In Death we Trust – Society as Burial Order

22 August, 2011

This week On the Reading Rest I have an article:

Borby Hansen, Birgitte. 2011. Kvinden fra Maglebjerg. En rig grav fra yngre romersk jernalder ved Næstved – The woman from Maglebjerg. A rich grave from the Late Roman Iron Age near Næstved. Aarbøger for nordisk oldkyndighed og historie (2008). Pp. 123-194.

In 1929, fictional Korsbæk, a sleepy provincial town in Central Zealand, was hit by the invisible hand of the market(1) . This spanking echoed the rhythm of its discoverer Adam Smith who pointed out to townsmen that:

It is not from the benevolence of the Butcher, the Brewer, or the Baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.

It took the hand 21 years and the 24 epic episodes to shape the fictional harmony of what was then (1947) post-war Denmark at the brink of a new modernity protecting its citizens by freedom, equal rights and equal opportunities — a world apart from the malfunctioning semi-feudal patronus cliens society of 1929 by grace protecting but the few. Since the end of the television series in 1982 there has been a return to a less modern society also in Denmark.

In Danish archaeology of the Roman Iron Age (RIA) this return shows in a preference among some for an anti-modern, albeit glorified Late Roman Iron Age (LRIA) centring on Southeast Zealand. This wonderfully centralized LRIA society is made up by no less than six classes or ‘status layers’ defined by grave goods, but obviously modelled on a Roman classification fitting people into six top-down categories: senatores, equites, ingenui, peregrini, libertini and servi. This general hierarchic structure was adopted by Tacitus as a simple and convenient model for the classification of his Germani: nobiles, ingenui,  libertini, servi. These three systems, therefore, are communicating vessels:













SE Zealand

Status 1

Status 2

Status 3

Status 4

Status 5

Status 6

Grave goods

Gold + Rare Roman Goods, RRG

Plain RG

Local Goods

No Goods

*Including foreigners.

The male dominance of the archaeological status system should not be taken literally, because luckily grave goods and women (the ones most often decked out in death) belong to families. This means that female graves are straightforward representations of royal families, princely families, warlord families and so on, rather than representations of women in their own right.

Tacitus, who must have been a little daft compared to contemporary Zealandish undertakers, had some difficulties classifying the upper classes. By means of a rigid control of the grave goods, the undertakers elegantly solve these problems with ounces of gold and the rarity of Roman objects.

In social terms Status 1 means supreme power and Status 6 no power at all. Since graves are situated in landscapes their distribution must in other words constitute the geography of power, because the powerful wants to be buried or bury their women where power is. The system beguiles its user: it is a self-fulfilling prophecy and lack of grave goods or indeed lack of graves doesn’t always equal lack of status, power or family.

The task Birgitte Borby Hansen (BBH) has set herself, is to fit the excavations at Maglebjerg and Jeshøj, in the outskirts of Næstved in Southern Zealand, into the above status model. The King lives at Himlingøje, one of his Zealand princes at Skovgårde, a warrior of his retinue at Brushøjgård (in the vicinity of Maglebjerg-Jeshøj) and his peasants at Maglebjerg or some other nearby cemeteries with no Roman grave goods. BBH’s article is part of a new development of the model, prompted by settlement investigations carried out on Zealand during the last two decades or so. Large excavations initiated by exploitation have indicated the link between graves and farms.

Earlier on, this link was difficult to establish, but since it has now become obvious it must be fitted into the model. The solution is axiomatic: those who lived and owned a farm next to a grave have the same status as the person buried in the grave.

The settlement at Maglebjerg-Jeshøj is situated on a gentle slope looking SSW. A small brook divides the settlement into an eastern and a western area. The best preserved houses, yellow squares with red outlines are above the graves (green square) and pits (red squares). Settlement activities started in the Bronze Age, permanent farms probably in the RIA. The settlement situation with a small LRIA cemetery is typical also of nearby Kærup.

