Germanic invasions and settlements


What does burial archaeology tell us about the Germanic invasions and settlements in the fourth and fifth centuries AD?

The Germanic Invasion was a great turning point in shaping modern day Europe. While the Germanic Invasion has been referred to as different names reflecting the nature of this movement such as Migration or Invasion what is clear is that between the fourth and fifth century AD a large number of Germanic tribes crossed the Rhine and the Danube and came to occupy much of Europe and even as far as territories in northern Africa. While historical sources for this period tell us much about these movements the cultural changes and the physical remains left behind allow Archaeologists to also shed light on this exciting period in European history. Through this essay I shall show how the burial styles and grave good can expand upon, challenge, and even bring new ideas to the historical accounts of that period.

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The fourth and fifth century saw drastic changes across Europe which ultimately acted as a stimulus for the movement of the Germanic tribes. The major changes at this time were the weakening of the Roman Empire along the Rhine/Danube border (see fig 1) and the expansion of the Hun's into Europe from the East. From Historical source we know that the Roman Empire was defending it borders on multiple frontiers and its defences were stretched thin, eventually the Roman's had to remove its military support from some provinces entirely creating rich lands which could be easily conquered as was the case with Briton.

The initial phase of the Germanic invasion took place as a result of the appearance of the Huns in the East who following the subjugation of the Alans and Ostrigoths forced tribes such as the Visigoths in 372 AD to be displaced from their existing lands and pushed into Roman territory (Thompson 1948: 22). Initial diplomatic solutions were made however not upheld by the Roman Emperor. Around 406 AD further movements took place with the Vandals, Burundians and Sueve crossing the Rhine and moving into Northern Gaul. In 409 AD the Visigoth leader Aldric in response to Rome not upholding it deal sacked Rome before claiming the lands of southern Gaul and Spain (Isidore 1970: 8-9). Rome had recalled its legions in Briton in an attempt to stop the Vandal, Burgundians and Sueve however were only partially successful with the Vandals and Sueve being pushed out into Spain and the Burgundians forcing an agreement with the Romans to allow them to setup as a Kingdom in the region.

The situation within Briton following the legions withdrawal was a similar affair. It is believed that without Roman protection they were being attack on multiple sides by the Picts and Irish. While initially the Germanic tribes were hired as mercenaries to repel these attacks they later returned and claimed lands of Briton. The major tribes involved in this were the Saxons, Jutes and Angles moving across from the North West coast of Germany and settling along the Eastern coast of Briton.

One of the later moving tribes was the Franks. Unlike many of the other Germanic tribes they did not abandon their old territories and instead expanded from them. They expanded into Northern Gaul from their existing lands on the Eastern banks of the Rhine. Their expansion spread eventually removing the Roman Governor of Northern Gaul and pushing out the Visigoths who had previously claimed the lands of Southern Gaul.

While historical accounts can give us much information regarding the movements of these tribes and their leaders we must remember that communication at the time was no longer what it had been and information would have been far from accurate. Around the same time as the Germanic migration Northern Europe was undergoing a change in burial practices. The previous Roman burials were done so with no grave goods and had a tendency to overlap. This new style involved angular rows with little overlap and the inclusion of burial goods such as weapons, clothes and jewellery which had been lacking from Roman style burials. This change in burial style has commonly been associated with the spread of the Germanic tribes however there was no trace of this style of burial in their formers lands prior to the expansion (James 2009: 210).

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The lands of Gaul leave many traces behind which archaeologist can use to shed light on the movements of the Germanic tribes and the changes their arrivals brought. Unlike many of the other areas Gaul's many regions are very diverse with huge difference in prosperity between north and south. Even prior to the major movements across the Rhine the Germanic tribes already had significant influence in the region with many already possessing land in Gaul or having been serving in the Roman army there. Southern Gaul appears to have maintained much of its prosperity with Marseille and Bordeaux showing particular signs of significant trade during the Roman decline (Halsall 2007: 324). Another trend during this period is the increase in Christianity and in particular we can see a large campaign of church building which can be best seen from the excavation at Lyon and Geneva (Halsall 2007: 347). The North however faired much worse with the decline of many towns and cities and also a down turn in rural villas, the decline of pottery and coin production in the north also indicates a downturn in overall prosperity. The changes in burials styles were significant with burials now including items which had significance to them in life, such as weapons and belts to signify military service as well as drinking vassals and decorative pottery became a common sight in male graves. A weapon commonly associated with the Franks was the Francisca, a throwing axe which is one of the most numerous of weapons found in Frankish graves. A greater distinction between genders can been seem from these goods as those graves belonging to females lacked the weapons and signs of authority but showed more decorative items such as jewellery. In the north of Gaul cremation was also being used although not quite to the extent found in Briton around the same period. A prime example of such graves is that of King Childeric which was discovered in 1653 and contained large amounts of grave good including sacrificed horses and a staggering 300 decorative items in the form of bees (Edwards 2002: 25). While many were recovered only a few still exist as they had been melted down by future generation following their discovery.

