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The Merovingian graves of Borgharen

28-06-2012 om 12:12 by Sueli Brodin

DSC_3939I first heard of the archeological site in Borgharen in the fall of 2009, when a team of archeologists from the Dutch Cultural Heritage Agency and the city of Maastricht uncovered Merovingian graves dating back to the 6th-7th centuries in the middle of a wheat field just off the Pasestraat, near the Meuse river.

It was a remarkable find, because ancient burial sites were usually made on higher grounds, safe from flooding. Another exceptional characteristic of the Borgharen site is that the graves were unearthed on the location of a former Roman villa.


A few months later, in July 2010, the discovery near the same site of a mass grave containing the complete skeletons of more than 50 horses made national and even international headlines, as it appeared to be the largest known equine burial ground in Europe. Carbon testing dated the bones to the 17th century and it is believed that the horses were probably killed in a battle in 1632 during the Eighty Years' War between the Dutch rebellious Provinces and Spain.

Borgharen is a small village along the river Meuse, a few kilometres to the north of Maastricht and only a 30 minute bike ride from my home. On both occasions, my family and I were able to go and take a close look at the excavation works and found them fascinating.


So when I read in the local media earlier this month that a new excavation campaign was under way in Borgharen and that everyone interested was invited to take a free guided tour of the site with the Maastricht archeologist Gilbert Soeters, I was very eager to go and find out about the latest developments and findings.


Last Wednesday afternoon, my husband and I joined a small crowd of about 30 people around Soeters and attentively listened as he updated us, at length and in great detail, on the results achieved so far:

-          25 human graves and two horse graves have been identified. There may still be a few more graves on the site, but there are no plans for further excavations for the time being.

-          DNA research on the bone material has established that the human remains are related and belong to two families. Two skeletons for example correspond to a father and his daughter, two others to a mother and her son, and one the graves revealed the remains of a mother and two of her children.

-          Many of the graves contained valuable accessories such as precious jewelry items, costly weapons and rare pieces of earthware, indicating that the people buried in them were wealthy and may have enjoyed a high social status.

-          The discovery of cowry shells, originating from the Red Sea, further confirmed the prominent status of the deceased and showed that they were part of a well developed network of trade relations.

-          In one of the graves, the archeologists unearthed the skeleton of a warrior who had been buried in full armour and was still holding a golden coin between his teeth. The coin was probably meant as an obol to help a safe passage into afterlife.


Soeters described the archeological investigations in Borgharen as a unique project in the Netherlands in the sense that it is being carried out by a collaborative team of researchers from the municipality of Maastricht and the universities of Leiden and Amsterdam.

He couldn’t conceal his enthusiasm as he added that this was a dream job for archeologists because the site was also being used as a testing ground for new and innovative excavation and research techniques.

In fact, one of the goals of the project is to develop a European standard method for the research of Early Middle Age graves and burial sites.

Some of the new techniques involved DNA research, 3D-scanning and portable XRF analysers which can reveal the composition of substances in material samples.

Soeters explained that the spreading out of the project over a series of excavation campaigns, in 2008, 2009 and 2012, had turned out to be a good strategy, because it had enabled the researchers to experiment with various techniques and in the end only keep those that had proved relevant and worthwhile.

Soeters also said that one of the archeologists’ biggest concerns was to find out whether the deterioration observed in some of the graves was caused by contemporary bad conservation conditions. They had been relieved when their research work finally determined that the damage had actually occurred right after the time of burial.


While he was speaking, we could see students from the University of Leiden at work in the three excavation spots, carefully digging the earth with small shovels, trowels and brushes, marking certain spots with thin wooden sticks, clearing the dirt in plastic bags for later examination, handing each other a portable metal detector that would sometimes start beeping excitedly. The students looked very focused and motivated.


One of the girls was so taken by her task that her joyful companions had to call out her name several times before she finally joined them for a group photo. It looked as if she wanted to enjoy every remaining second before the end of this last archaelogical dig in Borgharen.



Within the next two years, all the bones and items that have been unearthed will be preserved and researched at the Cultural Heritage Agency and the universities of Amsterdam and Leiden. Then they will return to Maastricht where they will be stored at Centre Céramique. An exhibition showcasing the Borgharen findings is planned for 2014/2015.


The dirt and gravel are collected and washed with this machine...



... and if you take a close look through the clean stones, you might still find a small piece of bone or a beautiful tiny yellow bead.


Resources for further reading and listening (in Dutch):

Merovingers in een villa, Romeinse villa en Merovingisch grafveld Borgharen – Pasestraat, Onderzoek 2008-2009
Limburg is schatkamer voor archeologen, L1, 25 June 2012 (audio clip)
Opgraven Merovingisch grafveld Borgharen, Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed
'Cold case' onderzoek Pasestraat in Borgharen, Maastricht Ditchtbij, 25 juni 2012
Archeologisch onderzoek Romeinse villa Borgharen gepresenteerd, Gemeente Maastricht, 13 maart 2012
Archeologie Maastricht
Opgraving Pasestraat in Borgharen (video clip)

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Sueli Brodin has been living in the Maastricht Region since 1994. She is the website editor for the European Journalism Centre (EJC) in Maastricht and produces the EJC's daily Media News digest. She is also a team member of PechaKucha Night Maastricht, an informal English-language initiative where creative people get together and present their ideas in a concise format. 

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