Archaeologists unveil the discovery of a set of tombs of nine noble women from the 5th century buried with spectacular gold and silver trousseaus.

Ciudad de Mérida

Embossed gold plates found on the forehead and neck of one of the aristocrats of the Suevi. CONSORTIUM MONUMENTAL CITY OF MERIDA

In the 5th century the Roman Empire already represented only a shadow of its former self. In fact, Augusta Emerita (Merida), the capital of the great diocese of Hispania (the Peninsula and North Africa), was even forced to build walls to defend itself from the external dangers that threatened it. Funerary monuments, temples or official buildings were hastily dismantled to extract the ashlars necessary to erect the defenses. But to no avail. In 429, the Suebi king Heremigarius succeeded in sacking the city. A new ruling class emerged from Eastern Europe, which would remain in power for at least a decade and buried its dead in the northern suburbs of the city, in what is now a half-hectare plot of land at 41 Almendralejo Street. And there, the archaeologists of the Consortium of the Monumental City of Merida and the Junta de Extremadura have found dozens of burials, of which nine correspond to Swabian "princesses", with their trousseaus of gold and silver and that coincide in their decoration with those found in distant sites in Ukraine, Serbia, Poland or Russia. The study Novedades en la necrópolis tardorromana de Mérida: las princesas bárbaras, by the archaeologists Francisco Javier Heras Mora and Ana Belén Olmedo Gracera, in which they make public the results of their investigations, calls them "Nobles young foreigners".

The northern suburb of ancient Emerita was for centuries an industrial and funerary area, which included monumental tombs, simple cremation deposits, child burials or small ceramic pits. At the beginning of the 5th century, the neighborhood suffered a "drastic and definitive architectural collapse, which caused the buildings to succumb", being outside the city walls and easy prey to attacks. "One of the most defining signs of that drama may have been the collection of human bodies trapped and abandoned under the roofs and architectural pieces of a possible pagan sanctuary." But the collapses did not cause the area to be abandoned in the following decades, but throughout the second quarter of the 5th century it continued to be used as a necropolis by the new lords of the city, the Suevi. "It will therefore be the umpteenth time that this space returns to its original funerary function," the document states.

The dozens of exhumed bodies were found stretched out on their backs, in the supine decubitus position, with arms stretched out parallel to the trunk, the lower limbs straight and not flexed. The graves are simple: oblong pits with rounded angles and, in a few cases, with boxes and iron nails that demonstrate the existence of disappeared wooden coffins. And among all the tombs, "a group of burials has been found that escape the usual for the objects that dress the bodies or accompany them". These are the remains of nine young women who were buried with fibulas, small brooches, earrings, pendants, necklaces, rings, embossed plates, a ceramic jar and a glass cup, "which differentiates this group from the rest".

El esqueleto enjoyado de una de las jóvenes suecas encontrado en Mérida

Specifically, one of the bodies sports "silvered fibulae" (blechfibeln, in Germanic terminology), whose origin comes from the geographical area of the Black Sea" and, ultimately, from the so-called Cernajahov culture. "It is undoubtedly," explains the document, "one of the most outstanding examples of the feminine and aristocratic attire typical of those populations that, from the beginning of the 5th century, were the protagonists of the great migrations" of Europe.

Fibulas, for example, "constitute one of the most relevant artifacts that make up an exclusive group of objects of personal adornment from a material and cultural point of view". Most of these adornments are part of the female personal ornamentation, which also includes earrings -of gold, silver or bronze- whose distinctive feature is their polyhedral top. They are simple earrings formed by a thin rod of circular section, where one of its ends is a solid dodecahedron. Similar gold needles "probably served to hold clothes or mantles, as they usually appear in pairs next to the neck or chest of the deceased. Necklace beads with the same shape are also common, or manicure sets," explain Heras and Olmedo.

Pieces of one of the gold necklaces and pins worn by a young Swabian woman found in Mérida.

The exhumed tubular gold beads come from the Crimea and the Black Sea. "The ten small gold sheets in lanceolate shape, topped with filigree and inlaid with garnet, are part of the aristocratic attire. They are very similar to those kept in the Museum of Krakow," reads the article. On the other hand, another of the exhumed young women wore silver-plated fibulae on her shoulders and embossed gold sheets - square, triangular, circular or double spiral - which leads archaeologists to refer to funerary contexts in Ukraine, Hungary, Romania, Russia or Poland.

Earrings with polyhedral ornaments found in Merida.

An insect-shaped brooch accompanied by a gold ring has also been found, similar to the zoomorphs found in the tomb of the Frankish king Childeric (437-481), in Tournai (Belgium). As the authors of the study point out, "it seems appropriate, and to a certain extent logical, to think that these golden trousseaus corresponded to characters that occupied a main place in the social structure of the Emeritan community", and whose "exclusive attributes and high economic cost demonstrated their social status".

"They are not Romans", the work continues, "who dress completely in barbarian fashion. Some of these tombs are faithful reproductions -or comparable- of other groups of oriental people during the first half of the 5th century throughout central Europe". And he concludes: "They are, therefore, arrivals from outside who are buried in this place, the way they did it in their place of origin, without denying that this form had been altered over the years with the cultural interaction or with the increasing geographical remoteness from which the barbarian princesses or their ancestors departed".