Headless horses found in Merovingian graves in Knittlingen

Recent excavations have revealed 140 Merovingan graves at Knittlingen near Stuttgart. Some of the graves were accompanied by decapitated and headless horses.

Brooch from 7th century grave at Knittlingen
Brooch from 7th century grave at Knittlingen © Regeringspräsidium Stuttgart 2021

Knittlingen lies in a fertile region known for the cultivation of wine and has been settled since the stone age. In the first century AD, the region was incorporated into the Roman Empire, which secured a well-organised system of roads in the area. Later in the 4th century, the Alamannians settled to be bested at the end of the 5th century by the Franks (the Merovingians). The name, Knittlingen, dates from this period. Knittlingen – “Cnudelingen” – means the place of “the people of Cnudil”, Cnudil being an Old High German/Scandinavian personal name, Knutr*. The meaning of the name is debated – son, young man, noble, “man who fights with a battle glove” (Caestus) aka a knuttilkempfo* (boxer). At the time of its foundation, c. 500-550, Knittlingen probably housed between 55-75 people, the equivalent of perhaps 5-10 farms, depending on the estimated numer of people in a household. .

Later the settlement was characterised (in AD 843) as a fortress at the border of the Palatine, the site belonged to the Counts of Palatine. Later, it was donated to the Cistercian Abbey of Maulbronn. Since the 15th century, it has had the status of a small town.

Male skeleton from Knittlingen, 6th century.
Male skeleton from Knittlingen, 6th century.© Regeringspräsidium Stuttgart 2021

Since 1920, archaeologists and historians have been aware of a sizeable Merovingian burial ground. The cemetery was discovered in connection with the construction of a planned railroad. Later in 1984, several graves were excavated. Finally, the site was recently excavated as part of a rescue operation. This work has led to further knowledge about the site, where more than 140 graves have been revealed, many organised in rows and with many finds – jewellery, pearl necklaces, earrings, belts, and weaponry in the form of swords, lances, shields and arrowheads. In addition, several graves were fitted with ceramic vessels containing remnants of food, animal bones and eggshells left by the mourners. Bronze vessels in other graves document the focus on owning and exhibiting luxurious tableware.

Some graves from the second part of the 6th century are of particular interest. For example, one woman was laid to rest with a complete set of fibulas, while another – a male – was buried with his equestrian equipment.

Noteworthy is the early 6th century grave of a man entombed in a circular mound. Unfortunately, this grave – perhaps Knutr’s – had been robbed, and details have so far not been forthcoming.

Of particular interest are the burials of two beheaded horses dated to the first phase of the burial ground, AD 500-550. The burials indicate a pre-Christian date of the settlement. Likely, the heads were displayed at or near the burial site. Or they were included in the gravechamber as a pars pro toto (as was perhaps the case at Tournai in the grave of Childeric).


PRESS: Archäologische Denkmalpflege: frühmittelalterliches Gräberfeld von Knittlingen (Enzkreis) | Archäologinnen und Archäologen untersuchen 110 Gräber. Regeringspräsidium Stuttgart 2021


Die Merowingerzeit im südlichen Kraichgau und in den angrenzenden Landschaften: Untersuchungen zur Siedlungsgeschichte des 5.-8. Jahrhunderts im Gebiet zwischen Oberrhein, Stromberg und Nordschwarzwald
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Dwellings, Settlements and Settlement Patterns in Merovingian Southwest Germany and adjacent Areas.
By Folke Damminger
In: Franks and Alemanni in the Merovingian Period. An Ethnographic Perspective. Ed. By Ian Wood. Boydell Press 1998, pp. 33-89


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