Welcome to Merovingian Archaeology!

This website is hosted by the Rural Riches Project at Leiden University (the Netherlands).

It is a platform on the archaeology of the Merovingian Period.

Information will be provided on ongoing research projects, new finds and excavations and datasets will be presented. You are invited to write contributions about your activities on this blog. If you want to get in touch, please use the contact form.

Replicating and experimenting with Merovingian glass vessels

Replicating and experimenting with Merovingian glass vessels

Author: Marieke van Winkelhoff

In many Merovingian graves, glass vessels can be found. Why were these placed into the
grave? Are they for drinking, during a funerary feast? Or do they serve another function?
Or multiple functions? One way to try and answer this question, is to carry out an
archaeological experiment. This meant that a number of Merovingian glass vessels needed to be
replicated. Together with the Nationaal Glasmuseum Leerdam and historical glassblower
Marc Barreda, we organised a (corona-proof) glass blowing day. It was very interesting
to see what techniques are applied to make these glass vessels, and the results are
stunning as well!

The actual experiment was very insightful. We discovered that in principle, all replicated
glass vessels could function as lamps. Considering lighting patterns, some work better
than others. Especially the vertically ribbed glass vessels emitted bright and clear “sunlike”
patterns. Another, perhaps even the most interesting, find is that these small glass
vessels work especially well as lamps when hung low above the ground. This is when
lighting patterns are most clearly cast onto the ground. One can imagine that such usage
is especially relevant in the context of a grave lamp, or votive lamp, hung as a visual
reminder of the deceased at its grave.

Photographs by Yvonne Bekkers and Erik Rijper.
Reference: Van Winkelhoff, A.M., 2021. Light in the Dark Ages: a conceptual approach to
the role of glass vessels in the Merovingian burial rite. RMA-thesis Universiteit Leiden.

The experiment in photos:

Figure 1: Reheating a vertically ribbed bell beaker.
Figure 2: Almost finished, the vessel is cut loose!
Figure 3: Blowing glass into a mould.
Figure 4: Widening a vessel.
Figure 5: Ta-da!
Figure 6: A tumbler with cross-arcade decoration.
Figure 7: Some of the vessels used during the light experiment. Photographer: Erik Rijper. Glasmuseum Leerdam
Figure 8: A tumbler with vertical ribs and cross-dot pattern on the bottom.
Figure 9: Tumbler with vertical ribs casting a caustic pattern similar to Kider et
al. (2009). Photographer: Erik Rijper. Glasmuseum Leerdam
Figure 9: A bell beaker with vertical ribs casting radiant (sun-like) beams. Photographer: Erik Rijper. Glasmuseum Leerdam
Figure 10: A tumbler with cross-arcade decoration. Photographer: Erik Rijper. Glasmuseum Leerdam
Fig. 11. Obligatory selfie

A new book on riverine settlement in the Western Netherlands

From 2009 until 2014 the University of Leiden excavated a settlement dating to Merovingian times. Smaller parts of the settlement had already been excavated by ARCHOL and ADC-Archeoprojecten. The Oegstgeest settlement has been excavated almost completely. It existed between c 550 and 725 AD. It was of a modest size, counting c 5 or 6 contemporary farmsteads during its existence. Its population will not have been larger than c 60 persons. Nevertheless, the finds show it was intimately connected to regions far beyond its immediate horizon such as the middle Rhine valley from which products were brought to the settlement and England from which metal finds originate. An exceptional mind blowing find was a silver bowl decorated with gold leave images, found in a gully, which embellishes the cover of the book.

