ArticlePDF Available

Abstract and Figures

The Avar period cemetery in Frohsdorf is located in eastern Austria in the area of the former western periphery of the Avar Khaganate. In a non-literate culture like that of the Avars, it is only possible to reconstruct everyday culture, including funerary rituals, through archaeological sources. Through archaeological field seasons from 2001 to 2011, we have been able to document numerous coffins and grave fixtures made of wood in inhumation graves. Burials in coffins seemed to be common practice. The coffins are preserved in different states, including wood residues and charred wood residues. In Frohsdorf, in contrast to many other investigated Avar cemeteries, we subjected these coffins and their wooden remains to a detailed analysis. Wood species analyses show a preference for a certain type of wood, namely oak. Based on the preservation status of the wooden remains the authors have developed a hypothesis concerning part of the funeral ritual at this cemetery.
Content may be subject to copyright.
Open Archaeology 2015; Volume 1: 54–78
Gabriele Scharrer-Liška*, Otto Cichocki, Karin Wiltschke-Schrotta
Wooden coffins in the Avar-period cemetery
inFrohsdorf, Lower Austria
Abstract: The Avar period cemetery in Frohsdorf is located in eastern Austria in the area of the former
western periphery of the Avar Khaganate. In a non-literate culture like that of the Avars, it is only possible
to reconstruct everyday culture, including funerary rituals, through archaeological sources. Through
archaeological field seasons from 2001 to 2011, we have been able to document numerous coffins and grave
fixtures made of wood in inhumation graves. Burials in coffins seemed to be common practice. The coffins
are preserved in different states, including wood residues and charred wood residues. In Frohsdorf, in
contrast to many other investigated Avar cemeteries, we subjected these coffins and their wooden remains to
a detailed analysis. Wood species analyses show a preference for a certain type of wood, namely oak. Based
on the preservation status of the wooden remains the authors have developed a hypothesis concerning part
of the funeral ritual at this cemetery.
Keywords: Avar period, Burial ground, Coffin, Early medieval archaeology, Funerary rituals, Wood species analysis
DOI 10.1515/opar-2015-0001
Received August 25, 2014; accepted November 26, 2014
1 Introduction
The Avar cemetery in Frohsdorf is situated in Eastern Austria on a gravel terrace in the southern Vienna
Basin, the so-called Steinfeld, west of the river Leitha close to the Rosalie Mountains. The area associated
with the burial ground and its surroundings had been intersected by old branches of the river and were in
the middle of its floodplains. The graves were dug into the fluvial deposits, which consist of coarse gravel
and sand layers conglomerate.
The site was discovered by aerial archaeological prospection in May 2000. Aerial photographs showed
the burial ground covering approximately 100 meters from the northeast to the southwest and measuring at
its widest part around 60 meters. In this area, we identified almost 280 graves during aerial archaeological
interpretation [1].
Research on the cemetery was undertaken through two small-scale excavations during 2001 and 2002.
From 2004 to 2006 and from 2009 to 2011 with the help of two FWF grants (P16593, P21181) we conducted
large-scale research excavation at this site. In these campaigns, we investigated a total area of 4200 m² and
excavated, documented and retrieved 501 burials.
In contrast to many other excavated and already analyzed Avar burial grounds, we paid special
attention to coffins and wooden fixtures in order to better understand what role they played within Avar
funerary rituals.
Original Study Open Access
© 2015 Gabriele Scharrer-Liška et al., licensee De Gruyter Open.
This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 License.
*Corresponding author: Gabriele Scharrer-Liška: VIAS, Universität Wien, Franz Klein-Gasse 1, 1190 Vienna, Austria,
E-mail: Gabriele.Scharrer@univie.ac.at
Otto Cichocki: VIAS, Universität Wien, Althanstraße 14 UZA II, 2A/224, 1090 Vienna, Austria, Otto.Cichocki@univie.ac.at
Karin Wiltschke-Schrotta: Naturhistorisches Museum Wien, Anthropologische Abteilung, Burgring 7, 1010 Vienna, Austria,
Karin.Wiltschke@nhm-wien.ac.at
- 10.1515/opar-2015-0001
Downloaded from PubFactory at 08/08/2016 02:48:21AM
via free access
Wooden coffins in the Avar-period cemetery in Frohsdorf, Lower Austria 55
2 Preliminary results of the archaeological excavations
The graves are arranged in rows, at times very close to each other, and were elaborately built and well
equipped. Graves were identified through above-ground markings indicated by wooden columns (e.g.
graves 4, 41, 44, 327, 600). In some cases, we assumed these might have been superstructures (e.g. graves
140, 293, 301). The mostly long rectangular grave pits were up to 3.40 m (average 1.26 m) deep. Generally,
the burials were oriented in a NW-SE orientation. Usually the dead were deposited in the dorsal position.
In some cases, there is evidence for deviant burials (e.g. reopening of the grave and manipulation of the
corpse, turned corpse, ventral position).
Above the burial level, we detected animal bones – mostly skulls or parts of skulls from cattle, though
also from sheep or goat [2] – in many cases in a standardized zone of the grave filling. The rule-like
appearance of these findings suggests that they are associated with funeral rites.
In numerous graves, we unearthed wooden coffins and wooden fixtures. The grave furnishings consisted
of dress decoration and grave goods typical of the cultural Avar milieu. Women’s graves contained jewelry
such as earrings (e.g. with s-shaped loops, Kettchenohrgehänge, etc.), glass bead necklaces and (mostly
spiral) finger rings. Next to pelvis or legs, iron knifes were deposited. In many women’s graves, ceramic
vessels [3], which had most likely served as a repository for food or drink offerings, were deposited near
the feet-or lower-leg-area. Moreover, we frequently found ceramic vessels in children’s graves – in many
cases the only grave good. On the other hand, ceramic vessels in men’s graves were rare. Men’s graves
were usually equipped with knives and a steel tool for making fire. As well as in women’s graves (spiral)
finger rings were also found. In addition, men’s graves contained weapons such as arrowheads, more rarely
reflexive composite bows, axes, swords and sabers. A total of 39 well-equipped men’s graves contained cast
belt fittings or belt fittings made of bronze sheets. In most graves animal bones were found near the feet,
which have been interpreted as remnants of food offerings.
Based on common chronological schemes the Frohsdorf graves mainly belong to the 8th century [4,
p. 159; 5, pp. 115116]. Subject to a precise, fine chronological analysis, the entire period of the Frohsdorf
cemetery extends from the mid-7th century to the time after 800.
3 Wooden coffins and wooden fixtures
In Frohsdorf, 298 graves from a total of 501 (60%), we can clearly prove wooden coffins or wooden fixtures
were used. This mostly concerns graves of adult, mature, senile and juvenile individuals. Even though this
has been observed, the determination and evaluation of anthropological data was a problem because of
the very poor state of preservation of the skeletal material, due to soil conditions. It has been found that 91
(approximately 68 %) of 134 women’s graves and 69 (approximately 64 %) of 107 men’s graves definitively
contained wooden coffins. This high percentage of coffins allows the conclusion that in the Avar period
cemetery at Frohsdorf, the burial of the deceased in wooden coffins, regardless of sex / gender and / or age
of death was common.
Out of 80 from the 298 graves, we extracted 132 samples of wood, respectively as charcoal. From these
samples, 97 (approximately 73 %) species or genus were determined. From 23 samples, we differentiated
conifers and hardwood. Some samples contained more than one wood species. In total, coffins’ woods of 48
graves are identified as being hardwood or conifer or belonging to a certain genus (tab. 3).
3.1 Preservation
The preservation conditions of the wooden coffins and fixtures were very different. We proved differences
in coffins and fixtures through colorations, differences in soil consistency, wood residues or charcoal
residues. These common forms occurred individually and combined. In the cases of consistency, coffins’
fillings usually were less compact than the graves’ fillings. This is because the coffins’ cavities were
probably preserved quite long and the surrounding material solidified. After a breakdown of the coffin the
- 10.1515/opar-2015-0001
Downloaded from PubFactory at 08/08/2016 02:48:21AM
via free access
56G. Scharrer-Liška et al.
surrounding material trickled slowly in, which caused the filling of the lower portions of the coffins. In
addition, the dislocations of bones, such as the roll off of skulls, as it was observed in Frohsdorf in many
cases (e.g. graves 43, 98 (fig. 1), 155, 187, 201, 213, 242, 279 (fig. 1a), 291, 350, 417, 484, 569 and 648), is probably
evidence for hollow spaces existing longer during the decomposition process. Thus, we evaluated that as
a hint towards an existence of a coffin, even if no coffin material was preserved [for similar considerations
see 6; 4, p. 84].
In Frohsdorf wooden residues were mostly charred, although in a few cases (graves 10, 20, 34, 50,
85, 103, 350, 384, 580 and 605) uncarbonized. According to present knowledge, this charring is due to
anthropogenic influences respectively heat effects of fire (see paragraph 3.6).
