Horse remains buried with cavalryman in Medieval grave

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The remains of the decapitated horse unearthed near Knittlingen.
The remains of the decapitated horse unearthed near Knittlingen. Photo: State Office for the Preservation of Monuments in the Stuttgart Regional Council/F. Damminger

The decapitated skeleton of a horse has been found buried next to its rider in a southwest German cemetery where elite Merovingian nobles and warriors lie.

Archaeologists have been combing a site around the city of Knittlingen, where graves have been identified, including Merovingian nobles and warriors.

The Merovingian Dynasty ruled the Frankish people from the middle of the 5th century until 751.

The fertile area around the city was settled from the Neolithic to the Middle Ages, with several grave fields identified. The main gravesite dates from around the 7th century.

Graves were first discovered in the area in 1920, a little west of the heart of Knittlingen, during construction work for a railway that was never completed. Further work was conducted in 1984.

Now, residential development plans for the area have given rise to further archaeological investigations of the site, carried out by the commissioned company ArchaeoBW.

The State Office for Monument Preservation (LAD) in the Stuttgart Regional Council has also been dealing with one of the grave fields as part of an archaeological excavation.

A filigree gold disc brooch was recovered from a woman's grave.
A filigree gold disc brooch was recovered from a woman’s grave. Photo: State Office for the Preservation of Monuments in the Stuggart Regional Council/F. Damminger

Dr Folke Damminger, with the LAD, said investigations have revealed Stone Age relics in pits. “The few ceramic fragments that have been recovered point to a Neolithic era, around 5000 to 4500 BC.”

However, the main focus has been on the early medieval burials, with around 110 graves uncovered and documented. They were mostly arranged in more or less regular rows.

Members of the local elite were sometimes buried “out of sequence” within a circular ditch.

The grave structures ranged from simple burials to wooden grave chambers. Only vestiges of the wood remain. Some were buried in wooden coffins.

The deceased were buried in their traditional costumes according to the early medieval custom.

Although burial sites were often robbed in the early Middle Ages, many non-organic jewelry components such as pearl necklaces, clasps, earrings and arm rings as well as belt hangers with decorative discs, everyday utensils (knives, combs) and amulets were recovered from the graves of women and girls.

Parts of the weapons equipment – swords, lances, shields and arrowheads – together with the associated belts, come from the male burials.

Ceramic vessels were added to graves, regardless of the gender or age of the dead. They probably contained food. The latter could be detected directly in the form of animal bones and eggshells.

Despite the work of grave robbers, the finds provide indications of the social status of the dead, Damminger said.

The comparatively rich burials from the second half of the sixth century were particularly notable.

One woman was buried with an almost complete outfit typical of the time. In another grave, a gold disc brooch worn individually from a somewhat younger grave heralds the fashion of the seventh century.

Some of the men’s graves identified the deceased as cavalrymen. A decapitated horse was buried in the vicinity of one of these burials. Bronze bowls found in some graves indicate nobility.

The accessory ensembles of the late seventh century, on the other hand, looked somewhat more modest. It is not known whether this is because of a decline in prosperity or a change in the staging of the funerals of the local elites.

The skeletons as well as the other finds have been taken to the central archive in Rastatt. The excavation is scheduled to be completed in the northern spring of this year.

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