Universiteit Leiden

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Archaeology students find 7th-century graves

Two graves dating from the 7th century have been discovered during an archaeological excavation in Leiden. One of the graves was found by a student of Archaeology during the first-year fieldwork project that took place at the same time as the excavation. The well-preserved graves are interesting because little is known about the inhabitants of the coastal region and their burial rituals in the Merovingian period.

Different from the rest of Europe

These are two isolated graves side by side in the landscape, while in the rest of Europe burial fields were much more common. 'The burial rituals in the coastal area seem to differ from the rest of Europe. The graves we have discovered may explain the difference in how people treated their dead on the continent and in the coastal areas,' Frans Theeuws, Leiden professor of Medieval Archaeology commented. 'Once we have studied them, the skeletons and burial gifts will tell us more about the people who lived in this region between 600 and 700 BC.'

Step by step

Students have played different sports on the fields at Plesmanlaan in the Bio Science Park for years. Nobody suspected that 7th-century remains lay buried just 100 cm under the surface of the field. This is an important find for the history of Leiden. 'I think it's fantastic,' Mayor Henri Lenferink said. 'We know very little from this period and we're very curious about what happened here in the time after the Roman Empire. Bit by bit we're starting to construct the story, thanks in part to these graves.' 

Research continues

The two individuals buried in the graves are young men who lived in the 7th century. They were both buried in a coffin. It was common practice at the time to bury the dead fully clothed and with their personal weapons and jewels. The first skeleton excavated was wearing a short sword on a belt. The second was buried with a large number of artefacts: clothes pins, a belt with a large buckle and a large lump of metal under his head, although we have no idea what this object is.    

It is a time-consuming business excavating such a complex grave so the decision was taken to preserve the grave whole. The skeleton will be further examined in a lab using modern techniques, such as DNA testing and isotope research. 

First-year practical Faculty of Archaeology

Every year around 80 new students start their studies at Leiden's Faculty of Archaeology. In the first year, archaeological fieldwork is part of the programme. This year the fieldwork was in Leiden, close to the faculty building. The students worked here under the supervision of lecturer Jasper de Bruin and an experienced team of archaeologists from Archol (Archaeological Research Leiden)  headed by Minja Hemminga. The plot of land is soon to be developed by the University's Real Estate department. Research on the soil layers of any land under development is a fixed part of all construction preparations at the  Bio Science Park Campus.

Leiden in the Merovingian period

In recent years, archaeologists working near to the Plesmanlaan have mainly discovered remains from the 11th century and later. Several years ago, Leiden University excavated a large settlement dating from the 6th and 7th centuries on the other side of the A44. This fieldwork, too, was part of the student's programme. This settlement was located on what had previously been the banks of the Rhine and had a harbour with jetties and retaining walls. It must therefore have been a trading settlement where shipping and goods from the North Sea region passed through. During this excavation, a few 7th-century graves were found on the edge of the settlement. It is not uncommon for inciental graves to be found ibn a seettlement. A settlementof this size would have had a large number of inhabitants. It is assumed that the dead were mainly buried outside the settlement and that  there must have been some 120 graves in the area. The current archaeological research has now been completed  and future research in the immediate vicinity can explore where these people were buried.  

Image: Erfgoed Leiden
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Report by UnityFM on the excavation site where the two skeletons were found (in Dutch)

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