Figure 1: Grave 279 with rolled off skull (photo: Johann Rudorfer)
Figure 1a: Grave 98 with rolled off skull (photo: Bendeguz Tobias)
- 10.1515/opar-2015-0001
Downloaded from PubFactory at 08/08/2016 02:48:21AM
via free access
Wooden coffins in the Avar-period cemetery in Frohsdorf, Lower Austria 57
3.2 Construction and dimensions
According to the preservation and soil conditions (fine sand or coarse gravel), we can verify only a few parts
of coffin constructions. However, in total we have determined the following prospect:
In Frohsdorf, we verified box-shaped plank coffins. An impressive example was found in grave 310 (fig.
2), demonstrating the coffin’s consistence of several longitudinal planks. In the case of the coffin’s lids,
two internal cross planks connected the longitudinal planks. In grave 256 a cross plank was detected above
the lower leg bones, in graves 35, 42, 103, 142, 187 (fig. 3) and 256 longitudinal planks of the coffins’ lids. In
Frohsdorf, we could not detect any tree-coffins as known from other Avar period cemeteries [7, p. 67; 8, pp.
41–42; 9, p. 35]. In some cases (e.g. graves 1, 10) we observed extensions of the longitudinal planks of the
coffins’ side walls towards the head and foot ends. It is possible that these extensions were used as handles.
Iron coffin nails or coffin clamps, as they were detected at other places [7, p. 67; 8, pp. 41–42; 10, p. 101;
11, p. 165; 4, p. 84; 12], were not identified in Frohsdorf. We therefore expect coffin here to be constructed
with timber connections.
Figure 2: Grave 310 with coffin made of wooden planks (photo: Döme Jankovich)
Figure 3: Grave 187 with longitudinal planks of the coffin lid (photo: Nicole Pieper)
- 10.1515/opar-2015-0001
Downloaded from PubFactory at 08/08/2016 02:48:21AM
via free access
58G. Scharrer-Liška et al.
It has to be considered that the coffins have succumbed to the pressures surrounding them have been
partly broken. Therefore, sometimes the coffin dimensions documented may differ slightly from the original
proportions. However, overall, the dimensions show clear tendencies regarding lengths and widths that
also correlate broadly with the calculated body heights. The dimensions of the coffins of all deceased, adult
and non-adult individuals, have lengths from 37 to 242 cm (average 167.57 cm) and rather tight-calculated
widths from 18 to 82 cm (average 42.96 cm) (tab. 1). Due to poor preservation of the bones, it was possible
to calculate the body heights only for a few individuals (tab. 1). The body heights were determined from
the lengths of the long bone with the obtained regression formula of Sjøvold [13] (tab. 1). Therefore, only
insufficient samples for comparing coffins’ lengths and body heights are existent. Regardless, between
those lengths available for both coffins’ lengths and body heights, we could observe differences of between
30 to 80 cm.
Table 1: Tabular presentation of the coffins’ dimensions, gender, age at death and body heights (~: coffin length or width
cannot be reconstructed)
grave coffin length coffin width sex / gender age of death group body height
 ~  female? adult
 ~ ~ male mature-senile
 ~ ~ male mature
 ~ ~ female? mature-senile
   female adult-mature
  indiff. infant II
~ ~ skeleton not preserved
 ~  indiff. infant II
 ~ ~ indiff. juvenile
 ~ ~ male mature-senile 
   female senile
 ~ ~ skeleton not preserved presumably infant
   female? infant II
   indiff. infant II
   female adult
   skeleton not preserved
 ~  indiff. juvenile
 ~ ~ male adult-mature 
 ~ ~ male mature
 ~  female juvenile-adult
 ~ ~ male juvenile
 ~  indiff. infant II
 ~ ~ indiff. infant I
   male adult
   male juvenile-adult 
 ~ ~ indiff. / female infant I / early adult
 ~ ~ indiff. adult 
   female adult
 ~ ~ indiff. juvenile
   indiff. infant I
 ~  indiff. mature-senile
 ~ ~ female? juvenile
 ~ ~ indiff. adult
- 10.1515/opar-2015-0001
Downloaded from PubFactory at 08/08/2016 02:48:21AM
via free access
Wooden coffins in the Avar-period cemetery in Frohsdorf, Lower Austria 59
continuedTable 1: Tabular presentation of the coffins’ dimensions, gender, age at death and body heights (~: coffin length or
width cannot be reconstructed)
grave coffin length coffin width sex / gender age of death group body height
   male mature-senile 
   female mature
 ~  female mature-senile
   female / indiff. adult / neonatus-infant Ia
 ~ ~ male adult
   male adult
 ~  female? infant II
   indiff. infant II
   female infant II
 ~ ~ skeleton not preserved
   male adult
 ~ ~ indiff. infant I
   female mature-senile
 ~ ~ indiff. infant I
 ~ ~ female early adult
   female adult 
 ~ ~ skeleton not preserved
 ~  female early adult
   female juvenile
 ~ ~ female? infant I
 ~ ~ male adult-mature
 ~ ~ indiff. infant I
 ~ ~ skeleton not preserved
 ~  female mature-senile
   female? infant II
   female/male juvenile
 ~ ~ female? infant I
 ~ ~ female adult
 ~ ~ male mature-senile
   female? infant I
   female mature
 ~  female? infant I-II
 ~ ~ female / male adult/mature-senile  (ind.)
 ~ ~ female? infant I
 ~  female adult-mature
 ~ ~ female? infant I
 ~  female? infant I-II
 ~ ~ skeleton not preserved
   female adult
   indiff. infant I
 ~ ~ male early adult
   skeleton not preserved
 ~  female early adult
 ~ ~ female juvenile
 ~ ~ skeleton not preserved presumably infant
- 10.1515/opar-2015-0001
Downloaded from PubFactory at 08/08/2016 02:48:21AM
via free access
60G. Scharrer-Liška et al.
continuedTable 1: Tabular presentation of the coffins’ dimensions, gender, age at death and body heights (~: coffin length or
width cannot be reconstructed)
grave coffin length coffin width sex / gender age of death group body height
 ~ ~ female? infant I
 ~ ~ female mature-senile
 ~ ~ male adult-mature
   female/male adult-mature
 ~ ~ female juvenile-senile
 ~ ~ indiff. infant I
 ~  female adult
 ~ ~ skeleton not preserved
   male adult-mature
 ~ ~ indiff. infant II
 ~ ~ indiff. infant II
   female adult 
 ~  female adult
 ~  female grown-up
 ~  skeleton not preserved presumably infant
 ~ ~ skeleton not preserved presumably infant
 ~ ~ male juvenile
   female? adult-mature
 ~ ~ skeleton not preserved
 ~ ~ indiff. infant II
   male adult
 ~ ~ female? infant II
 ~ ~ female? infant II
 ~ ~ indiff. infant II
 ~ ~ male adult
 ~ ~ female adult
 ~ ~ male adult
 ~ ~ indiff./indiff. infant II/infant I
 ~ ~ female adult
   indiff. infant I
   male adult
   female juvenile
   skeleton not preserved presumably infant
 ~ ~ male mature
 ~ ~ female mature-senile
 ~ ~ skeleton not preserved presumably infant
 ~  indiff./male ? infant I/mature
 ~ ~ female adult
 ~  female adult
 ~ ~ indiff. infant I
   female adult
   male mature
 ~ ~ female? infant II
 ~ ~ skeleton not preserved presumably infant
 ~ ~ skeleton not preserved presumably infant
- 10.1515/opar-2015-0001
Downloaded from PubFactory at 08/08/2016 02:48:21AM
via free access
Wooden coffins in the Avar-period cemetery in Frohsdorf, Lower Austria 61
continuedTable 1: Tabular presentation of the coffins’ dimensions, gender, age at death and body heights (~: coffin length or
width cannot be reconstructed)
grave coffin length coffin width sex / gender age of death group body height
 ~ ~ female adult
   indiff. infant I
   indiff. infant I
 ~ ~ female adult
   male? adult-mature
 ~  female mature
 ~ ~ indiff. infant II
 ~  male adult
 ~ ~ indiff. infant I
   female mature
 ~ ~ female adult
   female adult
   female? mature-senile
   indiff. infant II
   male infant II-juvenile
 ~  male? juvenile
 ~ ~ indiff. juvenile
   male adult-mature 
   female mature-senile
   indiff. juvenile
   male adult
   female adult-mature
 ~  indiff. infant I
 ~ ~ female? infant II
 ~ ~ indiff. infant I
   skeleton not preserved presumably infant
 ~  female juvenile
 ~ ~ male juvenile
   skeleton not preserved
   female adult
 ~  female? mature-senile
  ~ indiff. infant I
   male mature-senile
   female? infant II
   indiff. infant I
 ~  skeleton not preserved
   indiff. infant I
   indiff. infant I
   male adult
   indiff./indiff. infant I/senile
   female adult
   indiff. infant I
   male / indiff. mature-senile/ juvenile
 ~  male infant II
 ~ ~ skeleton not preserved presumably infant
- 10.1515/opar-2015-0001
Downloaded from PubFactory at 08/08/2016 02:48:21AM
via free access
62G. Scharrer-Liška et al.
