The Landscape around Dirmstein

Merovingian Graves in Dirmstein

Tracing residential mobility trough isotopic analysis demonstrates once more that grave-goods and funeral practice cannot be used as ethnic markers

Dirmstein is a small town with roughly 3000 inhabitants. The landscape is flat and known for its wine-growing. To the east flows the Rhine, while a more hilly and forested landscape of the Rhineland-Palatinate lies to the west. It lies not far from the place at Zülpich near Cologne, where the Merovingians are believed to have fought the Allemani at the battle of Tolbiac in AD 496/506. As such Dirmstein should be located in the region, which it is claimed that the Alemanni abandoned after the Battle.

Dirmstein is known for its interesting Merovingian burial ground from the early 6th to 8th century. With a total of 284 graves and at least 350 individuals it represents a classic example of a row grave. The earliest phase covers c. AD 530 – 580 ad is represented by 30 graves.

Archaeological studies have indicated that these graves were could be grouped inside to distinct burial traditions. To the west was found a traditional row-grave cemetery with the graves aligned east-west and containing Merovingian wheel-thrown pottery. To the north –east a different community was found with graves containing handmade vessels; some graves were even oriented north-south. Further, studying these vessels they were found to be decorated in the style characteristic up north along the Lower Elbe, the North sea and the Middle Weser regions.

However, recently a study was published carried out by Christine Schuh and Cheryl A. Makarewicz, which present the results from isotopic analysis carried out on the human remains inside the two distinct burial compounds.

To say the least, the results are remarkable. The strontium isotopic analysis of a subset of the sixth century burial community of Dormstein clearly revealed the presence of six individuals who…can be considered as newcomers, they write. However, of these only one newcomer, had been buried with an uncommon burial rite. What we know of Dirmstein is thus that at least seven of the 25 individuals studied – or 28% – could be identified as foreigners. However, these were not identical with the people buried in the distinctive fashion of the Saxons. “It has been shown that there was no consistent pattern between burial evidence and geographical origin”, they conclude.

Another explanation for the two distinct compounds were also investigated. Might the different burial customs have to do with an alignment to “ethnicity” of the two elite-graves, which was located in the north-east. The answer to this is no. Of these, the male was “foreign” but he had moved to the regions as a child. The female was local. Another option explored by the archaeologists were that the “foreigners” were representative of a exogamous pattern of partnering followed by relocation. However, both men and woman among the newcomers makes this explanation unviable.

The article thus contributes to the general conclusions, which have been reached elsewhere: wherever strontium analysis is carried out it does not seem to indicate there is a distinct correlation between material culture and geographical origin.

“This implies that factors other than residential provenance were more important in the burial practices during the Merovingian period in the Upper Rhine Valley”, they write and continue: “Perhaps the foreign material cultural elements rather represent forms of cultural exchange and expressions of socio-political interactions rather than direct evidence of residential mobility?”

We might add: in the same manner as the grave of Childeric AD 482 also presented a composite and diversified picture seemingly meant to communicate with different guests and nblookers

Dirmstein Rhineland-Pfalzen


Tracing residential mobility during the Merovingian period: An isotopic analysis of human remains from the Upper Rhine Valley, Germany.
By C. Schuh and Ca. Makarewicz
In: American Journal of Physical Anthropology (2016) Vol. 161, No. 1: pp. 155 – 69


Das merowingerzeitliche Gräberfeld Dirmstein - CoverDas merowingerzeitliche Gräberfeld Dirmstein, Kreis Bad Dürkheim
By Ulrike Leithäuser
Series: Universitätsforschungen zur prähistorischen Archäologie)
Rudolf Habelt Verlag 2011
ISBN-10: 3774937508
ISBN-13: 978-3774937505