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Big Data helps researchers understand burial practices in Medieval Europe

During the sixth century AD, many people in Western Europe stopped burying the dead with personal artifacts and began laying them to rest unadorned. Photo by pxhere/CC
During the sixth century AD, many people in Western Europe stopped burying the dead with personal artifacts and began laying them to rest unadorned. Photo by pxhere/CC

July 29 (UPI) -- Big data analysis techniques have offered archaeologists new insights into the transformation of burial practices across medieval Europe.

At the outset of the sixth century AD, most burials in Western Europe were "furnished," that is, the deceased were buried with accessories -- jewels, tools and other personal effects.

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Beginning around the middle of the century, however, unfurnished burials became widespread. By the seventh century, most people were buried unadorned.

Previously, scientists have pointed to the rapid pace of this cultural transformation as evidence of the interconnectedness of early medieval Europe.

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The latest findings -- published Thursday in the journal Internet Archaeology -- tell a more complex story.

Suspecting the tale of rapid cultural transformation was too simplistic, study author Emma Brownlee, researcher at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research and fellow at Girton College, University of Cambridge, surveyed burial rites data for some 26,000 medieval graves across Western Europe.

Brownlee deployed Big Data analytical techniques to study regional variabilities and regional shifts in burial practices. Her work showed that there was very little about medieval burial practices that was uniform.

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"Burial change across this period has long been viewed as a simple trajectory from a variable, furnished burial rite, to a much more standardized shrouded burial in a churchyard," Brownlee said in a press release.

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She notes that there is wide variation both in how grave good use changed over time, and how it differed to begin with.

"It isn't possible to come up with a simple narrative to explain why funerary rites look a certain way in different parts of Europe, because although there are broad tendencies in certain directions, there is also a huge amount of variation within regions," Brownlee said.

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Brownlee's analysis revealed a connection between Kent and northern France, not in their use of particular burial goods, but in their continued practice of furnished burials well into the seventh century.

At the beginning of the sixth century, popular burial goods in Kent were similar to those popular across the rest of England, where people were often buried with brooches, beads and knives.

"But, while grave good use gradually declined in other parts of England, Kentish graves continued to be richly furnished until the end of the seventh century, when those rich cemeteries were abandoned," Brownlee said.

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"This is exactly what we see in northern France; despite a quite different funerary culture -- with much more focus on vessels in graves -- rich furnishing continues to be common long after it began declining in other areas," she said.

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The analysis suggests stronger cultural connections between Kent and northern France than between Kent and the rest of England.

Meanwhile, Brownlee found evidence of a stronger cultural connection between the rest of England and southern Germany.

"Essentially, there is no way of demonstrating that a certain combination of grave goods indicates one regional tradition over another," she said. "Instead, we see a funerary rite that is influenced by the choices others in a community are making, influenced by the choices made in the surrounding communities, influenced by the identity of the deceased."

Regardless of tracking the changes in graves over time, Brownlee noted that burial is a highly personal practice, and it includes decisions people make during the emotionally charged circumstances of death.

"Other aspects of a funeral, such as the choice of inhumation or cremation, or the use of a coffin, stone settings, or a plain, earth-cut grave, were most likely influenced by similar decisions," she said.

Though regional trends are present, even among very personal choices, Brownlee said overly simplistic narratives in archaeology can obscure important variability in cultural practices.

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