continuedTable 1: Tabular presentation of the coffins’ dimensions, gender, age at death and body heights (~: coffin length or
width cannot be reconstructed)
grave coffin length coffin width sex / gender age of death group body height
   female mature
 ~  male adult
 ~  female adult
   female senile
 ~  male juvenile-adult 
   female? adult-mature
 ~ ~ female mature
   indiff. infant I
   female? infant II
   male adult
   male mature-senile
   female adult
   indiff. infant I
   female? adult
 ~  female juvenile
 ~  indiff. infant II
   female mature-senile
   female adult 
   male adult-mature
   male adult-mature
   male? adult/mature/senile
   male mature
   skeleton not preserved
   female senile
 ~ ~ male adult 
 ~ ~ indiff./female infant I/adult
 ~ ~ indiff. infant I
  ~ female juvenile-adult
   female mature
 ~  female adult
 ~ ~ indiff. infant I
   indiff. infant I
 ~  indiff. neonatus-infant Ia
   skeleton not preserved
 ~ ~ female mature
   female? infant I
   male adult 
   female adult
 ~ ~ indiff. infant I
 ~ ~ female senile
 ~  indiff. infant II
 ~ ~ male? juvenile
   female mature
   male adult
   male? infant II
- 10.1515/opar-2015-0001
Downloaded from PubFactory at 08/08/2016 02:48:21AM
via free access
Wooden coffins in the Avar-period cemetery in Frohsdorf, Lower Austria 63
continuedTable 1: Tabular presentation of the coffins’ dimensions, gender, age at death and body heights (~: coffin length or
width cannot be reconstructed)
grave coffin length coffin width sex / gender age of death group body height
   male adult
   male adult-mature
 ~ ~ female adult
   indiff. infant I
 ~  indiff. juvenile
   male mature
   female mature-senile
 ~  male? infant II
 ~  male adult
 ~ ~ male juvenile
   indiff. infant I
   female adult
   female juvenile
 ~ ~ indiff. infant II
   indiff. infant I
 ~ ~ indiff. grown-up
   female adult
   female adult
   female juvenile-adult
   skeleton not preserved
   male adult-mature
   female juvenile
   female? infant I
 ~ ~ skeleton not preserved presumably infant
   skeleton not preserved presumably infant
 ~  female adult
   male adult-mature
 ~  male adult
   female senile
   male adult
  ~ indiff. infant II
   indiff. infant II
   indiff. infant I
   male mature-senile
 ~  female? juvenile
 ~  indiff. mature
   indiff. infant II
   indiff. infant II
 ~  female senile
   male adult-mature
   indiff. infant II - juvenile
   female? infant II
   female adult
 ~ ~ female mature
 ~  female adult
- 10.1515/opar-2015-0001
Downloaded from PubFactory at 08/08/2016 02:48:21AM
via free access
64G. Scharrer-Liška et al.
continuedTable 1: Tabular presentation of the coffins’ dimensions, gender, age at death and body heights (~: coffin length or
width cannot be reconstructed)
grave coffin length coffin width sex / gender age of death group body height
   indiff. mature
   male adult
 ~  female? infant II
   skeleton not preserved presumably infant
 ~  indiff. juvenile
 ~  skeleton not preserved presumably infant
   male mature-senile
   female??/male adult-mature
 ~  male juvenile
   female adult
   male juvenile
   indiff. infant II
   female mature
   female? infant I
   indiff. infant I
   male adult
  ~ female adult
 ~ ~ female juvenile
  ~ female grown-up
   male senile
 ~ ~ indiff. infant I
 ~ ~ female?/male? adult
   female juvenile
   female mature-senile
   male mature
   male mature-senile
   female adult
 ~ ~ male mature
   female? infant II
   male adult
 ~  indiff. infant II
   male adult-mature
   male adult
   male mature
   female? infant I
 ~ ~ female mature
   indiff. infant I
   male mature
   indiff. infant I
 ~ ~ female adult-mature
   male adult
 ~  female adult-mature 
- 10.1515/opar-2015-0001
Downloaded from PubFactory at 08/08/2016 02:48:21AM
via free access
Wooden coffins in the Avar-period cemetery in Frohsdorf, Lower Austria 65
The coffins’ sizes were probably well adapted to the body sizes of the dead and the intended furnishings.
Grave 51, for example, differentiated in the proportion of coffin length to body height, is rather small with
a 31 cm difference. The preserved grave equipment (an iron awl with wooden handle, fire steel with flints,
ceramic pot, an iron knife, as well as remnants of meat offerings bones of poultry, cattle and sheep/goat [2])
seems rather modest. In contrast, the lavishly furnished graves 98 and 470 have in the proportion of coffin
length to body height larger differences of 83 and 81 cm. The men’s grave 470 contained a cast bronze belt
fitting, a bronze decorative plate with a chain, textile and leather remnants of clothes, an iron knife and
animal bones. Grave 98 was a woman’s burial with bronze bobble earrings, other earring types, a necklace
made of bronze and silver sheet, rod beads, on each hand three spiral finger rings, an iron knife and a bag
decorated with bronze sheets that was attached by a chain to a belt and animal bones. The correlation
of coffins’ lengths with the age at death, which we determined by methods summarized by Szilvássy
[14], and sex supports the individual adaptation of the coffins (fig. 4). Thus, in each age group despite a
relatively large range of variation, the average length of the coffins increased from toddlers (Infans I) with
116 cm, children (Infans II) with 147 cm, juvenile (Juvenil) with 182 cm to grown-ups with 190 cm. Since
adult females in a population are usually smaller than men, we have separated adults in this evaluation
even after assigned gender, in which determination we included both archaeological and anthropological
evidence. The average coffin length of female deceased was 181 cm, with that of male 199 cm.
Multiple coffin planks were found slanted and/or bent. This suggests the collapse of the coffins during
the decomposition process. Similar observations are known for example from Sommerein (A) [15, p. 32].
Frequently at the head and foot ends of the grave bases we observed hollows. In addition, in the grave
bases’ corners postholes (average diameter about 20 cm; e.g. graves 105, 155, 252, 412, 436, 448, 470 and 610)
were observed often. Some of these postholes were already visible directly below the topsoil or on the first
documentation level (e.g. graves 16, 18, 42, 36, 74, 79, 293, 301, 369, 437, 447 and 571). Similar features are
also known, for example from Leobersdorf [4] or Budapest (Rákóczi Ferenc út) [16, pp. 154–155]. Due to the
small diameters, these are probably definitely from postholes and not post pits. It is assumed that they are
derived from wooden upright beams, which have been incorporated into the open grave pit. One possible
interpretation of these features was that the coffins stood on feet. Another possibility is – especially in cases
of features (e.g. graves 293, 301) where the postholes were recognizable already on documentation level 1
– that these were constructions for lowering the coffin into the grave pit [for similar assumptions see 4, p.
84]. Maybe the uprights were also used as grave markings (by stele or in the form of a superstructure as in
the case of grave 118).
A grave fixture in the form of a wooden chamber that contained the coffin itself was found in grave 140
(fig. 5). It was the richly furnished, though robbed/disturbed, double burial of a man and a woman.
Figure 4: Box plots of coffin lengths and their variation within an age group / gender group (graphic arts: Karin
Wiltschke-Schrotta)
- 10.1515/opar-2015-0001
Downloaded from PubFactory at 08/08/2016 02:48:21AM
via free access
66G. Scharrer-Liška et al.
3.3 Wood species analysis
From a total of 298 verified wooden coffins or wood fixtures from the cemetery of Frohsdorf we analyzed 132
wood samples from 80 graves. Samples were only used if they could be clearly assigned to a coffin. Charcoal
residues, some of which were in the grave filling but not attributable to a coffin were not included in the
analysis.
Wood species analysis was performed on freshly broken sample surfaces under a light microscope. For
publication purposes, certain samples were documented using a SEM (scanning electron microscope) with
high magnification and better depth of sharpness. In 64 samples from 41 graves, we identified the genus
Quercus sp. (oak) (fig. 6). In the cases of ring-porous oaks even with the best maintenance, the species
cannot be reliably separated. This also applies to a sample of the genus Acer (maple) (fig. 7). 31 samples
from 19 graves could be assigned to the genus Fagus sylvatica (European beech) (fig. 8). One sample we
assigned to the genus Ulmus (elm) (fig. 9). 13 samples from nine graves were assigned to hardwoods, and
ten from seven graves to conifers (tab. 2). If conifers are completely transformed into charcoal, they are
easy to identify. If – as observed in Frohsdorf – the transformation did not take place or was incomplete
the wood remnants decay mostly along the growth ring boundaries into smallest particles which are not
determinable.
Figure 5: Chamber respectively wooden grave fixture in grave 140 (reconstruction drawing: Andreas Weihs)
Figure 6: Oak (Quercus sp.), grave 415, cross-section (SEM micrograph: Otto Cichocki)
- 10.1515/opar-2015-0001
Downloaded from PubFactory at 08/08/2016 02:48:21AM
via free access
Wooden coffins in the Avar-period cemetery in Frohsdorf, Lower Austria 67
Figure 7: Beech (Fagus sylvatica), grave 565, cross-section (SEM micrograph: Otto Cichocki)
Figure 8: Maple (Acer sp.), grave 4, cross-section (SEM micrograph: Otto Cichocki)
Figure 9: Elm (Ulmus sp.), grave 586, cross-section (SEM micrograph: Otto Cichocki)
- 10.1515/opar-2015-0001
Downloaded from PubFactory at 08/08/2016 02:48:21AM
via free access
68G. Scharrer-Liška et al.