BBH doesn’t attempt to prove the model, why prove the self-evident? she accepts it as truth and infers that the yet unknown farm of central power at Himlingøje, which according to the model must be royal, was ‘populated by progressive ambassadors with far-reaching Continental contacts’ (p. 157) in case we didn’t know. Her own case fits Status Group 5, the free peasants, and among those the woman from Maglebjerg belonged to one of the leading local farming families. According to the model such families should refer to the local aristocracy in its turn linked to the centre at Himlingøje. But the woman/family/community Maglebjerg-Jeshøj seems also to have had contacts with Northeast Germany, if we are to believe the ceramics in her grave (131 ff.). In this and other respects she seems to have had a soul sister/family/community in a grave in nearby Kærup. In this grave ceramics showed affinities to South-Eastern Jutland. These ‘ceramic contacts’ don’t seem to reflect a gift-giving system administrated by any important royal, princely or lordly centre, rather it would seem to indicate that people at Maglebjerg-Jeshøj and Kærup on Central Zealand were involved in their own networks. At first exogamy is only suggested, p. 133 but later on, begging the question, taken more or less for granted because of her high status (i.e. locally within Status Group 5, p.166), which in the first place was proved by her peculiar German cup. BBH doesn’t suggest model behaviour, e.g., that marriages within status layer five were arranged by layers four or three.

There are 18 14C-dates to date the settlement. There seems to have been six settlement periods. The grave belongs to the last, most intensive and longest settlement dated to the LRIA. The settlement pattern is similar to the Kærup settlement.

The grave from Maglebjerg, the focal point of the article, is probably surrounded by 7 inhumation graves with no grave goods and no extent skeletal remains, bones being badly preserved at the site. Small inhumation cemeteries without grave goods are known to exist within the area(2). Although BBH sees it as the possible fulfilment of the model six-layer status society, it is somewhat odd that in a small settlement area, a handful of farms on the gentle south-westerly slopes of Southern Zealand, seven out of eight buried were serfs (Status 6). It is equally odd that the eighth is the only, surprisingly prominent, representative of a Status five family, i.e. a locally dominant family on the Maglebjerg-Jeshøj slope. Did the seven ‘serf families’ dominate the community preventing its farmers from being buried according to their status? Were everybody buried as form of proportional pars pro toto? Were there seven slaves to every freeborn on small farms?

Since BBH has no intention to corroborate or criticize the model, arguments and questions such as these are irrelevant. And by the way, highly centralized and hierarchic and odd communities are known to exist, aren’t they?

BBH’s text happens to prove this in a most subtle way. Her endeavour, when it comes to fitting the grave goods into the material culture of the LRIA, is impressive and one of her successful methods, next to looking up parallels, has been collegial networking. Naturally BBH wants to thank her colleagues, as we should thank her for her diligence. Her acknowledgements are in end notes and it so happens that they reveal both networks and a hierarchy similar to the alleged prehistoric situation.

The pattern evolves in notes 1-12 and 24. By chance, there is indeed a non-numbered introduction to the notes and formal last one, note 25, but research-wise the notes are 24, similar to the 24 songs of an epic.

In these notes a person may be mentioned in several ways and together the persons referred to and the references make up a stratified pattern:

I   Many Thanks for many inspiring discussions, central to the article:
II  Thanks for sharing detailed personal and expert knowledge:
ULH4; ULH10 ; SEA6
III Thanks for sharing expert archaeological knowledge:
PE7; PE12; PE+MBH8
IV Thanks for professional knowledge-sharing:
V  Mentioned for sharing knowledge:

In Danish archaeology, levels I-V signify top-down status: ULH is the mother of the status model and married to SEA. PE is an important archaeologist supportive of ULH. MBH is also important, but considerably more independent. LMC, HH and EA are honourable colleagues, EA nevertheless is more peripheral in this context, and a foreigner. In the present archaeological landscape Level I is central and Level V peripheral.

Since there is a world outside the walls of this well-structured Verona, there is also great appreciation for kindly colleagues and their knowledgeable comments, ideas and references. I in this case MH2 and KÅS11 are acknowledged. MH (Level II) represents German archaeology and ceramic expertise, i.e., another most important community. KÅS is a friendly figure in the kingdom of natural science.

Needless to say it is but old hat to find the organization of archaeology a paragon of its results and vice versa.

(1) Everything on Korsbæk and the television series Matador:

(2) Kjær-Hansen Rolf. 1989. 106. Eksercerpladsen. Arkæologiske udgravninger i Danmark 1989. P.



2 Responses to “In Death we Trust – Society as Burial Order”

  1. Ulf Näsman said

    At present I’m reading Fredrik Ekengren’s interesting thesis “Ritualization – hybridization – fragmentation. The mutability of Roman vessels in Germania Magna AD 1-400.” Lund: the university: 2009. His views on the meaning of burial customs are in strong contrast to those that according to Frands Herschend are published in this recent paper in Aarboeger. Herschend’s parallellisation of an East Danish archaeological hierarchy with that of the suggested social hierarchy of Late Roman Iron Age Zealand is both elegant and amusing. But it is also depressing that there exists an East Danish archaeology that is so traditional and backward.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: