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.

Who were the Early Medieval Bavarians?

My reading for the last year has been all over the place as I try to catch up on the world of the Plague of Justinian. A sample of my reading for the last few months is here. Believe it or not, they all relate in some what to what was going on during the ‘dark ages’.

The only place that plague has been completely confirmed by ancient DNA is a small settlement in Bavaria called Aschheim. This is great in some ways. We have a full genome sequence and its a place where plague wasn’t recorded before. In fact the downside is that practically nothing is recorded there in the sixth or seventh centuries. While I’m sure that plague will be unambiguously identified elsewhere eventually, Bavaria is what we now to have to work with, and besides it is as important to understand there as much as anywhere else.

Who the Bavarians are, where they came from and what cohesion they had as a people is unknown. They are only mentioned by outsiders. No one claimed to be king of Bavaria. There are no royal genealogies or origin stories of any group of the population, probably because there was no king who needed such fictions to support them. Although the region of Bavaria is an iconic and integral component of Germany today, they were not considered necessarily Germanic then.

Bavaria is primarily composed of the Roman provinces of Raetia and Noricum. (modified public domain image)

Bavaria is primarily composed of the Roman provinces of Raetia and Noricum. (modified public domain image)

The area we now know as Bavaria was not a backwater in the Roman or early medieval world. It formed the Roman provinces of Raetia II (eastern half of Raetia) and Noricum. The original province of Raetia was organized by Rome in the first century and held tightly for strategic reasons.  The Bavarian alps were a major defensive feature for northern Italy and conversely its passes were weak points to be guarded. The province of Noricum was rich in mining resources: salt, gold and iron. Otherwise, the province of Raetia and Noricum were used primarily for grazing on the poor highland soils.

Both provinces originally belonged to Celtic peoples and so by the fall of the western empire they had long been a Romano-Celtic population (not unlike Britain). Archaeologically Germanic people can be seen infiltrating the region, but it is far from a wave or population displacement. Obviously, the German language eventually becomes dominant but how long it took for that to take hold is unclear. The few texts from the region are in Latin. The name ‘bavarians’ also has an unclear origin, but the best current guess suggests bohemian.

The region of interest for my purposes can be triangulated between three former Roman settlements: Regensburg (Castra Regina) , Augsberg (Augusta Vindelicum), and Saltzberg (Iuvavum). Red lines on the map are Roman roads including over the Alps to the Adriatic at the bottom.

Late Antique Bavaria

The core of Bavaria with modern names next to Roman names. The black star marks the site of Aschheim. Map from the Pelagios project.

The core region of Bavaria is bounded by the River Danube in the north and the Alps in the south. The river Lech forms the western boundary and the River Inn is roughly the eastern boundary though this side fluctuated more over time. Sometimes Saltzburg was in Bavaria and other times it was not. The same is really true for Augsburg on the River Lech as well. Today Aschheim is above the River Isar on the outskirts of Munich, the capital of Bavaria since Munich’s foundation in the mid-twelfth century. So Aschheim remains in the core of Bavaria, no matter how its boundary changes. The rivers Lech, Isar, and Inn all arise in the Alps and run into the Danube. They were used to transport goods down from the Alps and even Italy beyond to the Danube.

Politically the region is transferred from the Romans to Theodoric the Great, becoming part of his Gothic empire. It remained with the Goths until Byzantium broke them. At some point in the Gothic war, the Franks gained hegemony over the region and in about 550 the Franks appointed or gave the duchy to Garibald I. The dukes who claimed descent from Garibald I solidified their position by intermarriage with both the Merovingians and Lombards, making them intolerable to the Carolingians. My concern however is limited to the sixth century when plague can be placed there. So zeroing in on the late Gothic war and the Merovingians are in order.

This post is a general introduction to the Bavarians. I plan on coming back with posts on more detailed aspects of sixth to seventh century Bavaria. Although my primary interest is the landscape of disease, there are some interesting parallels with changes going on in Britain as well.

A Migration Age Anglo-Saxon Leper


Paleomicrobiology and isotopic analysis has the ability to completely change what we know of past infectious diseases. A study published this month on a fifth century Anglo-Saxon skeleton is one of the most complete I have read.

Lesions on skeletons found at Great Chesterfield in Essex, England, suggested possible leprosy. To confirm this diagnosis, they chose one skeleton that is nearly complete and in good shape for further analysis.

Grave GC86 from Great Chesterford, excavated in a rescue archaeology operation in 1953-4. Grave GC86 from Great Chesterford, excavated in a rescue archaeology operation in 1953-4. (Inskip et al, 2015)

The skeleton (GC96) shown to the right is of a 25 to 35-year-old male buried in modestly furnished grave in an area of the cemetery with other visibly disabled people. Radiocarbon dating places these remains at AD 415-545, and thus Migration Age for the Anglo-Saxons. The Great Chesterford cemetery is located roughly in an approximate border area between the kingdom of the East Saxons…

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Oswiu’s Bad Luck

I’ve been reading Marilyn Dunn’s The Christianization of the Anglo-Saxons and just thinking about King Oswiu’s bad luck after the Synod of Whitby. He is celebrated by Bede and the Church of England ever after for choosing to accept the authority of Rome over the independent tradition of Iona, the mother house of the Irish missionaries to the Angles (and it was primarily to Angles, not Saxons south of the Thames).