3.4 Wood species selection
Looking at the distribution of the wood to the individual graves predominantly one species of wood (mostly
oak, followed by beech) was detected in the samples. But there are also a few graves with two kinds of
wood species (e.g. oak / beech in graves 40, 103, 146 and 199 and oak / conifer in grave 113) or three (beech
/ oak indet. / conifer within graves 50, 104, 310, 321 and 349). Within 37 samples of indeterminable wood
remnants, 13 samples of indeterminate hardwood and ten samples of indeterminate conifers other wood
species than those detected might be hidden.
This raises the question whether the selection of wood was intentional – possibly due to their
technological quality and characteristics or a cultic postulate – or if wood selection was based on availability
offered in the region [for comparable questions in other contexts see 17]. The choice of wood species seems
to have no significant association with sex/gender or age of death of the buried individuals (tab. 3). Thus,
oak was found in seven men’s and nine women’s graves. Beech we found in one man’s grave and three
women’s graves. Oak was found in all seven graves identified as girls’ (three of them unsure). Oak and
beech wood apparently were available in sufficient quantity. These tree species have been fostered by the
medieval climate optimum [18] and were then as today abundant in this geographic region.
Table 2: Overview of genus and quantity of determinable wood remnants
number of identified samples number of graves genus
  oak Quercus sp.
  beech Fagus sylvatica
  maple Acer sp.
  elm Ulmus
 hardwood indet.
 conifer indet.
  wood indet
bark indet.
Table 3: Wood species analysis of coffins (hw – hardwoods, conif - conifers, cc – charcoal, wood – not carbonized, indet.
– indeterminable)
grave find no. preservation wood species
 - cc maple, beech?
 - cc oak, conif
- cc oak
- wood conif indet.
- cc indet.
 - cc oak
- cc beech?
 - cc oak
 - cc oak
 - cc, wood indet.
- cc indet.
 - cc oak
 - cc oak
- wood oak
 - cc indet.
- 10.1515/opar-2015-0001
Downloaded from PubFactory at 08/08/2016 02:48:21AM
via free access
Wooden coffins in the Avar-period cemetery in Frohsdorf, Lower Austria 69
grave find no. preservation wood species
 - cc oak, beech
- cc oak
- cc oak
- cc beech
- cc oak
 - cc oak
 - cc oak
- cc indet.
- cc indet.
 - cc oak
 - cc oak
 - cc beech, oak
- cc beech, oak
- wood hw
- cc conif indet.
- wood conif indet., hw indet.
- cc beech
- cc hw
- cc beech, oak
- wood conif indet.
 - cc oak
- cc hw
 - cc beech
 - cc oak
 - cc oak
 - cc, wood oak, conif indet.
- cc oak
 - min. conif
 - cc indet.
 - wood, bark, roots bark indet.
 - cc oak, beech
- cc oak
- cc beech, oak
- cc oak, hw
- cc beech, oak, hw
- cc beech, oak, hw
- cc oak
- cc oak, beech
- cc oak
- cc oak, beech, hw
- cc beech, oak
- cc beech, oak
 - cc oak
- cc oak
- cc hw
- cc oak
 - cc oak
continuedTable 3: Wood species analysis of coffins (hw – hardwoods, conif - conifers, cc – charcoal, wood – not carbonized, indet.
– indeterminable)
- 10.1515/opar-2015-0001
Downloaded from PubFactory at 08/08/2016 02:48:21AM
via free access
70G. Scharrer-Liška et al.
grave find no. preservation wood species
 - cc beech
 - cc indet.
 - cc indet.
 - cc oak
 - cc indet.
- cc indet.
- cc oak
 - cc indet.
- cc oak
 - cc oak
- cc beech
- cc beech
 - cc oak
 - cc indet.
 - cc indet.
 - cc indet.
 - cc indet.
 - cc oak, beech
 - cc oak
 - cc beech
 - cc beech, oak
 - cc beech
 - cc oak
 - cc oak
- cc oak
 - cc indet.
 - cc indet.
 - cc? indet.
 - cc indet.
- cc oak
 - cc indet.
- cc indet.
- cc conif indet.
 - humos indet.
 - cc oak
 - cc indet.
 - cc beech
 - cc oak
- cc oak
 - cc oak
- cc hw? indet., indet.
- cc indet.
 - cc beech, oak, hw indet.
 - cc oak
 - cc indet.
- cc beech, oak, hw indet.
 - wood, bark indet.
continuedTable 3: Wood species analysis of coffins (hw – hardwoods, conif - conifers, cc – charcoal, wood – not carbonized, indet.
– indeterminable)
- 10.1515/opar-2015-0001
Downloaded from PubFactory at 08/08/2016 02:48:21AM
via free access
Wooden coffins in the Avar-period cemetery in Frohsdorf, Lower Austria 71
grave find no. preservation wood species
 - wood conif indet.
 - cc hw
 - cc oak
 - cc beech
- cc conif
 - cc indet.
 - cc indet.
 - cc indet.
 - cc beech
 - cc indet.
 - cc beech?
 - cc oak
 - cc indet.
- cc indet.
 - cc beech
 - wood indet.
 - cc elm
 - cc oak
- wood hw? indet.
 - cc indet.
 - cc oak
 - cc indet.
 - cc oak
continuedTable 3: Wood species analysis of coffins (hw – hardwoods, conif - conifers, cc – charcoal, wood – not carbonized, indet.
– indeterminable)
The trunks of oak (and also limited beech) are freshly felled, easy to split and thus can be processed into
planks and boards. Since we found the wood remains only in small particles, no traces of processing were
recognizable. The woods (especially oak) are durable. Therefore, depending on wood species, thickness
of wooden planks, temperature and O2 content of the soil, the decay of a coffin until collapse can take
between seven to 15 years. Although the degradation of coffins is not yet documented in the literature, we
suggest this period based on our own observations as well as those of other project groups and recent burial
laws in Middle Europe [19].
3.5 Preservation of wood residues
In Frohsdorf, wooden remains are preserved mainly as small-sized pieces of charcoal. The effects of fire
on wood cause this conversion. Part of the wood tissue is subjected to a dry distillation by heat and lack of
oxygen. The other part is used as an energy source by burning to ash while gaseous and liquid components
are separated. A brittle and slightly shrunken black wood structure remains, which comprises all cellular
details but is resistant to biodegradation. These pieces crumble by mechanical impact or wet/dry or cold/
warm change to ever-smaller particles over time. This state of preservation is typical and only due to fire
exposure.
Sometimes the transformation to charcoal is not complete and the wood residues can be biodegraded
further. Alternatively, the temperature at carbonization was too high or too low and the wood coked. In
both cases a blackish-blistered bulk remains that does not show any anatomical details or only sometimes
allows a distinction between hardwood and coniferous trees sometimes.
In a few graves (e.g. grave 50), wood was preserved in very thin black layers which had a wavy structure
due to shrinkage phenomena. This state of preservation was probably the consequence of a weak shallow
- 10.1515/opar-2015-0001
Downloaded from PubFactory at 08/08/2016 02:48:21AM
via free access
72G. Scharrer-Liška et al.
charring. The non-charred wood was gone and only the thin charred layer was preserved.
This state of preservation is sometimes attributed to fungi. In fact, this can be observed in tree stumps
or broken trunks with a surface partially carbon-blacked as burnt. Generally these are attributed to the fire-
crust fungus (Kretzschmaria deusta; syn. Hypoxylon deustum and Ustulina deusta). This fungus is parasitic
on living and dead beech wood or lime trees and generates a thin dark, later black layer (stroma) on the outer
surface of the infected area. It is not inconceivable that occasionally fungus-infected wood was used for
making coffins and that after the funeral the coffin developed such a layer, which was preserved as a black
surface. However, pieces of charcoal cannot develop through this process, as only black dyeing of the wood
surface takes place (similar to contact with sulphuric acid), lacking the typical brittle structure developed
inside the wood when it is burnt. Nevertheless, due to the poor preservation of anatomical details and the
small sizes of the samples proof of the fungus is difficult to determine (e.g. in graves 140, 453, 459, 469, 490,
564 and 580). Moreover, this assumption is applicable only for a small minority of the graves of Frohsdorf.
The effect of coal diagenesis, which is sometimes called carbonization, cannot be observed among
the archaeological samples. This process which occurs within long time spans (1000s of years for peat,
100000s of years for young brown coal and millions of years for higher coalification stages), forms coal
from wood by time, pressure and slightly higher temperatures (below 80 °C) [20, pp. 71-73]. No fire or high
temperatures are involved. Thus, only very early stages might be visible when investigating uncarbonized
archaeological wood samples, which never turn to black, but to a light brown color [21].
Uncharred wood (e.g. in graves 50 and 605) is rarely preserved. This conservation is rare, because
wood becomes infected by bacteria and fungi and degrades under normal humid ambient conditions.
This degradation takes place within a few years. Sometimes uncharred wood remains are present because
substances, which worked abiotically, were present and penetrated the cell structure. Thus, metal parts
(especially copper or bronze but also iron) could form salts, which dissolve in ground water and soak the
wood substance as ‘preservatives’ to hinder wood-degrading organisms in their activities [22].
Two samples from grave 256 and grave 350 are whitish flaky remains that is indicative as ash. This is
formed as predominantly inorganic remnant of complete combustion.
