An elite Merovingian cemetery in Germany has yielded a wide range of warrior weapons and luxury jewelry. But what is getting all the attention in the media is the headless horse that was discovered buried next to its warrior owner in one of the graves. The headless horse, which was decapitated, was found alongside an ancient Merovingian elite warrior skeleton, surrounded by weapons and rare jewelry.
The Merovingians, a Frankish royal dynasty that ruled over all of France and parts of neighboring Germany and Switzerland from the middle of the 5th century until 751 AD, as the Roman Empire continued its collapse.
The elite Merovingian graveyard is located in a traditional timber-house town that was for the longest time called Cnudellingen (modern-day Knittlingen), in the southern German state of Baden-Wuerttemberg. A total of 110 elite Merovingian graves have been identified at the site.
And according to Zenger News , Folke Damminger, the State Office for Monument Preservation officer in charge of the cemetery, said the latest discoveries “provide key indications regarding the social status of the deceased.”
The skeleton of the Merovingian warrior who owned the headless horse, which he took with him into the afterlife. ( Folke Damminger / Baden-Wuerttemberg State Office for Monument Preservation in the Stuttgart Government Presidium )
Merovingian Elites: Headless Horses and Luxury Grave Goods
In a statement, the Regional Council of Stuttgart, which has been overseeing excavations at the dig site since August, said the grave structures included several simple burials and more elaborate wooden grave chambers . The archaeologists revealed that these were social elites as they had all been buried wearing costly traditional medieval clothing .
Furthermore, all of the bodies were found with elaborate jewelry including pearl necklaces, fibulas (clasps), earrings and arm rings, as well as belt hangers with decorative discs, and everyday utensils (knives, combs). According to the State Office statement, among the more spectacular of the recovered items, a woman’s grave was found with an almost complete “fibula outfit.” And a “gold disc brooch” in a younger woman’s grave was said to “herald the fashion of the seventh century.”
This “gold disc brooch” found in a younger woman’s elite grave was said to “herald the fashion of the seventh century.” ( Folke Damminger / Baden-Wuerttemberg State Office for Monument Preservation in the Stuttgart Government Presidium )
Sustaining the Merovingian Dead in the Afterlife
Many of the buried Merovingian elite males had served as cavalrymen, which was evident from the recovery of many swords, shields, lances, and arrow heads at the site. Smashed ceramic jar vessels found in the graves held remains of eggshells and bones, which must have served as sustenance in the afterlife.
For answers to why a decapitated horse was discovered at the site, we can look to the early medieval Wulfsen horse burial , in the village of Wulfsen, in the German district of Harburg. A 1974 excavation of this site unearthed 35 human burials and three horse skeletons inside a steep-walled pit. All three horses were lying on their left side, oriented in the south–north direction, and their heads were placed in an upright position.
Based on the geographical orientation of the horse’s remains, this burial was dated to 700–800 AD, just like the newly discovered decapitated horse at the Knittlingen site in Germany. So why did early medieval Merovingian bury their dead warriors with horses?
A decorative belt hanger disc found at the Knittlingen cemetery site. ( Folke Damminger / Baden-Wuerttemberg State Office for Monument Preservation in the Stuttgart Government Presidium )
Buried Horses Signify High Status
In 1975, German archaeologist Claus Ahrens said, “the funerals of animals, especially of individual horses, are well known from many grave fields of the Early Middle Ages.” Furthermore, often buried with gold bridles, horse skeletons found in human cemeteries are always associated with “social elites.”
Archaeologists generally agree that the act of killing/sacrificing a horse for burial with its master was a blatant symbol of great wealth and power.
The earliest horse burial in the world was discovered at S’ezzhee, in a Volga cemetery from the Samara culture, dating back to the 5th or 4th millennium BC. Later, the Greek historian Herodotus described the burial of horses in mounds by the Scythians, who disemboweled the animals before internment.
In conclusion, horses were exceptionally expensive burial goods and only the most fortunate people in history could ever have afforded one. And only the top 00.1 percent of horse owners took their loyal creatures with them, on that longest of roads.
Top image: The remains of the headless horse found in an elite Merovingian grave in Knittlingen, Germany. Source: Folke Damminger / Baden-Wuerttemberg State Office for Monument Preservation in the Stuttgart Government Presidium
By Ashley Cowie