An almost 8,000-year-old grave in North Brabant teaches us a lot about the rituals and customs of the past


An impression of what the cremation pit might have looked like.Statue Kelvin Wilson

A major excavation took place in 2017 at Laarakker in Haps, a village in North Brabant, part of Land van Cuijk municipality. The reason: the construction of a new industrial area on this old sand ridge, which once ran along the banks of an old branch of the Meuse.

From surface finds, it had been known for some time that this sand ridge must have been inhabited since time immemorial. For example, there were reports over the years about finds from the Roman era as well as the Iron Age and prehistory. Reason enough to subject the entire site to an archaeological survey prior to construction.

The archaeological research firm Ecoconsultancy, which carried out the survey, uncovered not only several Iron Age graves, but also a number of stone objects that could be dated to around 4000 BC.

The most notable find, however, was a pit that appeared to contain human remains believed to be even older. The contents of this pit have since been examined by specialists. The results of this, which were recently published in the professional journal Archeology in the Netherlandswas surprising.

Hazelnuts as a grave gift

The filling of the pit was found to consist of the remains of a cremated corpse. From the original depth of the approximately 60 centimeter deep pit, 15 centimeters were found in original condition. The contours of the grove were therefore still clearly visible. The last 15 centimeters also showed no disturbance, and it is unlikely that the cremation remains had naturally sunk so deeply and so regularly into the ground.

The conclusion of the investigation is therefore that the pit was dug by people, that the cremation remains were then placed in it, and the pit was subsequently closed again with the excavated material. According to the researchers, this is a deliberately constructed grave and not ‘accidental’ remains.

The contents of what remained of that grave were sifted, and in addition to remains of bones, pieces of burnt flint and remains of also burnt hazelnuts were found. The stone objects probably belonged to the deceased’s personal property and were burned together with the body. The same went for the nuts. According to the researchers, the fact that nuts were found as grave goods indicates that there must have been awareness of some form of burial in that period. afterlife where the dead needed food.

Ulna and jaw rest

Three C14 measurements of the organic material – two bone fragments and a piece of charcoal were suitable for this – together resulted in a dating: the tomb must have been built between 7803 and 7582 BCE. According to Tom Hos, project manager for the excavation, it is more than 100 years older than the three graves that were found a few years ago in Beverwaard near Rotterdam. These graves, which until now were known to be the oldest in the Netherlands, are dated to around 7500 BC.

The investigation revealed even more. Hos: “Based on the weight of the burnt bone remains (more than 200 grams) and the different types of bone that were found – parts of the vertebrae, of the skull, ulnae and even jaw remains – we assume that it was one person.. ”

A person whose gender and age could not be determined. The bone material was too fragmentary for that. Hos: “Still, there are a number of things that suggest that we are probably dealing with a (young) adult and not with a child or an elderly person.”

Full-grown incisor

One such clue is the discovery of a complete, fully grown, but not too worn incisor. Front teeth, especially fully grown ones, first appear from the age of nine and after a while – usually after about twenty years – they show obvious signs of wear. The structure of the bones also points to a young adult.

In addition to Haps and Beverwaard, cremation graves from the entire period of the Early and Middle Mesolithic (the period 8200-6500 BC) have been found in two other places in the Netherlands; at Oirschot and in Dalfsen. In those cases, it concerns cremation burials of a single individual in a pit grave and here too there are additional gifts in the form of stone objects and food.

Hos: “Based on this data, it can therefore be said that cremation with associated rituals and burial of the remains in a pit grave was the norm for almost 2000 years. However, some caution is warranted. Because unburned bone material has almost never been preserved, especially on sandy soils, and these are the places where hunter-gatherers stayed the most. And cremated remains that were not buried in a pit but left on the surface will not have stood the test of time.”

Ritual flesh removal

More recently, there have been indications that other burial rituals took place during the same period. For example, cut marks have recently been found on bones originating from the bottom of the North Sea. Cut marks that, according to Luc Almkreutz, curator of prehistory at the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden, may be the result of ritual flesh removal after death.

Cremation of the deceased and then burial of the cremated remains may therefore be just one of the ways hunter-gatherers treated their dead. However, this does not change the fact that the oldest known grave in the Netherlands is located in Haps.

One of the indications that it is a young adult is the discovery of a complete, fully grown but not too worn incisor.  Picture

One of the indications that it is a young adult is the discovery of a complete, fully grown but not too worn incisor.

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