3.6 Remaining questions
Based on the situation in Frohsdorf one question in connection with the wooden coffins and fixtures and
their carbonization arises. A massive fire exposure of the coffins is hard to imagine since we found no
traces of heat exposure on all other finds and features. However, some coffin woods (e.g. grave 310) show
such a high grade of carbonization that carrying the coffins and lowering them and their contents down to
the grave bottom in this condition is inconceivable. We tried to verify a hint [23] that a fungus could have
possibly caused this charring. However, we could not verify this theory (see 3.5). As other possibilities to
cause black color together with typical charcoal tissue do not exist, the only remaining explanation for
charring of the coffins’ woods is that of fire exposure (see 5.1).
4 Wooden coffins and wooden fixtures in Frohsdorf compared to
those in other Avar period cemeteries
Usually in the case of a coffin burial in an earthern grave as observed in Frohsdorf the decomposition
process of the deceased to skeletonisation needs around five to seven years. Predominantly microorganisms
or the bodies own enzymes [24; 25, pp. 6–7] execute the decomposition (autolysis).
So far, many Avar period cemeteries with a total of 60,000 graves have been excavated and documented
in eastern Central Europe [26; 5, p. 95]. Wooden coffins and wooden fixtures as well as the surface marking
of graves have not only been found not only in Frohsdorf but also elsewhere.
Péter Tomka dealt repeatedly with the theme of coffin burials in Avar graves. In 1979 he wrote: „Die
Knochen eines ohne Sarg bestatteten Toten können sich nicht mehr von der Stelle bewegen, da sie das
Erdreich von oben niederdrückt. Der Sarg trägt das Erdreich im Allgemeinen länger als die Muskeln die
- 10.1515/opar-2015-0001
Downloaded from PubFactory at 08/08/2016 02:48:21AM
via free access
Wooden coffins in the Avar-period cemetery in Frohsdorf, Lower Austria 73
Skeletteile zusammenhalten (see paragraph 3.4), so daß die Knochen sich wahrnehmbar verschieben
können. Insbesondere der Schädel pflegt zu „wandern“, im Verhältnis zum Unterkiefer zu kippen, sich
nach hinten oder seitlich zu verschieben. Allein schon daraus kann man mit ziemlicher Sicherheit auf
einen Sarg schließen.“[6]
Alfred Dieck noted similar statements about post-funeral natural postmortem position changes of the
corpse in the coffin due to autolysis [27]. However, his work has been critically evaluated today [28; 29].
This criticism relates primarily on alleged finds that were actually not available. Because of this practice,
all of Dieck’s works have to be considered with caution. Regardless, the reasons for position changes of the
corpse inside the coffin are probably gas developments caused by putrefaction, which is also addressed in
recent publications [25, p. 9].
In 1996, Tomka stated in a summary article that „die Verwendung von Holzsärgen aus Baumstämmen
oder Brettern roh zusammengefügt oder gezimmert“ was widespread [12]. As in Frohsdorf, wood or charcoal
remains of coffins or grave fixtures were recovered partially from other Avar cemeteries. For example we
know of such finds from Münchendorf (A) [30], Kisköre (H) [31, pp. 42–43], Alattyán (H) [32, p. 66], Vác-
Kavicsbánya (H) [33, p. 118], Szarvas-Grexa-Téglagyár (H) [7, p. 67] and Orosháza-Bónum Téglagyár (H) [8, pp.
41–42]. In contrast to the wood and charcoal residues from Frohsdorf no further systematic investigations of
wood anatomical genus and species’ analyses have been carried out so far. Only wood samples from grave
146 in Kisköre [31] were identified – the only example from the Avar period known to the authors. It was oak
(Quercus cf. robur), which was believed to have been brought from the nearby floodplain of the river Tisza.
As in Frohsdorf, the wooden coffins from other sites contained longitudinal and transversal planks.
These were observed at Sommerein (A) [15, p. 32], Orosháza-Béke Tsz-Homokbánya (H) [8, p. 94], Szentes-
Kaján (H) [34, p. 92], Tiszafüred (H) [11, p. 166] and Pilismarót-Basaharc (H) [35]. At some sites the compound
of the coffin planks was achieved with iron coffin brackets like in Leobersdorf (A) [4, p. 84], Szekszárd
(Bogyiszlói-Street) (H) [10, p. 101], Szegvár-Sápoldal (H) [36], Orosháza-Bónum Téglagyár [8, pp. 41–42],
Tiszafüred [11, p. 166], Zamárdi-Rétiföldek (H) [37], Orosháza-Béke Tsz-Homokbánya (H) [8, p. 93–95],
Környe (H) [38, p. 32], Szentes-Kaján [34, p. 92], Üllő (H) [39, p. 55] and even relatively common in Szarvas-
Grexa-Téglagyár [7, p. 67]. However, plank coffins could also be held together by wood joints as the example
Frohsdorf shows, but also finds from Sommerein (A) [15, p. 32] or Horgoš (SRB) and Stara Moravica (SRB)
[40] show.
Another form of the wooden coffin is the log coffin which is known from an example found at
Leithaprodersdorf (A) [9, p. 35], Szekszárd (Bogyiszlói-Street) (H) [10, p. 101], Szarvas-Grexa-Téglagyár (H)
[7, p. 67], Környe (H) [38, p. 32] or Orosháza-Bónum Téglagyár (H) [8, pp. 41–42] and Orosháza-Béke Tsz-
Homokbánya (H) [8, p. 93–95].
Additionally we know occasionally of boards supporting the dead which were positioned under the
corpse. Examples we know for example from Leithaprodersdorf (A) [9, p. 35], Münchendorf (A) [30, p. 75] or
Szekszárd (Bogyiszlói-Street) (H) [10, p. 101].
The width of the coffins is usually rather tight (for adult individuals 40-55 cm, see tab. 1). This feature is
not only seen at Frohsdorf, but also from examples at Sommerein (A) [15, p. 32], which seem prove this fact.
Presumably, the size of the coffin was largely adapted to that of the deceased and the grave goods provided.
Extensions of the longitudinal planks of the sidewalls were partially observed in the case of planks
coffins on the head and feet end of the coffins. Examples were found in Frohsdorf, but also in cemeteries in
the area of Budapest (H) [16, p. 86], in Sopronkőhida (H) [ 41] or Komárom (H) [42, pp. 59, 67–68, 77]. Maybe
these extensions were used as handles similar to those at the so-called St. Michael’s horse (see below).
Examples with both, extensions of longitudinal and broad planks are known, e.g. in Mistelbach (A) [43, p.
131].
As in Frohsdorf, four postholes or hollows at the head and feet ends of the grave basement were
observed elsewhere, for example some sites in Stara Moravica [40, pp. 97–100], Horgoš [40, pp. 102–105] or in
Münchendorf (A) [30, p. 75]. For such features in Leobersdorf Falko Daim wrote that „eine andere Bedeutung
als die, nach dem Herblassen des Sarges oder Totenbrettes das Herausziehen der Seile zu erleichtern“ was
difficult to imagine, „allenfalls wäre es denkbar, dass die Särge Füße besessen haben“ [4, p. 87]. This has
- 10.1515/opar-2015-0001
Downloaded from PubFactory at 08/08/2016 02:48:21AM
via free access
74G. Scharrer-Liška et al.
similarly been argued in the context of the burial ground of Solymár (H) [44, p. 28]. It was thought that
the stretchers on which the dead were carried to the grave were left in the grave pits. This theory was put
forth due to the slanted ends of grave basements and rectangular hollows at the head and foot ends of the
graves’ basements (graves 47, 67, 73, 75-77, 80, 89, 90, 93, 96, 100, 113). Irén Juhász interpreted holes in grave
414 of the burial ground of Szarvas-Grexa-Téglagyár (H) [7, p. 67] as a coffin burial in form of a so-called
St. Michael’s Horse. The St. Michael’s horse was still used as part of the burial customs in Hungary in the
20th century. Before the funeral, the coffin was brought to the court and put on the so-called St. Michael’s
horse. The St. Michael’s horse was a stretcher that was about 60 cm high and had four feet and two pairs of
handles. Both sides were a little higher so that the coffin could not slip off. This carrier was made of wood
[45, pp. 171–172].
Some of the postholes at the graves’ bottoms were tracked into a depth from the first documentation
level. Examples of this feature are not only found at Frohsdorf. We know of comparable features for example
from Környe (H) [38, p. 32], which were interpreted as grave labels. In some cases, they were interpreted
as evidence of superstructures resting on wooden columns or even wooden grave houses such as in Vac-
Kavicsbánya (H) [33, p. 118] and Szarvas-Grexa-Téglagyár (H) (grave 416) [7, p. 67].
In some Avar cemeteries, wooden fixtures and even grave chambers have been assumed. For example,
Herbert Mitscha-Märheim assumed for the Avar period cemetery of Leithaprodersdorf (A) [9, p. 35] that the
grave walls were lined with wooden planks. Whether they were grave chambers or coffins constructed of
wooden planks and compounds is not clear from the paper. Also in the case of Sommerein (A) [15, p. 29]
the authors wrote about a wooden coating but were not entirely sure if it was definitely a grave fixture. In
contrast in Solymár (H) clearly carpentered grave chambers made of timber (graves 50, 65 and 78) [44, p. 28]
were postulated. More probably grave fixtures are known from Budapest (H) [16, p. 24]. In 1996 Péter Tomka
wrote about remarkable large grave pits, which had wooden chambers built in [12] – which also applies to
grave 140 (fig. 2) in Frohsdorf.