So let’s look at the grace bestowed on Oswiu after his admittance into the Roman fold: first the plague arrives in his lands for the first time in at least English memory taking his new Archbishop of Lindisfarne Tuda, whose gentile nature and Romano-Irish ways were to heal his torn kingdom; then Bishop Cedd (one of beloved Adain’s disciples and an effective missionary bishop) died of the plague,  and his son sub-king Alhfrith of Deira either dies in a rebellion against his father or dies of the plague (never on the scene again) but not before he send Wilfrid to Bishop Agilberht in Paris for consecration as bishop of York (a new see for Deira). Meanwhile, Oswiu chooses Cedd’s brother, currently resident in Ireland, as the next Bishop of Lindisfarne/York, ie. bishop of his kingdom. His choice of Chad studying in Ireland is likely an indication of his esteem for Chad’s brother Bishop Cedd (and perhaps the counseling of Abbot Eata of Lindisfarne) and probably means that Cedd’s other two priestly brothers were dead of the plague at Lastingham or were too closely associated with his traitorous nephew Oethelwald to be bishop. King Oethelwald (son of Oswald) had given Lastingham to Cedd on the advise of Cedd and Chad’s brother who was his personal priest. So, back to Chad, who is now sent to the Archbishop of Canterbury for consecration, but upon arriving he finds out that the Archbishop of Canterbury and King Eorcenberht of Kent (cousin of Oswiu’s queen) had died on the same day probably of plague and they were waiting on a replacement from Rome. The bishop of Rochester had also died, leaving only Bishop Wine of Wessex who called on the help of two British bishops to finally get Chad consecrated. So far this new thing with Rome is not looking so good…

By the Fall of 664, Oswiu had conferred with the new king of Kent to select Wigheard as the next (and first native English) Archbishop of Canterbury and sent him on to Rome to be consecrated. Yet, up pops the plague again and kills Wigheard in Rome (confirmed by a letter from the Pope to the two kings), and the Pope reluctantly send Theodore of Tarsus, a refugee Eastern monk from the Eastern empire to Britain as Archbishop with his own elderly Abbot Hadrian from North Africa to prevent Theodore from introducing any questionable Eastern practices in Britain (hardly a vote of confidence). So not only does Oswiu get an odd Archbishop from the East finally in 670, but one of his first actions is to take a hard-line on the formerly Irish trained clergy, re-consecrate all the Irish founded churches, and declare Chad’s consecration as invalid. Oswiu is now stuck with Wilfrid as bishop of York.

Ruins of Whitby Abbey

Nothing has gone according to plan…. by now news will have come to Oswiu at Bamburgh that the plague stopped near his northern border. According to Adomnan of Iona, it never made it St Columba’s lands.

Theodore does eventually soften his stance on the Irish trained clergy and will re-consecrate Chad as bishop of Mercia. We don’t hear much more about Oswiu and the church until his final sickness. He vowed if he recovered from that illness to have Bishop Wilfrid escort him to Rome. That didn’t work out either. Oswiu never recovered and was buried at the (no doubt re-consecrated) Church of St Peter at Whitby Abbey where his deal with Rome was struck. Perhaps Oswiu wanted to go to Rome to see if it was all worth it.

Emperor Justinian and the British Kings, c. 540

Emperor Justinian

Roman historian Procopius had a lot to complain about in his Secret History. Its pretty easy to say that he did a hatchet job on his bosses, Emperor Justinian and General Belisauris. Procopius was the Late Antique equivalent of a severely conservative ‘think tank’ founder, you know the type that queue up to appear on talk shows and start whisper campaigns. He shared some whoppers, perhaps the least of which is theorizing that his emperor is really a demon and the court women were even worse.

Complaints about Justinian’s use of the treasury are constant throughout the Secret History.

There was no time at which he ceased giving huge gifts of money to all the barbarians, to both easterners and westerners as well as out of the North and to the South, as far as the inhabitants of Britain … for they poured into Byzantion from every corner of the world in order to reach him….he was overjoyed with this state of affairs, believing it to be a lucky opportunity to exhaust the wealth of the Romans and throw it out to the barbarians, as good as throwing it into the churning waves of the sea. (Procopius, Secret History, III:13-15)

If Justinian’s ambition to recapture former imperial territory was real, then he had to build hegemony, buying allies and perhaps paying for proxy wars. He also had to keep former Roman territory that paid him at least lip service happy. So if British kings styled themselves protectors of the Roman province and requested subsidies to pay Saxon troops to protect Roman territory, it would be hard to Justinian to turn them down while handing out money to barbarians. Regardless of how they asked, there was enough gold going from Constantinople to Britain for Procopius to know about it and complain.

