Death and burial

Archaeology and anthropology

The population of Normandy at the end of antiquity and in the early Middle Ages is known above all through archaeology and the exhaustive anthropological study of many cemeteries in rural areas which are mostly confined to the lower valley of the orne (Frénouville, Giberville, St Martin de Fontenay, Sannerville, Verson, etc…). Until the 8th century, these populations, which were characterised by a medium stature and a light skeletal structure, seem to be fairly homogenous, with a morphological profile which changed little with the presence of foreigners, who were, however, identifiable from the Late Empire onwards from various archaeological indicators. Fouilles d'une sépulture d'enfant, cimetière Notre-Dame-de-Cherbourg The internal organisation of the necropolises, located on the outskirts of habitations, suggests a process of systematic pre-selection for burial leading to a considerable under-representation of young children. Only the pre-urban necropolis of Lisieux-Michelet stands out from this pattern.

For later periods, our knowledge is much less precise. In a rural setting, as in towns, the coming of Christianity was represented by the abandonment of fully clothed inhumation (unclothed burial was recommended) and the permanent establishment of cemeteries near the parish church, leading to a rigorous management of the funerary space and a rapid rotation of burials, hence the destruction of earlier graves by later and the removal of points of reference for chronological analysis. In addition, in most of the sites currently being excavated, later disturbance of the site and the constraints of urban development rarely allow for exploration of the full original extent of the burial area.

A number of major funerary groups in use during the 11th to 12th centuries have been excavated in Normandy: amongst others St Cécile de Portejoie in Tournedos (Eure), Notre-Dame in Cherbourg (Manche), Notre-Dame in Rouen (Seine-maritime), St Giles, St Stephen ‘le Vieux’ (Saint-Étienne-le-Vieux) and St Julian in Caen (Calvados), but the accurate identification of inhumations belonging to these periods is not always straight forward.

These studies are still too limited to measure the biological impact of the Norman settlement on the population of the region: the morphological modifications due to exogenous influxes are difficult to demonstrate. Thus the presence of any ‘Vikings’ or their descendants within the population buried around Rouen cathedral is not really noticeable. It is only possible to observe an accentuated sexual dimorphism, a greater robustness in the skeleton overall, and, in particular, a more diverse cranial morphology, revealing a fairly heterogeneous population. On the other hand, in the necropolises of the early Middle Ages, there seems to have been no further selective inhumation which omitted very young children; their burials are generally grouped together in areas specially set aside in the cemetery.


Armelle Alduc-Le Bagousse
CNRS / CRAHM - Université de Caen


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