It should be noted that the evidence of wooden coffins and wooden fixtures depends on its state of
preservation. Thus, a lack of evidence does not necessarily prove the absence of the object. The differing
percentage of proven coffins and wooden fixtures in Avar cemeteries may be due to that fact. While in
Frohsdorf we proved these in approximately 60% of the graves, for example evidences of coffins were
observed only in 10% of the graves in Leobersdorf (A) [4, p. 84] and even only in 3.5% of the graves in
Szekszárd (Bogyiszlói-Street) (H) [10].
Overall, the evidences of coffins and the like are relatively often succeeded in the Avar milieu. Therefore,
the burial in coffins might always be assumed. Walter Pohl noted that the deceased were often laid in
coffins; “in einzelnen Fällen gewinnt man sogar den Eindruck einer liebevoll als Wohnraum eingerichteten
letzen Ruhestätte. […] Vornehme Awaren der Frühzeit wurden sehr aufwendig in Brett- oder Baumsärgen
[…] bestattet“ [46, p. 202]. This opinion has also been expressed regarding the burial ground of Vösendorf
(A) [47, pp. 75–94] – probably due to the rider graves with coffins. In contrast, Gulya Rosner wrote regarding
the burial ground of Szekszárd (Bogyiszlói-Street) (H) [10, p. 101] that this custom of burial in wooden
coffins could be bound neither to a period nor to the social status.
Together with Falko Daim [15, p. 126] and Walter Pohl [46, p. 202] it has to be noted that these
archaeological evidences and findings help to make accessible mandatory traditions and customs of a
community with their scopes and local variants.
5 Experiment
5.1 Hypothesis
After extensive research (see above), the authors have excluded the Frohsdorf site from other causes for
charring most of the wooden coffins, other than the effects of fire. A significant fire exposure – possibly
by deliberately setting the coffin and its contents on fire – was just as unlikely as skeletons, clothing
- 10.1515/opar-2015-0001
Downloaded from PubFactory at 08/08/2016 02:48:21AM
via free access
Wooden coffins in the Avar-period cemetery in Frohsdorf, Lower Austria 75
accessories and grave goods do not show any traces of exposure to fire. On the other hand, a smoldering
fire that had started unintentionally is possible. This would also explain the coffins’ different degrees of
charring and preservation in Frohsdorf.
To investigate this the starting point of the experiment was the following hypothesis: During the funeral
ceremony – for which little archaeological material remains, is inconsistent and hard to develop [46, p. 202]
– the coffin and its contents was lowered into the grave pit. There may have been a funeral ceremony with
fire nearby the open grave. At the end of the ceremony, ash and embers of the fire were put into the still open
grave, which was subsequently refilled. Whether smoldering could occur or not depended on the amount of
embers, the volume of the coffin and the air contained therein, the degree of dryness of the wood, the speed
in filling up the grave pit, and last but not least the weather (rainfall or none). All of these highly variable
factors set the strength and extent of the smoldering fire, which caused different degrees of charring, as we
were able to demonstrate in the archaeological record.
A similar theory has been advocated Éva Garam in connection with the burial ground of Kisköre (H)
[31, pp. 42–43]. It was found here in grave 146, that the earth was partially burned reddish and even the leg
bones of the deceased were charred. Garam’s interpretation of the situation was that the coffin was lowered
into the grave pit and the remains of the funeral feast held on the edge of the grave were thrown to the feet
end of the coffin. Burning logs burnt the coffin so that even the corpse lying in the coffin was affected. Ilona
Korvig was of the same opinion due to a similar feature. She also could prove fire traces on the legs in grave
89 in Alattyán (H) [32, pp. 68–69]. Korvig wrote that glowing ashes were shoveled over the dead or that a fire
was lit over the deceased. She also thought of sacrificial fires or of smoking out in the course of the funerary
feast [32, pp. 67–69].
5.2 Realization
To test the hypothesis the authors carried out the following experiment taking advantage of an excavation
festival with one open fireplace during the final excavation campaign of 2011 in Frohsdorf.
First we built three wooden coffins with dimensions of 154 × 40 × 30 cm respectively 180/148 × 40 × 30
cm out of ca. 3.5 cm thick oak planks. Although we could exclude the use of iron nails or iron brackets for
constructing the Avar coffins in Frohsdorf, we used these for constructing the new comparison coffins for
the experiment. In these wooden boxes, we deposited extremities of pigs and wet textile remains.
In the course of the excavation festival, we lowered each of the three coffins in to one of the excavated
but still open grave pits. The pits were those of the graves 614, 624 and 633 which we had already documented
and which contents we had recovered. Subsequently we put a fire’s embers into the grave pits as an imitation
or substitute for the remains of an assumed funeral meal. Afterwards we refilled the pits. Upon finishing,
heavy rainfall started.
After four days, we dug up the experimentally buried wooden boxes. We did this according to the usual
rules of archaeological excavation and documentation.
5.3 Documentation
The experiment’s “graves” were numbered 901, 902 and 903.
Grave 901: The simple “wooden coffin” (external dimensions 154 × 40 × 30 cm) was deposited
in the pit of grave 614 at a depth of 190 cm below soil top edge. Top of the wooden box, mainly on its
northwestern half, was carbonized. Fewer residues we found below and to the sides. The “coffin lid” was
only slightly blackened. To a lesser extent, this was also the case at the sides and at the bottom. The degree
of carbonization was negligible.
Grave 902: The simple “wooden coffin” (dimensions 180 (148 inside) × 40 × 30 cm) was deposited in the
pit of grave 624 at a depth of 140 cm below soil top edge. In this one of the three experimental arrangements
between deposition of the wooden box and filling the pit the largest period occurred. On the “coffin lid”
and on the sides of the box were accumulations of charcoal. The “coffin” showed signs of carbonization on
the lid, at the top edges and sidewalls. The degree of carbonization was generally relatively low (fig. 10).
- 10.1515/opar-2015-0001
Downloaded from PubFactory at 08/08/2016 02:48:21AM
via free access
76G. Scharrer-Liška et al.
Grave 903: The simple “wooden coffin” (external dimensions 154 × 40 × 30 cm) was deposited in the
pit of grave 633 at a depth of 200 cm below soil top edge. While refilling this pit we had shoveled the dirt
quickly. Thereby the majority of the glowing pieces of wood were catapulted down from the lid of the box.
When excavating the wooden box we found a few charcoal remains on the northern side of the coffin lid.
Due to rainfall soon after refilling the pit, the grave filling was strongly soaked. Because of falling most
of the embers down from the coffin lid on the northwestern pit basement the wooden box also showed
carbonization on its underside.
5.4 Discussion
After the “excavation”, the “coffins” of all three experimental “burials” showed carbonization – though in a
rather limited extent. On the one hand, rainfall, which had started while shoveling the grave pits, certainly
had influence. On the other hand, we divided the remains of only one burnt down fire to three pits, which
also might have limited the effect. Nevertheless, the carbonization was clear.
Some of the archaeological wood samples respectively charcoal samples may also be interpreted as
the remains of the presumed fires in the course of the funeral ceremony. However, only samples clearly
assigned to coffins were used for these considerations. The probability of our hypothesis to explain how
it could have come to (partially) carbonization of the historic wooden coffins got strong support from this
experiment.
6 Resume
This paper deals with the coffin burials in the Avar cemetery of Frohsdorf. As in many other cemeteries of
the Avar period, we found burials in wooden coffins at this site. However, studies that are more detailed for
this period are lacking.
In Frohsdorf approximately 60% of all graves were interred with wooden coffins in various states of
preservation. Therefore, we assume the burial in a wooden coffin had been common practice at this time.
Figure 10: Experiment: Carbonization Marks on the “coffin” in “grave 902” (photo: Judith Benedix)
- 10.1515/opar-2015-0001
Downloaded from PubFactory at 08/08/2016 02:48:21AM
via free access
Wooden coffins in the Avar-period cemetery in Frohsdorf, Lower Austria 77
Through analysis of wood samples, it is determined that the coffins were primarily made of oak followed by
beech. We could not observe a correlation from wood species selection to sex/gender and age of death of the
deceased or grave furnishing. Most probably, those woods were available in the nearby area.
The majority of the coffins’ woods we found as charred wood/charcoal. We explain this state of
preservation in inhumation graves by the following hypothesis: During the funeral ceremony, the coffin
and its contents were lowered into the grave pit. There may have been a funeral fire near the open grave. At
the end of the burial ceremony, the remains of the fire (ash and embers) were put into the open grave, which
was then refilled. During this process depending on various factors a smoldering fire could arise in certain
cases, which could lead to carbonization of random parts of the coffins’ woods and in consequence to their
preservation. This hypothesis was supported by experiment.
