Gepidic Burial Grounds

Burial grounds reflect the true extent and significance of Gepidic settlement in Transylvania. The large number and varying size of the settlements and graveyards on the Hungarian Great Plain — the Gepids' 'motherland' — point to a distinction between two types: substantial villages, with large graveyards, and farmsteads or manorial estates that consisted of a few houses and had small burial grounds. Traces of as many as four or five of the latter type have been found on the outskirts of some present-day villages on the Hungarian Plain.

The graves discovered at Érkeserű, Csomaköz, and Székudvar are typical of homestead burial grounds on the eastern Hungarian Plain, while the grave (complete with weapons) on Mogila hill at Óbesenyő is probably that of the master of the manor. At Nagyvárad, on the site of the one-time Guttman brick factory, the scattered and despoiled graves must have belonged to an exceptionally rich manor house; the finds, stretching over a long period of time, include the graves of a man, of several rich women, and of a few poor servants. The manor house dated back to the middle third of the 5th century. The three or four earliest graves yielded a jewelled ornament from a dagger hilt of the Hun era, a gold bracelet with expanded ends, a cloisonné earring with a disc-shaped decoration, a solid silver bracelet, and a jewelled clasp. A woman's grave, dating from the last third of the century, included a metallic mirror {1-210.} with radial ornaments on the reverse, late-antique gold beads, and a fibula whose end had been broken in the funeral ritual — this East German custom died out with the advent of the Merovingian culture. A pair of cast silver fibulae represents the transition from the 5th to the early 6th century, when elegant funerals still prevailed, complete with cloisonné fibulae. A gold pendant, decorated with precious stones and granules, was yielded either by one of these graves or by a grave at Biharudvari (now Sárrétudvari); this crescent-shaped jewel, of the 'Gáva type', links the most recent nobiliary graves of the Upper Tisza region to those, mostly of a later date, at Nagyvárad. The Nagyvárad graveyard also yielded two gold-framed, disc-shaped fibulae; 4th-century Roman silver coins were set in the frames, and a praying figure with raised arms (orans) was scratched on the worn reverse of one of the coins. This is one of the few material traces of Gepidic Christianity. The latest finds at Nagyvárad are jewels from a rich woman's grave that dates from the middle third of the 6th century: a gold fibula, with filigreed decoration (made by soldering thin gold wire) representing a quadruped, another fibula covered with filigree work and precious stones, and the gold brocade hem of a garment's collar. These clothes and jewels were made in Frankish Gaul, and their owner was probably a Frankish noblewoman who had come to this remote land when the Gepids and the Franks formed an alliance in 539.

In the Maros valley, homestead graveyards have been discovered at Marosvásárhely near the county hall, at Maroscsapó, Mezőceked-Hosszúmező, and Felvég; and by the Kis-Szamos at Nagyiklód-Malomhíd (burial site C). The site at Magyarkapus-Kenderáj is more difficult to assess, for the rows of graves indicate the presence of a sizeable burial ground that has yet to be fully uncovered. The twenty graves recently uncovered at Mező(Szász-) erked also appear to belong to a large burial ground, as do those at Marosveresmart-Bethlen-csűröskert and the 43 graves (whose early origin is indicated by an earring with a solid polyhedric button) at {1-211.} Betlenszentmiklós, near the Kis-Küküllő. Nor can the ten graves discovered at Csapószentgyörgy, in the vicinity of the eleven 'houses' noted previously, add up to the entire graveyard of the village; they date from both early (deformed skulls) and late interments (a pair of fibulae with circular punched decoration, a drawing knife, and arrowheads).

The graveyard — only partially uncovered — of the best-known site, at Malomfalva-Hula, is representative of the Merovingian culture in Transylvania. Its use coincided with the lifespan of the nearby village: from the turn of the 6th century (earrings with solid polyhedric buttons) to around 567, when the Gepids ceased to rule over Transylvania. The costumes, rites, and material culture revealed by the graveyard match so closely those of the Tisza region that it might as well have been discovered on the outskirts of Szentes. Only the 'leader' of the local community, a warrior with a sword and shield, was equipped in a 'Transylvanian style'. His shield boss is locally made, possibly by the smith who was buried in the nearby village of Mezőbánd. A bird-shaped fibula, crafted in a Rhenish workshop, is a rarity, for genuine Frankish-Merovingian ornaments seldom came into the Gepids' possession; no other jewel of this type has come to light in Gepidia.

