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uni'wissen 01-2015

The finds were excavated, restored, and brought to the Archaeological Museum in Strasbourg. The grave of the unknown woman and her jewelry were put on display there. Three years ago the museum asked Brather-Walter whether she would like to study the burial ground. That was the beginning of a German-French research project funded jointly by the German Research Foundation and the French National Agency for Research. Brather- Walter is co-head of the project along with Prof. Dr. Eckhard Wirbelauer, professor of ancient history at the University of Strasbourg. As soon as the results of the scientific analyses and the archaeological in- terpretations are available, Wirbelauer will place them in the context of contemporary text sources. A significant change took place in the second half of the fifth century: the transition from antiquity to the Middle Ages. The transformation of the Western Roman Empire led to various early medieval successor states. The cause was not migration, although this time was indeed character- ized by great mobility. It is therefore of great interest who was buried in Niedernai, which was under Roman rule at the time: Was it a cemetery for Germanic immigrants, for the local Roman population, or for members of the Roman military, regardless of their ethnic affiliation? The main question the research team is attempting to answer is whether the fundamental cultural changes identifiable in the archaeological material were caused by immigration from eastern territories or whether they can also be explained by a cultural reorientation of the previously Roman population. Genetic Information, Bones, and Teeth In the search for answers to this question, says Brather-Walter, the work of her colleagues from the life sciences is essential: The first thing to clarify is whether the people buried in the cemetery were biologically related. Since the burial ground was used for around 70 years, it might be possible to reveal parent-child relation- ships. The previous analyses of ancient DNA, referred to as aDNA for short, provided no indications that the people were closely related in the sense that they came from an extended uni wissen 01 2015 At the end of the 5th century, a woman with a lot of jewelry was laid to rest next to other deceased persons in a burial ground at the site of the modern-day Alsatian village of Niedernai. What kind of food did she eat? Did she spend her entire life in this region? Was her family buried beside her? These are the questions the archae- ologist Dr. Susanne Brather-Walter is grappling with at the University of Freiburg. Together with scientists from Germany and France, she is inves- tigating whether the archaeological sources from the time after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, from the mid fifth to the early sixth century, need to be fundamentally reassessed and, if this is the case, newly interpreted. In contrast to older studies, which attempted to find answers to these questions solely on the basis of selected archaeological finds, Brather- Walter’s research team is analyzing the entire range of finds from Niedernai and using a wide variety of scientific methods: The analysis of an- cient DNA, radiocarbon dating, isotope analysis, and semi-precious stone analysis offer the possi- bility to test whether traditional patterns of inter- pretation are correct. “The natural sciences alone cannot answer the questions,” says Prof. Dr. Sebastian Brather, an archaeologist participating in the project, “but they give us data and points of departure for new horizons of interpretation.” Complete and Undamaged The grave of the woman from the fifth century, referred to by the researchers as grave 33, was discovered in 1995: Officials ordered for an area of 1000 square meters under a planned expressway to be systematically searched with excavators, as is common practice before large-scale construc- tion projects in France. The workers hit upon a cemetery with 32 graves and 33 bodies. The remains were buried deep in the ground and were thus undamaged. Brather-Walter sees this find as a stroke of luck: “The cemetery in Niedernai is the only complete and largely undamaged necropolis from the second half of the fifth cen- tury to be excavated in modern times – not only in Alsace but in the entire broader region.” “Niedernai has been a stroke of luck for us.” 21 uni wissen 012015