No less interesting and providing a window on the connections of the inhabitants of the settlement are the finds of grape pips, the oldest shoes with soles found in northwestern Europe made of vegetable tanned leather (a Mediterranean technique), horse gear with parallel finds in England only, sword fittings with direct parallels to those in the Staffordshire hoard, pottery from the Rhine valley and grain from löss areas, probably the Main area and wine (barrels) from the middle Rhine area as well. The inhabitants must have known a varied life style including keeping cattle in the floodplains, some agriculture on the river levees, fishing, and probably trading at short and long distances. They also practiced crafts such as smithing and above all casting of copper alloy objects. Small and unexpectedly large crucibles show that this must have taken place to satisfy the needs of themselves and those in other settlements.

Oesgtgeest is a truly riverine settlement, dependent on the river in the Rhine estuary, which was certainly a friend to the inhabitants. But it was a foe as well. There must have been a constant fight against the water to prevent flooding. Extensive dam building testifies to this struggle. Recent dendrochronological research allows now to even date these floodings exactly by year. 602 was a catastrophic year in the coastal areas of the Netherlands and northern Germany.

The Oegstgeest settlement will play a significant role in forthcoming discussions on the economy of northwestern Europe and the role of control of exchange values compared to control of production which dominates the discussion up til now.

The book design and lay out was in the experienced hands of Bregt Balk.

De Bruin, J./C. Bakels/F. Theuws (eds.), 2021: Oegstgeest. A riverine settlement in the early medieval world system, Bonn. Habelt Verlag (ISBN 978-3-7749-4291-2, 575 pp.)

The book can be purchased online at the website of the publisher Habelt (scroll down).

Mapping Merovingians I: texts in an archaeological database

This blog post will share some of the first preliminary results from the ‘attestation’ database. Although the Rural Riches database is primarily an archaeological database, we decided to also include evidence from written sources. Textual evidence often provides important topographical information, for example on towns, cult places and rural estates, which can help interpret the archaeological evidence. But texts also offer the possibility to trace the whereabouts of elite individuals, such as the Merovingian kings, so that we can investigate the extent to which elites were present in our research area.

As a part of the sub-project ‘Towns and Elites’, Jip Barreveld has been mapping the itineraries of Merovingian kings between 450 and 650. But texts come with a range of problems seperate from archaeological datasets. To map textual sources and compare them with the archaeology, it is important to be aware precisely what is being mapped and what problems are present behind the dataset.

Currently recorded attestations from written sources projected on the palaeogeographical landscape. The red line represents the border of the Rural Riches research area. Attestations for royal presence have been recorded both inside and outside the research area to draw comparisons.


Each record in the database consists of one attestation: a single piece of evidence (e.g. a few words, a line, or several lines) from a written source for a specific place that can be mapped in geographical space. With an archaeological excavation, we can usually pinpoint exactly where a spade entered the ground (especially with the help of modern GPS). In contrast, for written sources there is no direct relationship between the text and a location. Geospatial information can only be inferred from a toponym mentioned in a primary source (almost always in Latin). Philologists and historians have matched many ancient place names to modern ones with reasonable confidence, but the identification will always remain to some extent hypothetical. For this reason, attestations are kept strictly seperate from archaeological records in the Rural Riches database, although an attestation can be linked to the record of an archaeological site.

Attestations can come from all kind of written sources. Unfortunately, documentary sources for the Merovingian period are relatively rare, so we mainly rely on narrative texts, such as histories, saints’ lives or even poems.

Here is an example of an attestation, from Gregory of Tours’ Histories, 2.40:

“One day Sigibert went out of the city of Cologne and […] crossed the Rhine, for he wanted to walk in the forest of Buchau” (translation by Thorpe, p. 155).

Cumque ille egressus de Colonia civitate, transacto Rheno, per Buconiam silvam ambulare disponeret … (Krusch/Levison ed.).

Two locations are mentioned in this line for the whereabouts of ‘king’ Sigibert the Lame, providing us with two attestations (one for Cologne, one for ‘Buchau’). Next to place, the attestation also provides information on who (Sigibert), what (walking or hunting) and when (c. 509, from context).

The record of an attestation with fields for coordinates, source, translation, secondary literature, text, date, commentary and more.