The rural poor in Spain had used a strategy of diversification in order to survive the economic decline during the earth fourth century by clustering settlements around areas with substantial olive orchards such as the lands between Seville, Cordoba and Ecija. These settlement patterns also show how the rural poor took jobs in other areas such as farming, fishing, mining or working in the cities yet still during olive harvest season would supplement their income by assisting in the harvest (Car 2005:199).

During the Vandal period of occupation this changed however as olive oil production was much reduced, possibly as a result of the Roman Empire which had been decline or the dangers of transportation through hostile lands (Car 2005: 200). The period also saw a change in locations of settlement as the Vandal period saw constant attacks from Sueve, Goths and Romans and the previous settlements which had been safe in the open plains were relocated to more defendable hill locations such as former Roman hill forts (Car 2005: 201). In addition to archaeological sources these changes are also documented by Hydatius in one of the few written sources for the period (Car 2005: 201). The main Roman roads were no longer maintained and the settlements which were created were fewer in number and of poorer quality materials such as mud-brick indicating a reduction in population and quality of materials available. During the Visigoth period in the sixth century we can see that the situation began to improve slightly with settlements become more dispersed with more settlements along the river however the majority still continued to be located around hilltops for the additional defence, these locations continued to be placed further from secondary roads which may indicated an increased use of the river for transportation (Car 2005: 201).

The fate of Africa follow on from the end of the Vandal period in Spain as the Vandal moved across the Mediterranean and into northern Africa. Changed during this period were many, in particular the changes to the public forums of the major urban centres which quickly fell into disrepair and converted into other functions such as burial areas or waste dumps (Halsall 2007: 321). Many of the former Roman rules for city life are abandoned during this period. The burial practices themselves however don't see much in the way of change. A handful do however include burial goods most notably clothes fasteners which are generally associated with Vandal graves either signifying Vandal styles being adopted or a mix of Vandal and local burials (Halsall 2007: 324).

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Ritual settlements increase which can be seen from field surveys in northern Tunisia and Cherchel including the fortification of farmsteads and Villas under the Vandal period. A clear example of this is the excavation at Nador near Cherchel where a villa was converted to include additional room in the early fifth century, possibly following similar patterns used in Spain for Communal use (Halsall 2007: 323). Despite the damage caused by the initial sacking of the Vandals the period does seem to have not resulted in a downturn in its economy with little change in goods production and finds as North African pottery continues to show up in areas around the meditarainian indicating both a maintaining of its trade links and an undisturbed level of production (Halsall 2007: 325)..

The change in state control had both created both setbacks and opportunities. Written sources for the period suggest that pottery production had switched from urban to rural due to the lack of state control and the ability of aristocratic estates to become autonomous. This pattern of change can be seen most clearly in the Segermes region where surveys showing continuity of rural settlements and the central city having its public buildings turned into rubbish dumps and burial places (Halsall 2007: 325).

The changes across the channel in Briton were even more drastic than those elsewhere in Europe. The withdrawal of Roman legions had opened up the country to much conflict with its neighbours and following the invasion the country was carved up between the various tribes who had taken advantage of the situation (see fig.). The settlement patterns also change with excavations of villas showing that in most cases they were abandoned by the early fifth century as well as a decline in urban life. Cremation also seems to be increasing used as a burial method throughout this period with the Cremation pots being decorated precisely as they had been done in the Saxon homeland (Holmes 2001: 64).

Archaeology has provided answers to many of the blanks during the dark age of written history. We can see that in many areas the method of government has changed drastically with the former large scale government being replaced by less state controlled and more localised forms of government. We can see that in most cases the Germanic tribes did not replace the existing populations but instead they were accommodated which can be seen by duel styles of dress, decoration and burial styles which over time eventually merge. Settlements declined and pubic building were in a number of cases replaced with burials signifying a change from the old Roman idea of separating the living and the dead by city boundaries.


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Barbarian Graves (209-214)

  • Aligned in regular rows, little overlap, buried fully clothed with dress-fasteners or adornments and often with spears, swords and vessels. These grave types can be found in northern Europe from northern France, the Low Countries, eastern Britain and most of Germany with outliers in Spain, northern Italy and central Europe. These burial types are much different from those of the previous Roman origins which can help map the spread of the Germanic tribes who we also know where using this type of burial prior to the migration (210)
  • Cremation was also being used in eastern Britain and northern Gaul, something which was again being used in Germany and had not been practiced in the Roman culture for 2 centuries prior and the style of the cremation urn were very different to those of Roman design.
  • Map can be drawn based purely on this evidence to show where the barbarians settled. Conflicts with some historical records, notably south-west Gaul where tens of thousands of Visigoths lived between 418-507 but left no traces in the form of barbarian burials. This could be argued that the Visigoths, having worked with Roman society previous to the movements had become very romanised in their burial practices.
  • Row grave cemeteries developed within the empire (Joachim Werner)