Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Constructing powerful identities

This research seeks to understand the rise and social and ideological meaning of the chieftains’ burials in the Low Countries and their relation to the Fürstengräber in Central Europe.

2012 - 2016
The Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) The Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO)

Relations with other projects

While the Constructing Powerful Identities project considers the elite burials of Early Iron Age burials in the Low Countries, the burials of the common man are studied in the Breaking and Making the Ancestors research project. These two projects work closely with each other in order to create a comprehensive understanding of Early Iron Age burial practices. As most Early Iron Age elite burials are found in barrows, this research project works closely with the Ancestral Mounds research project. A number of burials come from the Maaskant region and this project therefore also collaborates with the Maaskant research project.

Project description

One of the most iconic finds from Dutch prehistory is the so-called princely grave from Oss. Containing items like elaborate horse-gear, a gold inlaid sword and a large bronze vessel, it is one of the richest grave finds ever done in the Low Countries. It is part of a group of graves found in the southern Netherlands which all date to the Early Iron Age (800-500 BC) and represent unprecedentedly elaborate and monumental burials, with imports from Central Europe. The burial gifts closely resemble similar sets present in stunningly elaborate graves from southern Germany and Austria known as Hallstatt C/D  Fürstengräber. However, the burials of Oss and others like it in the Netherlands and adjacent Belgium have always been described as literally worn-out peripheral manifestations, incomparable with their rich counterparts of the Hallstatt Culture in Central Europe. 

Recent research suggests a radically different picture. A survey of all the finds from a selection of Dutch ‘princely’ graves has shown that these burials not only contain far more Central European ‘princely’ paraphernalia than thought, they also appear to contain high-quality items, challenging the established interpretation of these burials being feeble derivatives. Of particular interest is that these imported items appear to have been treated in a different way from what happened in Central Europe. Elaborately decorated wagons and yokes appear to have been entirely dismantled, transformed by folding and breaking, and finally only elements were deposited in burials. In addition to this, the last decade saw the discovery of new Hallstatt burials in the Netherlands, the first to be excavated following modern research standards, yielding a wealth of new data. There are therefore reasons to think that the cluster of  ‘rich’ Hallstatt finds in the Low Countries might not be just the western periphery of the Hallstatt culture, but that this region constitutes a core area in its own right, with its own character and its own interpretation of classic Hallstatt objects. Our chieftains’  burials may contain the same objects, such as richly decorated wagons, yokes and horse-gear, swords, knives, razors and personal ornaments, but the objects have been re-contextualized in a regionally specific manner. 

This research aims to bring into view what is specific, special and unique about the Hallstatt culture cluster in the Low Countries. How and why did Early Iron Age people incorporate these new and radically different objects into their own local and age-old burial traditions? Can detailed examination of the finds reveal how people treated these objects? What does this tell us about the meanings of the objects, and about their own owners? How should we view the ‘rich’ burials in relation to the normal and contemporaneous practice of egalitarian urnfield burials and what does this reveal about the way society was organized in the Low Countries during the Early Iron Age?

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