Interpreting place names

The first attestation, civitas Colonia, refers (almost) certainly to the modern city of Cologne. In the second attestation, Sigibert is ‘walking’ (perhaps hunting) in the silva Buconia, but its modern location is less certain. We know the name otherwise only from later Carolingian sources, as a vast forest in Hesse (Germany). Is this the same forest mentioned by Gregory, and did it stretch all the way to eastern bank of the Rhine at Cologne, or did Sigibert travel much further into Germania? All this we can only speculate.

Identifying the toponym presents the first challenge, and we must hope that the editor has correctly transcribed the medieval manuscripts, and that the manuscripts faithfully copied the ‘original’ text. Even when we are reasonably sure about the toponym, we usually do not have precise geographic information. For example, in this case Gregory does not tell us where in Cologne Sigibert was. Perhaps Gregory might even have used Cologne as the name for the whole district.

Topographic logic of the text

Archaeologists know that there are problems and gaps behind a distribution map of material culture; formation processes and excavation techniques can skew the archaeological dataset. The same is true for texts, where the surviving texts may represent only the tip of the iceberg. After all, only a fraction of what was written in the Merovingian period has survived the centuries.

On top of that, texts present a very partial picture, since the author wrote with a specific mindset, intent and for a specific audience. For example, Gregory’s narrative choices are informed by his rhetorical purpose of advancing the concept of a catholic Gaul united by the Merovingian kings [1]. He also more frequently wrote about places that personally mattered to him, his family members and network of friends and readers. It follows that we should pay close attention to the social and historical context that shaped the topographic framework of our sources, which we could call the ‘topographic logic of the text’ (after Gabrielle Spiegel’s ‘social logic of the text’).

Recorded elite presence in Gregory of Tours, including uncertain attestations.

Using the database, it is possible to filter the recorded attestations by source. When we do a side by side comparison with the seventh-century Chronicle of Fredegar, a totally different distribution map appears. Fredegar’s narrative is more focused on the north and east of Gaul: the areas around Paris, Burgundy and Austrasia.

Recorded elite presence in Fredegar’s Chronicle book 4 and interpolations, including uncertain attestations.

We can also zoom in on specific individuals. Using the database to plot all attestations of King Childebert’s II whereabouts, we can map his presence all over northern Gaul split by source. Gregory’s Histories (blue) give the widest distribution. His contemporary Venantius Fortunatus (green) gives a much more detailed picture of the Moselle and the Rhine valley, recorded in two poems describing a royal boat trip. Finally, the chance survival of three edicts by Childebert II as additions to the Lex Salica (pink) place the “Austrasian” king in the triangle Andernach-Cologne-Maastricht.

Without this fortuitous survival of Childebert’s decrees, we would not have had a single attestation of royal presence in sixth-century Maastricht!

Recorded attestations for the whereabouts of Childebert II, divided by source. The image is a quick sketch, the integration of GIS capabilities with the database allows for improved visualisations in the future.

What’s next: analysis and interpretation

The examples above show that textual sources give only a partial image. The scholar of Merovingian historical geography needs to carefully weigh the evidence and be aware of the possible gaps in the dataset. So what, then, can we learn from attestations? And how does textual evidence compare to the archaeology in our database? That will have to be the subject of another blog! Stay tuned for part 2.

[1] Following Breukelaar, A.H.B., 1994: Historiography and episcopal authority in sixth-century Gaul: the Histories of Gregory of Tours interpreed in their historical context, Göttingen, 207-225.

Rural Riches team in England

Rural Riches team posing with the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit of the Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art (RLAHA)
Rural Riches team posing with the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit of the Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art (RLAHA)

Last week the Rural Riches team attended the Staffordshire hoard conference in London. This amazing hoard dating to the third quarter of the seventh century will change our view on wealth in post-Sutton Hoo seventh century England.

