execute the burial
1998, 38-52). The earliest graves of Mnchen-Aubing date rites and actually bury the dead person. These can be
to the time of 500 A.D. The necropolis was given up at the assumed to have been members of the family as well as
beginning of the eighth century (Dannheimer 1987, 11). persons recruited from the close social environment of the
deceased. The wider social environment, in which the first
The fourth and last necropolis included in this case study two groups are embedded, constitutes the third group that
is the cemetery of Pliening. The first graves were found attends the burial as a quasi-audience (Brather 2009, 248).
there in 1937; the whole cemetery, containing 231 graves, The deceased themselves had only minor influence on the
was excavated in 1972 by Wolfgang Czysz. Osteological burial rites. Rather, the furnishings and the burial ceremony
analysis was undertaken by Gerfried Ziegelmayer offered a social stage for the family concerned on which
(Codreanu-Windauer 1997, 9, 12; 14-15). 60 graves were the social standing3 of the deceased could be displayed to
identified as boys or mens graves, 39 of these graves the public. Furthermore, the family of the deceased could
contained grave goods (fig. 2). 51 burials were identified claim a certain place within social stratification of a given
as girls or womens graves, 38 of them had been furnished community in the way they exhibited the burial rites as
with grave goods (Codreanu-Windauer 1997, 16-17). The well as through the furnishings of the grave (Hofmann
necropolis of Pliening was in use from about 500 to the 2008, 357-358). At the same time, we can assume that
end of the seventh century (Codreanu-Windauer 1997, the equipment of the dead ought not to contradict the
108-110). idea which the participants of the burial had cultivated
of the deceased in their in everyday life before they died
All four of the included necropoli have in common that (Brather 2007a; 2009). Thus, this last public appearance
they were used during the whole Merovingian period,
and that a major number of their burials were evaluated 3
After Linton, 1979:97-99, the social standing of a deceased includes all
archaeologically as well as anthropologically. Only those social roles the deceased has performed during his or her lifetime. This
graves are used in the following case study. Anthropological definition will be used in this paper.


Fig. 3: Weapons on the Munich gravel plain in mens graves.

of the deceased must have had a huge impact on common in his family or rural community, but in the local society
remembrance: It is in those final moments that the living as a whole, a void that had to be filled. Hence, one easily
memories of the dead person are congealed. (Parker may assume that the burial rites not only mirrored the
Pearson 2003, 9). social standing of the individual and his or her family, but
that the local community employed their burials rites as
In many cases, the social position and the inherent different communicative and highly symbolic process during which
social roles the deceased performed during their lifetime it re-adjusted its own social reality (Hofmann 2008, 357-
are visualised by external signs, e.g. specific clothing 358).
or the wearing and usage of particular items. It can be
assumed that some of these signs followed them into Within their social environment individuals are confronted
the grave as well. These can be traced through material with various role models and role expectations, depending
culture and hence are recorded as archaeological evidence on the counterpart they interact with, in a given situation.
(Arnold 2008; Brather 2009). Thus, all parts of clothing, Such expectations can derive from gender-specific role
such as belt fittings, as well as weapons and tools found in models as well as the standing of individuals within
mens graves, which are included in this paper, should be their family, role models determined by a professional
regarded as such external signals. or religious framework, or age, to mention just a few. In
crucial moments, such as death, there is a tendency to
The individual equipment of a Merovingian man may be represent as many roles as possible (Brather 2008, 152-
interpreted as signs for his social environment. Yet, in case 154). The social roles of an individual are intermingled to
of a living man carrying belts, armament, and tools, such form a multi-layered picture of the deceased mirrored in
insignia will have different signalling ranges according to their grave inventories that cannot easily be picked apart
Bettina Arnold and H. M Wobst. Smaller items of clothing and might even be contradictory in some cases (Arnold
and tools such as belts and belt fittings or tool-sets are only 2008). The individual components of a grave inventory
visible in the immediate surroundings of the bearer and hence can be interpreted as insignia of the different social
hence are meant for a closer social environment, while roles which a person performed during his or her life. This
weapons, especially multi-parted armory, significantly approach will be employed in the following study.
change the silhouette of their bearer to such an extent that
their meaning can be recognised from far away and thus Grave Inventories of Early Medieval Men and Boys
by members of other groups or even communities (Arnold
2008; Wobst 1977). In contrast, during burial rites we 590 burials from the necropolis of Altenerding, Aschheim-
can assume that the dead person and his or her clothing Bajuwarenring, Mnchen-Aubing and Pliening could be
and furnishings were displayed to visitors for a certain assigned to boys and men, whose age at death has been
time. The range of the signal effect and the information anthropologically determined and whose graves contained
transfer of those insignia, i.e. belts, armoury, and tools, grave goods as well (table 1). The latter findings were
was therefore restricted to the participants of the burial grouped into the object classes of weapons and armament,
ceremony. The death of an individual not only left a void tools and utensils, and (magnificent) belts.

Doris Gutsmiedl-Schmann: Merovingian men fulltime warriors?