The social status of the people buried at Malomfalva is as difficult to determine as that of the occupants of most of the Gepidic burial grounds on the Hungarian Plain. Of its 83 graves, 23 had been despoiled and devastated; moreover, 22 others held children, and the Gepids seldom placed significant burial objects into children's graves. What is left does not give a clear picture of the structure and costume of the upper social strata. The provision of food and drink for the afterlife does not appear to have been a general custom at Malomfalva, for only three graves yielded vessels. Most of the similar burial grounds on the Hungarian Plain belonged to Arian Christian communities.

{1-212.} More recently, sections of burial grounds, consisting mainly of despoiled graves, have been discovered in Beszterce-Naszód county (Beszterce-Csiger, Galacfalva-Vermek). On the evidence of a deformed skull, vessels with smoothed and stamped ornaments, and a bronze buckle with a shielded tongue, it has been estimated that the 31 graves date from before 568. The two graveyards yielded a variety of fine ceramics, including pear-shaped vessels; they are decorated in a distinctive, punched style that had been previously found only in the Tisza region. The graves also held spear-heads, arrowheads (three-edged, laurel-leaf shaped, and barbed), and iron wool-shears.

The third burial ground at Baráthely belongs to a different type. Its origins lie in the period of Gepidic rule (a bronze coin of Justinian I was found in grave no. 190), and, as noted earlier, most of the jewels (e.g., a fibula with circular punched ornaments, and Gepidic as well as Byzantine belt buckles), vessels (e.g., a pot with spout, and mugs with smoothed and stamped decoration), and weapons (double-edged swords, spears, and arrowheads) found in the close to 300 graves are typically Gepidic. Nevertheless, the age and character of the graveyard place it in the later, 'Mezőbánd' category.

With its 178 graves, the burial ground at Mezőbánd-Felhágó-dűlő remains the biggest Gepidic find in Transylvania. Since all the graves, except for that of a poor domestic servant, were found despoiled and devastated, it is difficult to date the cemetery. Its origins probably date back to around 550, towards the end of the Gepidic era. In contrast to the graveyard at Malomfalva, over one third of the graves contained vessels, but there were no animal bones to indicate meat dishes. This suggests that the burial ground served a partly pagan, partly Christian community. The larger part of the Marosnagylak site, which holds 125 graves, also belongs to the late, 'Mezőbánd' type of graveyard.

{1-213.} In many places, the existence of a 6th-century Gepidic burial ground is merely suggested by the discovery of one or two graves (Maroscsapó, Somkerék-Hágó, Mezőakna, Apanagyfalu-Csorba-híd [where a fine vessel with stamped decoration was found along with a spear-head], Segesvár-Baierndorf, and Oláhgorbó-Lányfalu). The few graves discovered near Rozsos, between Baráthely and Ecel, are noteworthy for a fine jug with handles, a smoothed cup, and an ornamented fine-tooth bone comb. In other places, graves are merely evoked by finds of what appear to be burial objects, such as intact vessels (at Vasasszentgotthárd, Mezőköbölkút, Gyulatelke, Nagyernye, Erdőszentgyörgy, Nagyenyed, Marosvásárhely, Dés-Szamos-híd [with widely-spaced punched decoration], Dedrádszéplak, Maroskarna, Gyulafehérvár, Beszterce, and Szamosújvár-Szamos-part [typical, fine vessels with stamped and smoothed decoration]) or an intact double-row, fine-tooth comb (Tompaháza). A large ornamental clasp, decorated with an eagle head, has been unearthed at Szamosjenő, and another of the same type at Maroscsapó. These quintessentially Gepidic ornaments were products of Transylvanian goldsmiths, and only distantly related to the 'eagle clasps' crafted at a workshop in the Tisza region. Other finds that may be considered grave objects include oval bronze clasps of the type work by Gepids in the 6th century (Nagyvárad-Szalka terrace, Szilágysomlyó, Torda, Szászkeresztúr, and Kraszna), a double-edged sword (Décsfalva), a spear-head (Bábolna Hill). The arrowheads found at Vingárd, Gyertyános, and — with a quiver — at Csáklya may have come from a grave or, like at Betlenszentmiklós, from a settlement.