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The research project Wölfersheim-Berstadt

During the development of the new housing estate "Über den Holdergärten" in Wölfersheim-Berstadt (Wetteraukreis, Hesse) in 2006, a large early medieval terraced cemetery was discovered, which was almost completely excavated in the following years.

Early medieval graves in the focus of bioarchaeology

The deceased were buried together with clothing, jewellery and equipment as well as food for the afterlife; the grave goods allow the cemetery to be dated between the late 5th and the first half of the 8th century. In addition to the burials, horse graves and circular ditches were also found in the cemetery. Since 2016, the cemetery of Wölfersheim-Berstadt has been scientifically analysed. The human skeletons were handed over to the CEZA in order to draw conclusions about the living conditions and disease burden of the early medieval population. The processing of the extensive skeleton series was successfully completed in 2021. A bone inventory was compiled for each skeleton and the biological profile was recorded. This included the determination of gender and age at death, body size, anatomical variants and any diseases. A total of around 360 burials were analysed, although the skeletal remains are generally rather poorly preserved and incomplete.

The ratio of child to adult burials is 18 to 82 %, with infants being significantly underrepresented. This deficit of children is also known from other early medieval cemeteries and is attributed to taphonomic (e.g. poorer preservation of children’s bones) or cultural factors (different burial site). Men and women are roughly equally represented among the adults, who died mainly between the ages of 40 and 60. The men were on average 168 cm tall, the women 156 cm, which corresponds to a well-defined gender difference. Diseases of the periodontium such as caries, abscesses, cysts and periodontitis predominated among the pathologies. Many teeth had already fallen out during their lifetime, were badly worn or affected by tartar. Common age-related diseases include arthrosis of the large joints, especially the hips, and signs of wear and tear on the spine. Porosities in the roof of the eye socket, transverse grooves in the tooth enamel and bony deposits on the top of the skull were observed as signs of deficiencies. Some healed skeletal injuries or injuries that occurred at the time of death, mainly affecting the head, indicate interpersonal violence. All in all, the Wölfersheim skeletons represent a normal cross-section of a rural population of the Early Middle Ages.

A special feature of some of the bones is the presence of old poking and scraping marks resulting from the robbing of the graves. Robbing is also evident in the form of robbery shafts in the grave pit or when the skeleton has been torn from the bone structure. It was not uncommon for several individuals to be found in one grave, either because of multiple occupancy or because of bone displacement through grave robbing.

Stable isotope analyses to reconstruct the diet of humans and animals should provide further insights into the living situation of the Wölfersheim people. The future publication of the cemetery, including the findings of anthropology and stable isotope analyses, is planned in the series “Materialien zur Vor- und Frühgeschichte von Hessen”. In this context, the results of the bioarchaeological research on Wölfersheim will also be compared with other cemeteries in the region and beyond.