The hoard consists mainly of the gold and garnet decorated parts of the hilts of swords. This suggests that a conscious selection of objects determined the composition of the hoard. It is suggested that the fragmented objects were part of the spoils of a battle. Some liturgical objects, one of which is considered a part of a bishop’s head dress, another is part of a cross, were considered to represent members of the clergy present at such a battle. The day after this vivid picture of battling bishops colored the pages of the Times.

The Staffordshire Hoard conference, photograph by Howard

The hoard, consisting of fragmented and destroyed objects, may however be removed several steps from the collection of complete objects on a battle field. In the discussion Frans Theuws suggested that the fragmentation and destruction of objects could be considered an important act in the transformation of the original enchanted objects to just bullion reducing them to their material value only, so they could be melted and recycled. For the Rural Riches project the conference was an important experience of great help in the reflection on the circulation of gold (including recycling) and the distribution of wealth in Merovingian times.

Admiring the beautiful Old English and Merovingian archaeology in the Ashmolean museum, Oxford

The journey continued to Oxford where we were warmly received by Professor Helena Hamerow and her team of the ERC funded project FeedSax. The FeedSax project uses highly sophisticated and innovative scientific methods offered by the laboratories of the Oxford Archaeological Institute, to study the expansion of cereal cultivation in early medieval England. Papers were presented by members of both projects. This highly productive exchange of information between two simultaneously funded ERC projects was very stimulating.

For the Rural Riches team it was highly rewarding because one of our goals is to analyse the possible early agricultural specialization in parts of northern Gaul where regions might concentrate on either wine production or grain cultivation already in Merovingian times. The next day our team was offered a very informative tour through the Oxford Archaeological Institute laboratories. Dr. Liz Strout showed us her isotope research on animals and plants, while professor Thomas Higham demonstrated the latest developments on radiocarbon dating and the complicated process of sample preparation.

A grazing field for pigs?

An ‘empty shell’, ‘ghost town’, or even a ‘field for pigs’. The prevailing image of the early medieval town in northern Gaul just after the collapse of Roman authority in the fifth century is one of crumbling ruins. For a long time, preconceived notions of what an early medieval town ought to look like have cast their shadow over the evidence. But new archaeological discoveries and a fresh perspective on the written sources is starting to change this picture. Here, I will zoom in on one such town: Cologne around the year five hundred.

You can read the rest of the blog over at its original publication at Leiden Medievalist Blog.

The blog post is written by Jip Barreveld for the Leiden Medievalist Blog, based on ongoing research for his dissertation on ‘Towns and elites in Merovingian northern Gaul’ as part of the Rural Riches project.

Source image:  https://www.livius.org/pictures/france/juvincourt/juvincourt-merovingian-farm-model/

Rural Riches on Twitter

Rural Riches can now be found on Twitter! Although we love to be with our minds deep in the Merovingian past, we also recognize that sometimes it is important to catch up with modernity. With Twitter we hope to increase our public outreach and contribute to the valorization of knowledge.

We will use Twitter to bring attention to new blog articles on this website, but we will also use it independently to report on the project, the team, and the world of Merovingian archaeology at large. It should be interesting both for specialists and interested lay(wo)men alike. So, if you are on Twitter and like Merovingian archaeology, make sure to to follow @RichesRural.

If you have news pertaining to Merovingian archaeology or history that you would like to share to the world, please contact us! Both our website and Twitter are meant as a platform for research on the Merovingian world.

Source image: Jessie Daniels, ’10 Things about Twitter for Academics’, JustPublics@365

Protons to track the movements of pots and potters

As published by R. Legoux, Merovingian pots with the same decoration can be found in distant places. In 2017, M. Kars and F. Theuws noticed that pots with identical roulette stamp impressions are known from the cemetery of Sittard (grave 86), Obbicht (grave 43) and Rhenen (grave 159). Six fragments with a similar impression were also found in the potters’ kiln n°4 excavated in Maastricht-Wyck. The sites of Obbicht, Sittard and Maastricht are 20 km apart, but the distance between them and Rhenen is about 125 km. It is certain that the roulette stamp was used in Maastricht-Wyck and that this workshop produced pots with this decoration. So, the pot from Rhenen might have come from this place.