Acknowledgements: The authors kindly thank Danica Staššíková-Štukovská (Archeologický Ústav SAV,
Nitra, Slovakia) for discussing theories about the possibility of fungi causing the charring of wooden
coffins. We also express gratitude to Erich Draganits (Institute for Prehistory and Historical Archaeology
and Department for Geodynamics and Sedimentology, University of Vienna) for discussing the possibilities
causing charring of wood on the Frohsdorf site and Herbert Böhm (VIAS, University of Vienna) for analyzing
and providing archaeozoological data. The authors thank FWF, the Austrian science funds for providing
financial support to make this study possible.
References
[1] Doneus M., Scharrer G., Archaeological feedback of aerial archaeological interpretation of an Early Medieval graveyard at
Frohsdorf, Lower Austria, Archaeologia Polona 41, 2003, 146–149.
[2] Böhm H., unpublished data.
[3] Scharrer-Liška G., Vorläufige Überlegungen zu keramischen Grabbeigaben im awarenzeitlichen Gräberfeld von Frohsdorf,
Niederösterreich, In: Theune C., Scharrer-Liška G., Huber E.H., Kühtreiber Th. (Eds.), Stadt – Land – Burg. Festschrift zum
70. Geburtstag von Sabine Felgenhauer-Schmiedt. Internationale Archäologie – Studia honoriara 34, 2013, 323–327.
[4] Daim F., Das awarische Gräberfeld von Leobersdorf, NÖ. Studien zur Archäologie der Awaren 3, Band 1, Wien 1987.
[5] Stadler P., Quantitative Studien zur Archäologie der Awaren I. Mitteilungen der Prähistorischen Kommission 60, Wien
2005.
[6] Tomka P., Adatok a Kisalföldi avarkori népességének temetkezéi szokásaihoz III. Koposóhasználat a tápi temetőben.
Arrabona 19/20, 1979, 17–108.
[7] Juhász I., Das awarenzeitliche Gräberfeld in Szarvas-Grexa-Téglagyár, FO 68. Monumenta Avarorum Archaeologica 7,
Budapest 2004.
[8] Juhász I., Awarenzeitliche Gräberfelder in der Gemarkung Orosháza. Monumenta Avarorum Archaeologica 1, Budapest
1995.
[9] Mitscha-Märheim H., Der Awarenfriedhof von Leithaprodersdorf. Wissenschaftliche Arbeiten aus dem Burgenland 17,
Eisenstadt 1957.
[10] Rosner G., Das awarenzeitliche Gräberfeld in Szekszárd – Bogyiszlói-Strasse. Monumenta Avarorum Archaeologica 3,
Budapest 1999.
[11] Garam È., Das awarenzeitliche Gräberfeld von Tiszafüred, Budapest 1995.
[12] Tomka P., Die Bestattungsformen der Awaren, in: Hunnen + Awaren, Reitervölker aus dem Osten. Begleitbuch und
Katalog zur Burgenländischen Landesausstellung 1996 Schloß Halbturn 26. April – 31. Oktober 1996, Eisenstadt 1996,
384–387.
[13] Sjøvold T., Estimation of stature from long bones utilizing the line of organic correlation. Human Evolution 5 (5), 1990,
431–447.
[14] Szilvássy J., Altersdiagnose am Skelett. In: Knußmann R. (Ed.), Anthropologie. Handbuch der vergleichenden Biologie
des Menschen. Band I. Wesen und Methoden der Anthropologie, Stuttgart 1988, 421–443.
[15] Daim F., Lippert A., Das awarische Gräberfeld von Sommerein am Leithagebirge, NÖ. Studien zur Archäologie der Awaren
I, Wien 1984.
[16] Nagy M., Awarenzeitliche Gräberfelder im Stadtgebiet von Budapest. Monumenta Avarorum Archaeologica 2, Budapest
1998.
[17] Moskal-del Hoyo M., The use of wood in funerary pyres: random gathering or special selection of species? Case study of
three necropolises from Poland. Journal of Archaeological Science 39, 2012, 3386–3395.
- 10.1515/opar-2015-0001
Downloaded from PubFactory at 08/08/2016 02:48:21AM
via free access
78G. Scharrer-Liška et al.
[18] Wanner H., Der Klimawandel in historischer Zeit, In: Endlicher W., Gerstengarbe F.-W. (Eds.), Der Klimawandel – Einblicke,
Rückblicke und Ausblicke, Berlin 2007, 27–33.
[19] Albrecht M., Anlauf R., Fründ H-Chr., Meyer A., Abschlussbericht zum DBU-Projekt „Entwicklung eines Softwaremoduls
zur Prognose von Ruhezeiten für Erdbestattungen unter Berücksichtigung pedologischer, klimatischer und standortspe-
zifischer Parameter (RuheSoft)“, Hannover – Osnabrück 2010 (http://www.al.hs-osnabrueck.de/fileadmin/users/31/
upload/Publikationen/Endbericht_DBU.pdf)
[20] Klaus W., Einführung in die Paläobotanik: Fossile Pflanzenwelt und Rohstoffbildung. Band 1, Grundlagen – Kohlebildung
– Arbeitsmethoden/Palynologie, Wien 1987.
[21] Cichocki O., Xylotomische Untersuchungen an Holzresten aus den mittelalterlichen Wallanlagen von Thunau am Kamp,
MG Gars am Kamp, Niederösterreich. Teil 1. Dendrochronologische Datierung der Walleinbauten der oberen Holzwiese.
Archaeologia Austriaca 82-83, 1999, 47–56.
[22] Cichocki O., Holzuntersuchungen an archäologischen Funden aus dem awarischen Gräberfeld von Leobersdorf, in: Falko
Daim, Das awarische Gräberfeld von Leobersdorf, NÖ. Studien zur Archäologie der Awaren 3, Band 2, Wien 1987, 19–43.
[23] Staššíková-Štukovská D., Neue Erkenntnisse zur Dekomposita menschlicher Skelette am Beispiel des frühmittelal-
terlichen Gräberfeldes von Borovce, Slowakei. Prähistorische Zeitschrift 68, 1993, 242–263.
[24] Mant A.K., Knowledge acquired from post-War exhumations, In: Boddington a., Garland A.N., Janaway R.C. (Eds.), Death,
decay and reconstruction. Approaches to archaeology and forensic science, Manchester 1987, 65–78.
[25] Willimann I., Leichenzersetzung im Ergrab. Zersetzungsstörungen – Hygiene – Maßnahmen, Zürich 1996.
[26] Szentpéteri J. (Ed.), Archäologische Denkmäler der Awarenzeit in Mitteleuropa. Varia Archaeologica Hungarica XIII,
Budapest 2002.
[27] Dieck A., Postmortale Lageveränderungen in vor- und frühgeschichtlichen Gräbern. Archäologisches Korrespondenzblatt
4, 1974, 277–283.
[28] Eisenbeiss S., Berichte über Moorleichen aus Niedersachsen im Nachlaß von Alfred Dieck. Die Kunde 45, 1994, 91–120.
[29] van der Sanden W.A.B., Eisenbeiss S., Imaginary people – Alfred Dieck and the bog bodies of northwest Europe. Archäo-
logisches Korrespondenzblatt 36, 2006, 111–122.
[30] Bachner M., Das awarische Gräberfeld von Münchendorf, Niederösterreich, In: Friesinger H., Daim F. (Eds.), Die Bayern
und ihre Nachbarn Teil 2. Berichte des Symposions der Kommission für Frühmittelalterforschung, 25. bis 28. Oktober
1982, Stift Zwettl, Niederösterreich. Veröffentlichungen der Kommission für Frühmittelalterforschung 9, Wien 1985,
69–121.
[31] Garam É., Das awarenzeitliche Gräberfeld von Kisköre. Fontes Archaeologici Hungariae, Budapest 1979.
[32] Korvig I., Das awarenzeitliche Gräberfeld von Alattyán. Archaeologia Hungarica Series Nova XL, Budapest 1963.
[33] Tettamanti S., Das awarenzeitliche Gräberfeld in Vác-Kavicsbánya. Monumenta Avarorum Archaeologica 4, Budapest
2000.
[34] Korek J., A Szentes-Kajáni avar temető. Das avarische Gräberfeld zu Szentes-Kaján, 1943.
[35] Fettich N., Das awarenzeitliche Gräberfeld von Pilismarót-Basaharc. Studia Archaeologica III, Budapest 1965.
[36] Bóna I., A Szegvár-Sápoldali lovassír. Adatoka korai avar temetkezési szokásokhoz. Archaeologiai Értesítö 106, 1979,
3–32.
[37] Bárdos E., Garam È., Das Awarenzeitliche Gräberfeld in Zamárdi-Rétiföldek. Teil I. Monumenta Avarorum Archaeologica 9,
Budapest 2009.
[38] Salamon À., Erdélyi I., Das völkerwanderungszeitliche Gräberfeld von Környe. Studia Archaeologica 5, Budapest 1971.
[39] Horváth T., Az Üllői és a Kiskőrösi avar temető. Archaeologia Hungarica 19, Budapest 1935.
[40] Ricz P., Timber constructions in Avar graves – contributions tot he resolving of problems linked with burial oft he Avars in
North Bačka. Archaeologia Iugoslavica XXII-XXIII, 1982-1983, 96–112.
[41] Szőke B.M., Zur Problematik des Bestattungsritus mit verstümmelten Rinderschädel des Typs von Sopronkőhida. Acta
Archaeologia Hungarica 31, 1979, 51–103.
