The Bavarians from the Ground Up

Archaeological sites in Bavaria.  Cross marks Aschheim where plague DNA was isolated. (Hakenbeck et al, 2010)

Since written history doesn’t spread very much light on the people who lived in sixth century Bavaria, let’s literally look to the ground and examine what their cemeteries tell us about them.  Aschheim is the only place where plague aDNA has been found, but as far as I know, it is the only Late Antique place that has been investigated for plague.

Aschheim and nearby Altenerding represent two different styles of cemetery covering nearly the same fifth to sixth century time period. Aschheim is a row cemetery with no apparently clustering, while Altenerding has several founder graves with stylistically distinct related graves surrounding each. Both collect graves from nearby rural small settlements and both are located near (but not on) a Roman road.

One of the distinctive features in these cemeteries are a number of ‘hunnic’ modified skulls. This modification is not a marker of the Huns, who were a multiethnic federation anyway. It was common around the Black Sea and Carpathian basin in Romania and Hungary where it was praticed equally among men and women and found in all ages. The oldest are assoicated with the Sarmatians predating the Huns by a couple centuries. Even where it is common, it found in a minority of graves suggesting that it was reserved for a specific, presumably elite group. They are also common around foritifications in the Roman province of Pannonia. In these eastern areas, the modifications are found among a riot of mixed styles in grave goods and in local style graves. Harkenbeck (2009) suggests that the eastern modifications represent a frontier hybrid culture that was encouraged to develope a local identity.

2009 Hakenbeck
Modified skull in Late Antique Europe. Red circle encloses the Bavarian cases. (Modified from Hakenbeck 2009)

Modified skulls found west of the Alps paint a very different picture. They are thinly spread over a vast area including Bavaria, Bohemia, the Rhine valley, and into southern France. The big difference is that 71% are female and their dates are restricted to the mid-fifth to mid-sixth centuries (Hakenbeck 2009). There are no modified skulls in children suggesting that the modification method was not actively practiced in these communities at all. According to Hakenbeck, 98% of those found in Bavaria and central Germany are mature adults or elderly. She notes that they are primarily found along the Rhine and Danuabe rivers that were highways as much as frontier borders. Indeed, their frontier status was only contemporary with the Roman empire. These rivers were not frontiers before or after the Roman empire.  In Bavaria, they cluster around the Danuabe and down along the River Isar including at Alternerding and Straubing. Hakenbeck suggests that these indicate the increased female migration at marriage that genetics suggests usually happens in a more archaeologically invisible way. She notes that the five women with modified skulls at Alternerding were dressed and buried in an unremarkable local pattern with very typical grave goods of mixed styles.

‘Hunnic’ modified skulls from Alternerding with accompanying grave goods. Hakenbeck et al, 2010

The grave goods are mostly these brooches or clothing clasps. Hakenbeck notes Frankish/Almannic, Ostrogothic, Thuringian and even rarely Anglo-Saxon styles. Even when a brooch represented one foreign style, it was still worn in a local pattern reflecting being worn on clothing of a local sytle. The mixture of styles (often within the same piece) tells me that they were more fashion than markers of ethnicity. These must represent artisans who felt free to experiment with different styles and still sell their wares. None of these sites are really high status enough to represent royal or elite interests.

Inidcators of female migration go beyond the cranial modification. Skeletal measurements of males and females in Bavaria (at Altenerding and Neuburg near Straubing) suggest that the genders have different source populations. Hakenbeck (2009) notes that in the past jewelry was used to trace migrations but this is directly contradicted by biological analysis in Germanic areas where skull modification and isotopes often contradict the origins of material goods. The migration of women occurred at all social levels and was not associated with folk movements, tribal migrations or military expansions. Bavarian isotopic data is not very clear but the outliers do support some of the women having a significantly different diet for part of their lives.

One interesting grave discussed by Hakenbeck (2009, 2010) was of a high status elderly woman whose burial and grave goods connect her with Scandinavia or the Baltic.  Her isotopic data support her being a migrant. Along with some Anglo-Saxon influence in some of the jewelry, she is a reminder that communication and/or migration occurred with people to the north as well.

Hakenbeck (2011) proposes that Alternerding was is the result of two to three large extended kindreds with their associated staff.   The first generation had more distinctive styles that eventually became a more common, mixed style goods. Each family seems to have had its own section of the cemetery surrounding a founder grave.  The men in these areas had more similar accoutraments most likely related to current military affiliations. Weapons in the graves along with some high status brooches suggest that these were freemen. Interestingly, she noted that in the seventh century Byzantine and perhaps Lombard fashions began increasing in the Bavaria. Once the Byzantines were satisfied with the Franks holding a northern border including Bavaria, the Franks (and their territories) were allowed to prosper from close ties with the Byzantines and the Lombards. Symbols of Christianity do not appear in Bavaria until the seventh century along with the Byzantine influence. The appearance of the first Bavarian dukes in the mid-sixth century also stimulated the begennings of the development a Bavarian style.

The mechanism behind this fifth to sixth century migration is not well understood. Do these marriages reflect trade links? Alternatively, did men of all social levels seek wives from distant communities? Were these marriages made during military service far from home? Could some of them have been slaves taken as wives?  Afterall, two Merovingian kings married slaves who became, as far as we can tell, full status queens.  Obviously, long distance marriage does not necessarliy mean continuing long distance connections. It is notable though that the presence of these modified skulls end about 550 CE. Those of us interested in the plague have to realize that the Gothic War was probably a bigger factor in altering migration in the Danube valley than the plague. The Goths provide an environment where connections to the Black Sea area would have been possible. The impact of the Gothic war on migration, military movements, trade and communication has to be a major factor in looking at the plague in this region.



Hakenbeck, S. (2009). “Hunnic”modified skulls: physical appearance, identity and the transformative nature of migrations. In Mortuary Practices and Social Identities in the Middle Ages. University of Exeter Press.

Hakenbeck, S. (2011). Roman or Barbarian? Shifting identites in early medieval cemeteries in Bavaria. Post-Classical Archaeologies, (1), 37–66.

Hakenbeck, S., McManus, E., Geisler, H., Grupe, G., & O’Connell, T. (2010). Diet and mobility in Early Medieval Bavaria: a study of carbon and nitrogen stable isotopes. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 143(2), 235–249.

Wagner, D. M., Klunk, J., Harbeck, M., Devault, A., Waglechner, N., Sahl, J. W., et al. (2014). Yersinia pestis and the Plague of Justinian 541–543 AD: a genomic analysis. The Lancet Infectious Diseases, 14(4), 1–8.


One thought on “The Bavarians from the Ground Up

Comments are closed.

Create a free website or blog at

Up ↑