In order to prove it, this week, we proceed to macroscopic exams and to chemical analyses by PIXE-PIGE in order to know if the techniques and materials were the same and in order to check if the pot found in Rhenen was “made in Maastrich”.

The first results show that the clay is different and that the pot from Rhenen was not produced at the same place that those found in Limburg. If they still need to be controlled, they might be the proof of artisans’ movements.

Rural Riches in Huy

On February 28th and March 21st the entire Rural Riches team attended a conference in the town of Huy (Belgium), located along the river Meuse. Several excavations in Huy have uncovered evidence for craft activities, indicating that the town was a significant center for early medieval production. Over the course of the Merovingian period, all major artisanal crafts were practiced here, including the production of pottery, glass, iron, copper alloy, bone and antler.

Catherine Péters and Sophie de Bernardy de Sigoyer present an overview of the excavations from Huy.

The conference was organised by Catherine Péters and Sophie de Bernardy de Sigoyer from the AWaP (l’Agence wallonne du Patrimoine), in cooperation with Line van Wersch from the Rural Riches project. It was attended by archaeologists, material specialists, historians and other researchers from Wallonia and beyond. Rural Riches team members Frans Theuws and Martine van Haperen presented a general introduction to the RR project and an inter-regional perspective on the production from Huy. Line van Wersch presented the results of her studies on the pottery production sites from Huy.

The craft center in Huy will be a central case study for the Rural Riches project, in our research on the modus operandi of Merovingian artisans. We are grateful for the generous spirit of the AWaP in allowing us to work with this material, which is currently still partially unpublished.

Line van Wersch presents her work on the pottery production from Huy.
The conference was attended by material specialists, historians and other researchers.

The large cemetery of Broechem published

Yesterday, December 14 2018, the publication of the large cemetery of Broechem near Antwerp was presented in Brussels. Rica Annaert and her team invested many years of research resulting in two large volumes with an analysis of the cemetery and an extensive catalogue presenting in detail the evidence on each grave. The analysis is characterized by a truly interdisciplinary approach. This cemetery will be one of the key sites for the study of Merovingian society in Flanders and the southern Netherlands. Rica Annaert pointed out herself that the present analysis, although already extensive, is only the start of exploiting the research potential of this site. 

Annaert, R., 2018: Het vroegmiddeleeuwse grafveld van Broechem/The early medieval cemetery of Broechem, Volume 1 Analyse/Analyses, volume 2 Catalogue, Habelt Verlag, Bonn. (Merovingian Archaeology in the Low Countries, 300 and 594 pp respectively)

Rica Annaert presenting the Broechem cemetery in Brussels

The Pyre & the Grave

In December 2018 Femke Lippok, our PhD member working on changing burial rites organised a conference drawing attention to the much neglected cremation burials in early medieval continental archaeology. Experts from Belgium, Germany, the UK and the Netherlands came together to discuss the occurrence and interpretation of this intriguing way of disposal of the dead. The graves are interesting on their own accord, and in addition they point out the minimal attention that has been paid to variability and compatibility of diverse grave types. The conference started out from the premise of considering local burial repertoires from a bottom-up perspective. Discussions on how a grave is constructed in a social sense, how decisions surrounding funerals were made,  what social aspects have a role in dealing with death were focal points.  
We’d like to thank all participants for making this expert meeting a success. From Brussel, Dries Tys, Rica Annaert and Sarah Dalle were present. Raimund Masanz came all the way from Berlin. Egge Knol travelled from Groningen and Howard Williams from Chester. Frans Theuws, Martine van Haperen, Arjan Louwen and myself were participants from Leiden.

If this sparks your interest, read the well written description of the talks and discussions by Howard Williams here.