[42] Trugly S., A Komárom-hajógyári avar temető és telep, Budapest 2008.
[43] Distelberger, A., Das awarische Gräberfeld von Mistelbach (Niederösterreich). Monographien zur Frühgeschichte und
Mittelalterarchäologie 3, Innsbruck 1996.
[44] Török G., Das awarenzeitliche Gräberfeld von Solymár. Das awarische Corpus Beihefte 1, Budapest 1994.
[45] Székelyi-Orovicza E., Vergleichende Untersuchungen zum Todes- und Bestattungsbrauchtum in Pogan/Pogány. Beiträge
zur Volkskunde der Ungarndeutschen 20, 2003, 163–187.
[46] Pohl W., Die Awaren. Ein Steppenvolk in Mitteleuropa 567-822 n. Chr., München 1988.
[47] Sauer F., Die archäologischen Grabungen auf der Trasse der S1: Fundstelle Vösendorf, Laxenburgerstraße, Bad Vöslau
2007.
- 10.1515/opar-2015-0001
Downloaded from PubFactory at 08/08/2016 02:48:21AM
via free access
... This is changing rapidly, if, for instance small-scale wooden settlement structures or burial grounds which experienced massive surface restructuring are attempted to be identified by growth characteristics using medium resolution imagery. Even though particularly deep-reaching structures that are protected from mechanical rearrangement can be captured by aerial photo prospection Doneus and Scharrer-Liška, 2003;Scharrer-Liška et al., 2015), surface near structures can only be visualized with some difficulty. However, in cases where there is no direct visual access to archaeological remains, multispectral remote sensing data should be intensely used. ...
Thesis
Full-text available
Landscape and nature are considered a methodological dichotomy. However, this approach includes an anthropocentric conception of the world, which has developed from the emic perspective of the acting human being within his cultural landscapes. In this approach, nature is attributed a meaning – what inevitably contradicts itself. But how can such semantic categories be identified and how are landscapes assembled from different spatial and temporal components? In this work, the concept of landscape affordances developed by James J. Gibson in the late 1970’s is combined with the interdisciplinary approach of geoarchaeology to analyse and interpret human activity patterns in different chronological periods. Comprehensive environmental landscape analyses from two study areas of the Ostalb (Lauchheim) and the Upper Rhine region are presented, which are linked to archaeological distribution patterns, chronological phases, and sociocultural developments. The temporal focus lies on the Roman Empire and the Early Middle Ages and covers the first 700 years AD. The aim of this work is to link GIS-supported spatial analyses of past landscape dynamics with current issues of population development in pre-modern societies, their landscape perception, and transformation.
... This is changing rapidly, if, for instance small-scale wooden settlement structures or burial grounds which experienced massive surface restructuring are attempted to be identified by growth characteristics using medium resolution imagery. Even though particularly deep-reaching structures that are protected from mechanical rearrangement can be captured by aerial photo prospection (Doneus, 2013;Doneus and Scharrer-Liška, 2003;Scharrer-Liška et al., 2015), surface near structures can only be visualized with some difficulty. However, in cases where there is no direct visual access to archaeological remains, multispectral remote sensing data should be intensely used. ...
... Boxplots are a simple tool for comparing dimensional data of artefacts from different contexts, for example, or other archaeological entities of interest. More recent applications of this kind include Hiscock (2003), Mills (2007), Jennings (2008, Morehart and Eisenberg (2010), Mackay (2011) and Scharra-Liška et al. (2016). Boxplots have also used for comparing variables derived in morphological studies of animals and humans, or variables measured in the scientific study of the properties of materials (e.g., Nikita et al. 2012, Pollard et al. 2012). ...
Book
Full-text available
The book is a detailed, and in some cases an opinionated, account of the use of what are basically standard graphical statistical methods used for the presentation of archaeological data. The use of the software package R is advocated and is illustrated in detail - with data and R code available. This is contrasted with the common (mis)use of Excel which has resulted in some of the most unfortunate graphics that have sullied archaeological data presentation in the literature/
Article
Objective To link an antemortem cranial injury on the left parietal bone with potential neurocognitive consequences. Materials The skeleton of a male individual from a Székely archaeological site in Transylvania was examined. The skeleton was radiocarbon dated to Cal AD 1450 and AD 1640 and presented a well-healed antemortem penetrating cranial injury on the left parietal bone. Methods Macroscopic and radiographic analyses were conducted and the cranium was also archived digitally with a Faro FreeStyle3D scanner. In addition, well-known literature from neuroscience was synthesized in order to better understand the likely neurological consequences of the injury. Results The literature suggests that tasks of attention and working memory, sensory processing, language processing, and vision are affected when the parietal lobe of the brain is injured. Conclusions Burial 195 did not likely return to a ‘normal’ life after he survived the cranial injury. Significance This study demonstrates that bioarcheological interpretations involving antemortem cranial injuries can be enhanced by collaboration with neuroscientists. Bioarcheological interpretations are improved when the consequences of soft tissue injuries are understood. Limitations This study was limited by a lack of historical documents relevant to the region, time period, and specific case study. In addition, interpretations are cautionary because brain functioning cannot be assessed in vivo in the absence of life. Suggestions for further research Bioarcheologists who study antemortem cranial injuries should continue to collaborate with neuroscientists.
Article
Full-text available
The Vienna Institute for Archaeological Science (VIAS) was founded within the University of Vienna in 1992 as a forward-looking transdisciplinary institution. VIAS aims to develop and integrate methods from the natural sciences in a dynamic relationship with the culture-oriented investigative frameworks of archaeology, and to provide support, knowledge and partnership in multidisciplinary research programmes and projects. VIAS functions as a core facility and is conducting research in the fields of archaeobotany, archaeozoology, bioarchaeology, archaeometry and archaeometallurgy, analysis of precious metals, ceramology, geophysical archaeological prospection on land and underwater, geoarchaeology, digital archaeological documentation methods, and experimental archaeology. VIAS reaches out beyond the university by developing and collaborating in projects together with the Austrian Academy of Sciences and regional museums and cultural heritage administrations as well as many international partners. VIAS has substantially contributed to the development of efficient high-resolution prospection methods as a founding partner in the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Archaeological Prospection and Virtual Archaeology.
Article
Full-text available
An Avar Age Glass Vessel from the Cemetery at Frohsdorf and its Cultural and Historical Context Stemmed goblets in early medieval Avar find contexts like the vessel from Grave 261 in Frohsdorf /A were usually imported from the Mediterranean area. For the Frohsdorf vessel, the best morphological analogy has so far been found in Campochiaro / I. Due to this and further parallels as well as to the cultural connotations, the stemmed goblet from Frohsdorf is most likely to originate in Central Italy and / or in the Longobard culture and has to be dated to the 7th century. Regarding its chemical composition, the Frohsdorf vessel has to be assigned to the group of mineral soda glasses. Due to the specific metal oxides contained in the glass, it can be assumed that it is recycled Roman glass or more probably from a workshop that has not yet been localized and which worked with raw materials and recipes which were also used for the Roman glass in Europe.
Article
Full-text available
Alfred Dieck (* Großsalze/Schönebeck a.d. Elbe 1906, † Bremen 1989) is best known for his many studies of bog bodies of northwest Europe. The authors, who have studied bog bodies in Lower Saxony and the Netherlands as well as other bog finds, have gradually come to the conclusion that Dieck created an imaginary world, a world which he was able to maintain for many decades. Dieck's publications feature bog bodies that were never found and bog finds which he made up at his desk, including written or oral sources. The evidence of his deceit is partly of statistical nature, but there is also evidence that Dieck copied other sources. The »prehistoric« tattoos which he published in 1976 in the »Archäologisches Korrespondenzblatt« were clearly inspired by recent Bosnian tattoos. The time has come to definitively and without reservations push aside his entire archaeological oeuvre.
Article
Full-text available
Estimation of stature from skeletal measurements is of great interest in some studies, e.g. in forensic anthropology, where victims have to be identified. A problem occurring in practice is that the individual whose stature has to be assessed is in general from an unknown population. Alternatives to ordinary least squares regression are discussed. Application of available information about stature/long bone proportions leads to a general proposal called thethe weighted line of organic correlation, which is fitted to a wide range of populations. The effects of sex and race upon this line are practically negligible. These properties makes it suitable for use not only for forensic purposes, but also for the estimation of stature based on skeletons or skeletal populations from the past.
Article
In this study, the analysis of charcoal remains from three prehistoric necropolises is presented. This botanical material formed part of funerary pyres and thus represents purposely gathered wood used for cremation ceremonies. Therefore, its anthracological analysis may indicate a special selection of wood, which may be a source of palaeoethnographic information about past rituals. However, a question remains as to whether or not the charcoal assemblages that originated from graves may also provide some palaeoecological information. In order to test both hypotheses, analysis of three Polish necropolises dating to the Bronze and the Iron Age were performed. In all charcoal assemblages, a taxonomic diversity among charcoals was detected, which may suggest that the wood was collected based on availability. This may also be inferred after observing that the presence of the most ubiquitous and frequently found taxa may be strongly correlated with present-day vegetation growing in the vicinity of the necropolises.