1. Weapons and Armament only contain seax and arrows, in burials of the age group
infans 2 a lance can be found occasionally. Only the
In the male graves of the Munich gravel plain the graves of adults contained weapons of all types, in various
following weapons are found: seax (one-edged sword), combinations, with spatha, lance, and shield as the most
arrow, spatha (two-edged sword), lance, shield, and axe commonly associated weapons in mens graves. The
(fig. 3). 259 of the burials in the area under investigation number of individual weapons is highest in graves of the
for this study contained weaponry. Of this group 155 boys age group adultus, decreasing for the age groups maturus
and men were buried with only one weapon or weapons and senilis, while all kinds of weapons and armament can
of only one weapon type, 44 graves contained weapons of still be found in the graves of old men (fig. 4).
two different types, 14 graves contained weapons of three
weapon types. Four different weapon types were found While spatha, lance, and shield obviously can be used only
only in 6 graves. in warfare and hence are defined as pure weapons, arrows
can also be used for hunting (Riesch 1999). Axes can be
When these results are allocated to the age groups, they used by craftsmen in their daily work as well as in warfare
show that only a limited number of weapons are found (Heindel 1990, 254-256). The same can be said for seaxes,
in boys graves. The graves of the age group infans 1 at least in principle, especially for those types of seax that

Fig. 4: Weapons on the Munich gravel plain in the different age groups.

Fig. 5: The connection between spatha, seax and tools in adult mens graves of the
Munich gravel plain.


Fig. 6: Tools in mens graves of the Munich gravel plain.

more or less resemble long knives. This interpretation

is supported by those findings where objects from the
class tools and utensils are associated with spathas and
seaxes (fig. 7). 379 of the boys and mens graves in the
investigated area contained one or more tools and utensils.
In 66 of these inventories tools and utensils were combined
with a seax, in only 25 cases tools were associated with a
spatha. Of the 186 graves containing one or more tools
and utensils, 34 contained a seax, 15 contained a spatha. In
only 19 or 3.2 % of the mens graves of the Munich gravel
plain two or more tools were associated with two or more
weapons. Tools and utensils and weapon and armament are
in general rarely associated; however, if such associations
occur, it is far more likely to find a seax in such combined
inventories than a spatha.

2. Tools and Utensils

A total of 379 graves were furnished with tools and

utensils, with 186 graves containing objects from two
or more types. The most prominent objects in the boys
and mens graves of the Munich gravel plain are knives,
followed by flints, awls, and combs. While needles,
hooks, tweezers, and fire steels are also frequently found,
inventories containing shears, folding knives, scales,
whetstones, whorls, drills, and chisels are very rare (fig.
6). Often these tools are found in a narrowly limited
space within the grave, carefully arranged and orientated
in the same direction (fig. 7), (Aschheim Grab 205/206)
(Gutsmiedl-Schmann 2010, Taf. 62). This shows that
the tools had been arranged in a tool-bag or some other
pouch made of organic material, which was has not been
preserved. In a few exceptional cases metal components Fig. 7: Aschheim-Bajuwarenring Grave 205/206: The
of these containers can be detected, such as handles, small tools in burial 206 next to the seax are lying close
buckles, or metal fittings (as have been found in grave 812 together and are oriented in the same direction,
of the necropolis of Mnchen-Aubing: Dannheimer, 1998, suggesting they were placed in a tool-bag (Gutsmiedl-
188-192; Losert,2003, 372). Schmann 2010,Taf. 62).

Doris Gutsmiedl-Schmann: Merovingian men fulltime warriors?

Fig. 8: Tools on the Munich gravel plain in the different age groups.

The inventories of boys graves of the age groups infans tools and utensils (fig. 9). Nevertheless, it its noteworthy
1 and infans 2 only contain knives, flint, awls, needles, that a complete variety of objects from the object class
and hooks. In the age group juvenilis tweezers are also tools and utensils, which occur in grave inventories of
included. Combs are found in graves of the age groups the necropoleis of Altenerding, Aschheim-Bajuwarenring,
infans 1 and juvenilis, but none was found in graves of the Mnchen-Aubing und Pliening, are only found in the
age group of infans 2 (fig. 8). graves of the age group adultus.

In boys graves of the age groups infans 1 not more than Knives, awls, and hooks can be used for a wide range of
two different types of tools and utensils are found, in boys tasks and needs; their occurrence is in no way restricted to
graves of the age group infans 2 not more than three. Only a special craft. Flint and fire-steel have often been called
the graves of adult men contain four and more different a strike-a-light (for example see Losert 2003, 375-376)
types of tools and utensils, with a maximum variation and share the everyday characteristic of knives, awls and
of eight different types. Though the number of types as hooks. In contrast, whorls and needles are easily associated
well as the absolute number of tools decreases with age, with textile working, whereas combs and tweezers can be
even graves of old men contain extensive ensembles of assigned to hair and beard care (Codreanu-Windauer 1997,

Fig. 9: Different kinds of tools in the different age groups.


67-68; Losert 2003, 385). The combination of shears and 3. Magnificent Belts
combs can also be linked to personal hygiene (cutting
ones hair for example), while a combination of whorls, All in all a great variety of belt buckles and fittings can
needles, and shears indicate craftsmanship within the field be found in the mens graves of the Munich gravel plain,
of textile work. ranging from simple buckles made of iron or non-ferrous
metals to sophisticated belt sets of multi-piece design with
The scales present a special case. They suggest a range ornate fittings. Only the latter will be considered for this
of uses (Knaut 2001; Koch 2007b, 341-344). Artefact case study. Such belt sets were found in 220 graves and
combinations, such as found in grave 423 of the will be called magnificent belts form here on. Apart from
necropolis of Altending, where scales are combined with their decorative function they can also be interpreted as
a fine smithing hammer and an awl, which in itself is a status symbols and insignia (Fehr 1999, 110-111).
multifunctional tool that may be identified as a punch in
the context of metalworking, suggests that the balance Magnificent belts are not restricted to special age groups,
was used to weigh precious metal by a craftsman (Losert although the majority is found in the adult group (fig. 10).
2003, 390). Yet, scales were also used for trade, especially
for testing coins by weighing them (Steuer 1987; Werner Magnificent Belts as Insignia and their Association with
1954). In general, precise scales are used for any task that Weapons and Armament and Tools and Utensils
demands the weighing of small and smallest amounts.
This is supported by small weights that are occasionally The data found so far leads us examine how the occurrence
found associated with the balances (Steuer 1990). Besides of tools, weapons and magnificent belts in the graves of
the already mentioned use in trade and metalworking, Merovingian men might follow a systematic pattern
scales might also be an indicator for crafts requiring the and which conclusions can be drawn from such patterns
measurement of exact amounts of ingredients such as regarding the stratifications within the early medieval
medicines, drugs, and dyes. society living on the Munich gravel plain. In all six graves,

According to the evidence so far Merovingian mens Infans 1 (Inf 1) up to 7 years old
graves of the Munich gravel plain can be divided into two Infans 2 (Inf 2) about 7 14 years old
major groups: the craftsmen, identified by inventories Juvenilis (Juv) about 14 20 years old
containing quite numerous tools and utensils, and the
warriors, who were buried with weapons and armament Adultus (Ad) about 20 40 years old
but with no or only few tools and utensils. This leads us to Maturus (Mat) about 40 60 years old
the question, whether and how the two groups related to Senilis (S) more than 60 years old
each other in Merovingian society. To obtain a first view
of their interdependencies a third object class shall be Table 2: Anthropological age groups and their
employed: the belts. translation into years.

Fig. 10: Magnificent belts on the Munich gravel plain in the different age groups.

Doris Gutsmiedl-Schmann: Merovingian men fulltime warriors?

total (1-4 weapon types) 1 weapon type 2 weapon types 3 weapon types 4 weapon types
mens graves with weapons 259 184 44 14 6
mens graves with weapons 86
129 26 11 6
and magnificent belt
warrior warrior warrior

Table 3: Mens graves with weapons and mens graves with weapons and magnificent belts.

total 1 tool type 2 or more tool types

mens graves with tools 379 193 186
mens graves with tools and magnificent belts 117 67 50

Table 4: Mens graves with tools and mens graves with tools and magnificent belts.

which contained the maximum of four weapon types, buried in these necropolis, i.e. all individuals that could be
magnificent belts were found. Eleven of the 14 graves with identified anthropologically as boys and men, regardless of
three weapon types contained such belts as well. In total whether they had been buried with or without grave goods
64% of the graves, which contained two or more weapon (Table 2), only 7.3% of the men can be assigned to the
types, included magnificent belts (Table 3). 186 of the group of warriors and 21% to the group of craftsmen.
mens graves contained two or more tools and utensils, but
magnificent belts were found only in 50 or 27% of these There is thus a significantly higher probability for a man
(Table 4). who was buried with weapons to possess a magnificent
belt as well. This hints at a high social standing of the
In the necropolis of the Munich gravel plain 25% of graves warrior within Merovingian society as well suggesting
containing inventories with two or more weapon types or that they constituted a powerful group within that society.
two or more types of tools can be identified as burials of Considerably more of the deceased can be allocated to
warriors and 75% can be seen as burials of craftsmen. the group of craftsmen. Within that group the number
If those graves are taken into account, that are furnished of grave inventories containing magnificent belts is
with grave goods, but where the inventories cannot be comparatively low, implying that the craftsmen had fewer
associated with craftsmen or warriors, the fraction of the members with a high social status. This indicates that their
warriors decreases to 11% and the fraction of craftsmen importance within the Merovingian society was lower than
to 31.5% of those deceased who were buried with grave that of the warrior group.
goods. Expanding the results to the whole male population

Fig. 11: The connection between weapons, tools and magnificent belts in mens graves of the
Munich gravel plain.


Conclusion Mittelalters. Zeitschrift fr Archologie des Mittelalters

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