Justinian I  Tremisis. Rome mint. Struck circa 540-546 AD.

Justinian I Tremisis. minted in Rome. Struck circa 540-546 AD.

If a lot of gold was heading to Britain, it probably went to the western territories along the Irish sea where archaeologists have found most of the Roman/Byzantine trade goods in the fifth century. Most notably, the Penmachno stone from Gwynedd dates the grave of the son of Avitorius who was buried to the time of Justi* Con[sul]. This stone has been most often dated to the consulship of Justinian in 540 (Sarris, p. 200). Gildas’ five kings are likely to be among the beneficiaries of Justinian’s largess, and he singles out Maelgwn of Gwynedd as the most powerful. So it is interesting that the one king we would predict would have been in touch with Justinian’s court, has the Penmachno stone in his kingdom and  is the only British citizen recorded as dying in the ‘great mortality’ in 547. The Annals Cambriae are usually off by a couple of years in this section so this lines up well with the Irish records of plague in the 540s.

 The great death [plague] in which Maelgwn, king of Gwynedd died. ‡Thus they say ‘The long sleep of Maelgwn in the court of Rhos’. Then was the yellow plague.‡ (Annals Cambriae, 547)

anus Mortalitas magna inqua pausat mailcun rex genedotae (A-text of Annals Cambriae, Gough-Cooper ed.)

Likewise the additional material added in the B-text (‡) referring to Maelgwn’s death during the ‘yellow plague’ has the hallmarks of oral history found in Irish sources. (I’ll come back to folklore on Maelgwn and his death some other day.) For unknown reasons, Irish folklore color codes the plague as yellow – although no epidemic infectious disease of the mid-sixth century causes yellowing. Ann Dooley has made a well argued case for the ‘yellow plague’ and other terms like blefed as being references to the plague. So we have a route and rationale for the Plague of Justinian to reach the Irish Sea zone from any number of points with direct contact infected areas of Justinian’s territory. While its possible that Justinian’s goods reached Britain through Gaul (possibly through the Loire valley) (Little 2007:10), while Justinian held territory in Iberia and controlled the Straits of Gibraltar, a direct route by sea is also possible. Plague fleas can be transported in cereals or textiles for long distances.

One of the oddities of early Anglo-Saxon records is that most of the royal dynasties go back to about 550, about a hundred years after the Anglo-Saxons themselves claim (and archaeology confirms) that they came to Britain. Failure to pay for security services rendered is also a consistent feature in folklore of the ‘adventus’. Archaeology also tells us that links to Byzantium were lost from the mid-sixth century, right around the time of the plague. So whatever help Justinian was sending Britain, it may have been to keep the ‘Saxons’ on the payroll for a little while longer, but as soon as trade with Byzantium (and presumably Roman foreign aid) is cut off around the time of the plague, we find the origins of the English royal dynasties.

So when I look at the recent Staffordshire hoard of gold military equipment, I just have to wonder how much of Justinian’s gold is recycled there.

Items from the Staffordshire hoard


Anthony Kaldellis, ed. & trans. Prokopios: The Secret History and Related Texts. Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett, 2010.

Ann Dooley “The Plague and its Consequences in Ireland” in Plague and the End of Antiquity, ed. Lester Little, Cambridge, 2006.

Peter Sarris. Empires of Faith: The Fall of Rome to the Rise of Islam, 500-700. Oxford History of Medieval Europe, 2011. [Sarris is the only recent historian to discuss these linkages between Justinian and events in Britain, but he does not mention Maelgwn’s death.]

Lester Little “Life and Afterlife of the First Plague Pandemic” in Plague and the End of Antiquity: The Pandemic of 541-750.  Lester Little, ed.  Cambridge, 2006.

Contagion and Pestilence in Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies

A post from my Contagions blog on Isidore’s Etymology.


Saint Isidore of Seville (c. 560–636). Bishop, confessor and Doctor of the Church. Altarpiece of Saint Isidore. 15th century. Diocesan Museum of Calatayud. Spain.

Before Isidore of Seville became the patron saint of the internet, he was known for over a thousand years as a font of knowledge.  Isidore was not an innovator; he was a master of synthesis. It is through Isidore that we have an orderly account of the learned knowledge of the Late Roman world.  He was conscious of the fact that he was saving information at risk of being lost.  His Etymologies, written in twenty sections between 621 and 636, was both the Latin dictionary and encyclopedia of the entire medieval period. Isidore is not always correct — there is a lot of sounds-like etymology– but his explanations were accepted throughout the medieval period. So, Isidore is an ideal source to gain an understanding of how modern terms like contagion and pestilence were defined from the early seventh century in the midst of the first plague pandemic.

From Book IV:…

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