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Research seminar: Burial in East and West


Admission requirements

Admission to the RMA-programme in Archaeology.


The analysis of burial rites has been central to much archaeological research on the transformation of the Roman World in the West.
Changing burial rites were related to the Christianisation of society, to the migration of Germanic peoples, to the militarisation of society, to changing ethnic identities etc.
Most analyses were at a supra-regional level dominated by the interpretation of distribution maps and typo-chronological research. Moreover the interpretations were dominated by what could be called a ‘historiographical perspective’. Changing burial rites were interpreted in the light of what was known from historical sources on socio-political events.

However, the interpretation of burial rites as an important element in defining values, norms and ideas on various aspects such as gender, social relations and power, as a series of performative acts in the process of negotiation on such matters, or as a discourse on such matters is not yet common science on the continent.
This does not mean that we have to discard all previous interpretations and deny the importance of religious change. As said, burial archaeology was and still is an important research field in the archaeology of the transformation of the Roman world in the West. However in the East, burial archaeology lags behind in relation to settlement archaeology. In this course we will therefore also look at the reasons for this situation.

The course will consist of a combination of becoming acquainted with burial archaeology, doing new research, doing some practical work in data collection, and work with material from a Merovingian cemetery.
First we will start to read and discuss some general works on burial archaeology in the West to familiarise ourselves with the topic (see the reading list below).
Next we will familiarise ourselves with the burial archaeology in a research area that we are going to deal with more specifically in the West: The Benelux and the German Länder NorthRhein-Westfalen and the northern part of Rheinland-Pfalz.
After that we will deal with a series of ‘rich’ burials from the period 450-750 AD. Our goal will be to analyse the meaning of these ‘rich’ burials. Can they be simply interpreted as those of aristocrats or do we have to consider a series of other interpretations of these lavish burials?
One specific assignment will be to complete the GIS map of early medieval burials in the Netherlands. After that it will be possible to perform a series of analyses on the distribution of those burials in the country.
Also, we will work on the material of a Merovingian cemetery (we have yet to establish which one that will be), and familiarise ourselves with the burial archaeology in the East on the basis of publications.

Course objectives

The course will contribute to the qualifications of a Research Master as formulated by the Faculty of Archaeology. See document provided on Blackboard. We will discuss this in the first meeting.
More specifically this course contributes to domains A1 and A2, B1, C2, C3, E1-E8.

The main course objectives are:

  • Developing the ability of critical assessment of current research on this topic;

  • Expanding on the knowledge of material culture of the late Roman and early medieval periods;

  • Developing theoretical knowledge on burial rites;

  • Developing skills in argumentation and reasoning;

  • Developing skills in presentation of research (writing and presentation);

  • Developing teamwork skills.


Course schedule details can be found in the RMA time schedule.

Mode of instruction

Seminar, in which the results of group members will be presented and discussed. There will also be staff presentations on specific topics.

Course load

The course load will be distributed as follows:

Assessment method

  • Essay and deliverables (databases, etc.) (80%);

  • Participation (20 %).

All assessment deadlines (exams, retakes, paper deadlines etc.) can be found in the examination schedule.

Reading list

  • G. Halsall, Settlement and Social Organisation. The Merovingian Region of Metz. Cambridge (1995);

  • F. Theuws & M. Alkemade, “A Kind of Mirror for Men: Sword Depositions in Late Antique Northern Gaul” (1999) in: F. Theuws & J. Nelson (eds.), Rituals of Power from Late Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages. Leiden, 401-476;

  • B. Effros, Caring for Body and Soul. Burial and the Afterlife in the Merovingian World. Pennsylvania State University Press (2002);

  • B. Effros, Merovingian Mortuary Archaeology and the Making of the Early Middle Ages. Berkeley/Los Angeles/London (2003);

  • F. Theuws, “Grave Goods, Ethnicity, and the Rhetoric of Burial Rites in Late Antique Northern Gaul” (2009) in: T. Derks & N. Roymans (eds.), Ethnic Constructs in Antiquity. The Role of Power and Tradition. Amsterdam (2009), 283-319;

  • G. Halsall, Cemeteries and Society in Merovingian Gaul. Selected Studies in History and Archaeology, 1992-2009. Leiden (2010).


Registration for the course is not necessary, registration for the exam is mandatory. For instructions, see the Registration in uSis page.


For more information about this course, please contact prof. dr. F.C.W.J. Theuws.


Compulsory attendance.