A recent discovery related to a 1,400+ year-old grave site in Germany is offering some new insights about the end of the ancient world and beginning of the Middle Ages. The archeological site itself has been known for some time, as it was discovered in 1962. Filled with some spectacular finds, including a fascinating helmet, scholars have used the items found in the graves, to offer some conclusions on the 13 people found buried there. They were nobles, likely from a group called the Alemanni, and they died sometime during the 7th century CE.
But we were a bit stuck in trying to learn more than that. That is, until now.
New DNA analysis of the remains by a team of scholars based at the wonderfully-named Eurac Research Institute for Mummy Studies in Italy, and then the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany, suggests that although some of these 13 were related, others were not. In addition, those who weren’t related to one another came from a variety of places – from Northern Europe to the Mediterranean.
But what does that mean?
No one is entirely sure yet. The lead investigator thinks this mixture of geographic origins means that this is evidence of hostage-taking. Children from conquered groups would be raised as the dominant groups’ own. “Folklore from the time has tales of tribes exchanging hostage children that are raised as their own,” the lead researcher said.
Maybe. Hostage-taking was indeed practiced at this time (we don’t have to rely on “folklore” as there has been plenty of research done in this area). But I think it perhaps more likely that the rather odd grouping of these 13 wasn’t actually so odd after all, and had more to do with how early medievals defined themselves.
Identity in the early European Middle Ages was fluid, changeable, and could have many layers. Particularly in Germanic warrior cultures such as with the Alemanni, some identities were consciously sought out. You didn’t identify throughout your life with the same group you were born with, and you didn’t necessarily give up that identity when you chose another. Identities were used when needed, stored when not. In other words, a person could think of/ represent themselves as one thing in one social situation, another in a second, and yet another in a third.
The inhabitants of these particular graves may well have been Christian, Lombard, and Alemannic. Sometimes they may have been all 3 at once. Other times they may have been 1 more than another.
This way of thinking shouldn’t be shocking. In fact, it should be quite familiar to any sports fan.
When LeBron James moved teams, from the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Miami Heat then back to Cleveland and now to the LA Lakers, some fans felt betrayed and remained loyal to their team, while others followed him and transferred their support (this year, one fan for unrelated reasons even auctioned his fanhood on eBay - it’s good for just for 1 year though).
But this movement, of course, isn’t permanent. James himself, when he moved to the Lakers, posted on Instagram that Northeast Ohio would always be “home.” Indeed, he has supported the Cleveland Indians as he wore a “Cleveland or Nowhere” t-shirt. But the that same year he admitted he was really a NY Yankees fan. In any of these cases, asking which team these fans “really” support wouldn’t make any sense. A fan might support the Lakers against the Warriors but the Cavaliers over the Lakers. And all of that could change if one of those teams was having a good run or another became a particular villain during the season.
In other words, early medieval identity, like modern sports fandom is situational.
That even applies to a king, whether he be 7th-century Alemannic or 21st-century James.