Once laid to rest, the remains of many who died in medieval Europe were not left in peace. As much as 40 percent of graves from the mid-fifth to mid-eighth centuries appear to have been disturbed after burial.
Grave robbers, searching for wealth buried along with the dead, have frequently born the blame from archaeologists.
“This sort of behavior has always been described as grave robbery,” said Edeltraud Aspöck, a postdoctoral researcher at the Austrian Academy of Sciences. “It has always been thought that it was criminal gangs and foreigners that have been plundering, and it was all about material gain.”
But after carefully examining disturbed graves, Aspöck believes something much more complex was happening.
For instance, in a sixth-century Austria cemetery, only certain types of objects appear to have been taken, and there’s a pattern to how the excavated bodies were handled, indicating that more than mere plundering was occuring. And in a slightly more recent English cemetery, some corpses were discovered with their bodies placed in strange poses — possibly the work of people who reopened their graves to ease the restless souls, Aspöck suggests.