A number of burial mounds in North Brabant will be renovated, and the pile wreaths will be renewed. These are circles of wooden poles that prehistoric people often placed around the hills. But archaeologists first study the soil archive, in order to conserve those ancient soils as much as possible during restoration.
These are special days for the archaeologists of the Cultural Heritage Agency (RCE). Project leader Liesbeth Theunissen, who once obtained her PhD on Middle Bronze Age societies, dug work pits last month with her colleagues in three of the nine 3,500-year-old pile wreath burial mounds west of Eindhoven. As a result, the Middle Bronze Age ground level under the hills reappeared.
This was the ground that inhabitants in prehistoric times covered with heather sods to bury and honor their dead. The archaeologists compared the current soil with the work of Willem Glasbergen, the first scientist who half a century ago excavated most of the burial mounds in this region and then accurately mapped the structure and the soil underneath. Fifteen of the thirty-four burial mounds were restored after the excavations; they consist of sand that has been thrown back after the archaeological investigation. Nothing remains of the other nineteen burial mounds; it has been farmland for decades.
The archaeologists found few differences between the old drawings and the soil as they found it now. “At the time, Glasbergen employed very capable surveyors,” says Theunissen. “We also noticed that the piles that have been placed since that time have caused little damage to the old soil.”
New research methods
Theunissen is sure that the oldest postholes have not been touched in thousands of years because soil formation has taken place at the edges of the tracks. Archaeologists – like Glasbergen half a century ago – sometimes chose to keep the disturbance to a minimum. Theunissen:“Excavation also immediately entails destruction. The soil archive can only be 'read' once, after that it is gone. That is the paradox of the archaeologist:a researcher who destroys his only source through research.”
The Bronze Age traces left behind by the thousands of years old piles were not excavated either. This way they remain available for future generations of scientists, safely in the soil. Because as time goes by, new research questions constantly arise and new analysis techniques become available that also benefit archaeologists.
“We now know that these burial mounds have been in use for 450 years,” explains Theunissen, “and not 600 years, as previous generations of archaeologists thought. That this is now known for sure is because the analysis of carbon isotopes (C14 method) has also been applicable to burned bone since the beginning of this century. That's new. This has been possible on charcoal since 1950. This makes it possible to date cremated remains more accurately.”
In the Middle Bronze Age, around 1500 BC, cremation was common. “Urns with the cremation remains were buried in the burial mounds, but it was also possible that the ashes were placed in leather or textile bags and sometimes in a trunk box. But nothing is left of those bags," says Theunissen. “We will still find the ashes and charcoal remains.”
Strolling across the fields
The urns and other finds were transferred to the Noord-Brabants Museum in the course of the twentieth century. It is true that they are safely stored there, but to Theunissen's dissatisfaction they are not visible to the public. “There is little attention in Dutch museums for the Bronze Age,” says the archaeologist, who roamed the fields as a child in search of prehistoric finds. “Back then I only found pipe bowls, but nothing special,” she laughs.
Theunissen has more than made up for it in her scientific career. Her PhD research was about Middle Bronze Age societies in the Southern Netherlands and Flanders. This also included burial mound research. She then wrote several popular science books to bring archeology to the attention of a large audience (see 'Resources and more reading').
High and dry
It is not only the burial mounds in this area that have pile wreaths. The circles of wooden posts that are placed close ('close') or far from each other ('widened') in the hill are also found in Drenthe, but also in England and Belgium. Archaeologists deduce from this that there were many contacts between the prehistoric peoples at that time.
There are also double and even triple circles. Such a hill, with or without pole wreaths, must have been a clear beacon in the largely open heath landscape in the Middle Bronze Age. In North Brabant, the burial mounds are now in a wooded area, but this used to be an open and undeveloped heath landscape. The prehistoric inhabitants applied them high and dry on a sand ridge by stacking heather sods on top of each other, but an environment with water was also popular. For example, the 'landscape of the dead' could already be seen from afar.
The more than thirty burial mounds that have already been discovered in Toterfout-Half Mile are not the only ones. There must be more between the well-known hills, but these have become so flat over time that they are barely visible in the landscape. And certainly not in the woods with a lot of dry leaves and here and there an elevation by tree roots. The Current Height File of the Netherlands (AHN) is therefore very useful for archaeologists, a digital file in which the height of the Netherlands can be seen in detail, even to the nearest centimetre. “With the naked eye, very small elevations can only be seen if the light has snowed in combination with grazing light,” explains Theunissen.
The RCE developed a method to demonstrate undiscovered and flat burial mounds. “We are doing this step by step,” explains Theunissen. “First we look at whether it is a logical place for a funerary monument, and then we start drilling. If the transition in the bore is abrupt, it usually concerns recent embankments. If they are vague transitions, they can be very old elevations. Sometimes there is still a sod structure present.” Burial mounds were originally made by placing sods on the bottom and placing cremated remains in it. Sometimes the burial mounds were raised and widened to create space for new burials.
Why pole wreaths?
But what was the purpose of those pole wreaths? Why would prehistoric man have decorated the hills with it? “It is always very difficult to say anything with certainty about the behavior of prehistoric man,” says Theunissen after years of experience. “Archaeologists think differently about their meaning. You can see it as a demarcation, as a boundary or marking of the area of the dead. Or as an extra element to make the funerary monument more visually attractive and more visible. Perhaps the uprights were connected with horizontal crossbars. And perhaps the wooden posts were artfully crafted, with carvings or colored and decorated with objects such as antlers. In any case, they looked different from the wooden fence posts of the Gamma.”
“We do know for sure that about ten percent of the people from a Bronze Age community are buried here, both men, women and children. We do not know what happened to the other deceased individuals. Perhaps they were left behind, or, like the Indians, placed in trees. We sometimes also find cremation remains directly under the posts, but that was not common use.”
In the coming summer, IVN volunteers will replace the poles. In prehistoric times oak was used, now the municipalities have opted for 270 piles of the European hardwood species robinia. Unfortunately, the mysterious hills in the silent forest don't command the respect of the dead from everyone. Last month a copper plate was stolen that has served as a map of the Toterfoutse burial mounds for half a century; a complete garland of poles – in fact without any monetary value – was also taken by thieves. Fortunately, the 'layout plate', although damaged, was found a few days ago. Added to this is the temptation for mountain bikers (and sometimes even motocross riders) to race over the hills, creating a tire track. The RCE now advises the municipality to move the cycle paths through these forests at a greater distance from the hills.