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Femke Lippok wins W.A. van Es-prize for her pioneering work on early medieval burial rites

During the 2019 Reuvensdagen, PhD candidate Femke Lippok was awarded the prestigious W.A. van Es-prize for her research master’s thesis The Pyre and the Grave, written in 2017. The jury lauded Femke for her pioneering work and making use of big data analysis, while adding an admirably expansive and valuable dataset for further study.

A bit surreal

Femke had not exactly seen it coming. ‘I submitted the thesis already two years ago. So when I got a call from the committee’s chair, Roos van Oosten, also a colleague, it was a bit surreal.’ Roos told her Femke received the prize together with Pir Hoebe, from the University of Groningen. The jury reported that the quality of nominations was really high and that after weeks of debating the choice was made to award two submissions,  instead of one.

Opposites

The prize-winning master’s thesis had as main topic early medieval burial rites in the Low Countries. ‘We find inhumation as well as cremation burials. Since the 19th century, cremations have always been conceptualised as exact opposites of inhumations.’ Where inhumations represented elite Christian burials, cremations were thought to be representative of the poor peasant peoples, holding on to their old believes. ‘Inhumation was seen as progress, whereas cremations were seen as something oldfashioned. So I set out to make an overview of all early medieval cremation burials to investigate these claims. Interestingly, I discovered that in most cases where cremation occurs, contemporaneous inhumations are found as well.’

Femke concluded that there is no opposition in the burial rites. ‘My thesis points out that these societies have a ritual repertoire in which they encompass both cremation as well as inhumation, without that being ethnically, status or religiously defined.’

Transformation

Her argument intersects with a wider discussion about the early middle ages. ‘It is a time period that generates more and more interest. Esince it had earned the name“dark ages”, the stereotypically apocalyptic image is that when the Romans leave, people turn into savages, the countryside is depleted of people, and there is destruction everywhere.’ The past decades have seen a drive to nuance. ‘Instead of a collapse, we now speak about the transformation of the Roman world to the early middle ages.’

Thinking about burial

Femke’s thesis subject is closely related to the research project she works on as a PhD at our Faculty. ‘What I am most passionate about, is to find out how these early medieval people think about burial. How did they come up with the concept what a burial should look like?’ and how are such ideas shared between communities? A pivotal moment occurs around 450-500 AD, in which people all over Europe suddenly start burying their death in row grave cemeteries. ‘This has often been explained by a Germanic elite migrating into new regions, taking with them their habits and changing the local burial rites. But this does not account for the burial as a social transformation in which local norms and values would have been pivotal to laying the dead to rest in an appropriate manner. Nor does it account for further developing burial rites. That is what I am working on now.’

In a sense, she employs the theory that she developed in her thesis in her current PhD project. ‘It is all about the development of burial rituals, their diversity and the placement of objects and what that has to do with agency of local people in ritual economies.’ After a second, she adds an enthusiastic: ‘Yes!’

Femke Lippok presenting her winning thesis research at the Reuvensdagen.

Rural communities

The historic view is that ethnic identities were shaped in the early middle ages leading to the development of the medieval kingdoms, and, later on, Europe as we know it. ‘Archaeology nuances that statement, by looking at the rural communities that the historic sources usually do not reach. From an archaeological perspective you can tell fascinating stories. You come up with storylines for people who are otherwise ignored. I want to make those subaltern voices heard.’

Publication

With the prize money, Femke plans to publish a book on an excavation in Gennep she worked on years ago. ‘I have been working on this as a student, but there was never enough money for an actual publication.’ Like her thesis, the book is on the combination of cremation and inhumation burials.

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