Tracing human mobility and cultural diversity after the fall of the Western Roman Empire : a multi-isotopic investigation of early medieval cemeteries in the Upper Rhine Valley

The 5th and 6th centuries were a period characterised by complex and drastic transformations in the political, social and cultural landscapes of Europe. Non-Roman groups increasingly invaded the gradually dissolving Western Roman Empire which was finally replaced by independent “Romano-barbarian kingdoms”. In the 6th century, the Franks from the Merovingian dynasty are the main power in Central Europe and eventually dominated a territory from east of the Rhine to southern France. However, written sources are uninformative regarding how far these overall socio-political dynamics affected local communities in the north-eastern Rhine areas. The archaeological record indicates profound cultural transformations during the 5th and 6th centuries, which includes the use of a new burial practice. In many regions of Western and Central Europe, people started to bury their dead at new burial grounds in west-east oriented inhumation graves with especially rich grave goods. Traditional archaeological approaches attribute the rich burials to the immigration of “Germanic” groups. Single grave goods, combinations of grave goods and other elements of the funeral rite have been used to prove the arrival of foreign groups and individuals. Newer approaches criticise a sheer “migrational” explanation and consider the creation of a new funeral rite as a cultural reorientation by the local communities in response to the social and political dynamics of the time. This study employs an interdisciplinary approach in order to investigate how far the foundation of the early medieval cemeteries as well as foreign grave goods can be connected to the immigration of individuals or groups. The investigations were conducted on three cemeteries located on the western bank of the northern Upper Rhine Valley. Based on written and archaeological records, it is assumed that the burial communities in this former frontier zone were comprised of individuals and groups with different origins. Hand-made pottery as a grave offering indicates immigration from the North Sea area as well as Middle Germany. The continued presence of Roman structures during the second half of 5th century suggests that local communities were present when the new funeral rite was created. In order to differentiate between local and non-local individuals interred in burial plots, strontium (87Sr/86Sr), oxygen (δ18O) and carbon (δ13C) isotope analysis were conducted on a total of 137 human tooth enamel samples from 120 individuals dating to the late 5th and 6th centuries. In addition, the biologically available 87Sr/86Sr signature of the Upper Rhine Valley was estimated based on the analysis of 98 samples, including faunal enamel, faunal and human dentine, eggshells, soil, and water samples. The isotopic results of the human individuals, in combination with the archaeological and anthropological data, has shown that the foundation of the investigated cemeteries was connected to individuals from diverse regions who had not spent their childhood in the Upper Rhine Valley and that local individuals played only a minor role. Hand-made pottery found in graves also has stylistic parallels to material from the North Sea area and Middle Germany, providing additional support for the presence of migrants; however, the isotopic results cannot directly demonstrate the movement of individuals from the North Sea area to the Rhine and the presence of people from Middle Germany cannot be excluded. In the 6th century, additional newcomers were identified isotopically who would have been otherwise undetected based on the archaeological evidence. While the graves of the late 5th and the early 6th century indicate immigrations from more eastern areas, the graves of the late 6th century show increasing influences from more western areas. Single individuals show isotopic values indicating an origin from the Mediterranean area. In addition to individual mobility, the immigration of smaller groups has been detected which might represent administrated settlement processes in the name of the Frankish king. The multiple waves of mobility and immigration indicated by the isotopic and material cultural data presented here suggests that the Upper Rhine Valley was a region characterised by culturally heterogeneous and dynamic settlement communities typical of an intensive cultural contact zone.


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