Notre dame of Grou

The ‘First Lady’ of the village of Grou in province Friesland (the Netherlands), also named Grytsje of Grou. Archaeologists found her in January 2018 in the town of Grou (at Halbertsmaplein sq.), and her grave is dated mid-eighth century. She received the title First Lady because until this finding, it was not known people lived at Grou at all, already in the Early Middle Ages.

Grou is situated in the center of province Friesland, in former peat land, although bordering the clay-soil area (i.e. former salt marsh area). The town of Grou itself is a terp village. A terp being an artificial settlement mound. Read our blog post Manual Making a Terp in 12 Steps to learn more about these dwelling mounds. Previous archaeological research in 2005 already indicated that the terp of Grou was erected after AD 200. With this excavation we may assume that the terp must have been erected between ca. 200- 650.

The appearance of Grytsje is not that of what you might expect from first ladies. She had terrible ailments. Her right leg was short and her left arm hurt, while horrifying inflammation consumed her mouth. It was immediately clear after the excavation in 2018, that it was a most remarkable find. She was buried in the remainders of a tree-trunk ship, together with among other a walking stick.

The skeleton was very porous and fragile at the time of the excavation, but still contained ninety recognizable bones. It is very likely to be a woman between the ages of 23 and 40. She died in the period from 750 to 775. That was not long after her King Poppo lost the battle against the Franks at the nearby river annex inland sea Boarn, in the year 736 (or 734, sources differ). Read our blog post The Boarn Supremacy about this battle. Although she was buried, which is the Christian way and cremation normally the practice of heathens, probably the woman was heathen nevertheless. This because her body was buried in a north-southern direction, whilst Christian burials have an east-western direction.

Bone examination reveals many specifics. The woman had trouble walking, already during puberty. This was due to straining or a break in the head of her right thigh. Resulting her legs were not of the same length, and thus she was crooked. It must have been painful. There was a stick in her grave, which she may have used when walking.

First Lady Grytsje also had severe wear on the joints of her arms and fingers. This led to painful bulges. Furthermore, she also had a remarkably thin left arm, which probably hurt a lot too. She will probably have spared her arm and hands during use. Bone abnormalities are more common in early-medieval skeletons. Grytsje had many, though. In part, they will have been caused by heavy physical work and vitamin deficiency.

Grytsje – by Hendrik Eling (cmsd Museum Hert fan Fryslân)

Half of the molars and teeth were missing in the lower jaw, probably due to severe tooth decay. As a result, she had to chew her food mainly with her front teeth, putting a heavy load on one side. This is clearly visible. The teeth that are still present, are very worn out. There were also small holes in the jaw bone, which were caused by severe gum disease. Grytsje also had an abscess and a suppuration in the root of a molar. Because of all the mouth problems, chewing has been a painful process and she probably preferred soft food. Because of this, a huge amount of tartar has formed over the teeth. Research suggest based on isotope analyses that she may have mainly ate freshwater fish.

At her feet were several pieces of leather. These were the remains of shoes. Grytsje also received a decorated comb in her grave. It was made from several pieces of bone and antlers. That time, such combs were common in Frisian women’s graves.

The coffin itself is very interesting. At first, the researchers thought the woman was buried in a hollowed-out tree trunk, as was more common in the Early Middle Ages. Think of the grave of Beitske at the terp of the hamlet of Hogebeintum, also in former Frisia. The wood from the grave did indeed come from a hollowed-out tree trunk, but it was cut into pieces, after which the semicircular planks were used to build a ship. Trunk boats were quite common at the time. The parts are obtained by splitting a tree trunk. These cleaved parts were then hollowed out. The outer edge can then be used as a somewhat round part. The researchers counted 21 holes in the pieces of wood, which were used to make the planks into a ship’s skin. Later, the dismantled ship was reused to make this coffin.

The stick in the grave, which was very probably used by the woman to support walking, is a carefully crafted piece of ash-wood. It appears that the stick was originally, in fact, a paddle stem. Apparently, discarded wood from shipping was readily available.

Much care was taken in the grave. It therefore might be part of a burial field still to be uncovered. The researchers base this assumption on experiences elsewhere in the terp area.

Of course, we await a facial reconstruction of this remarkable First Lady, notre dame of Grou!

Note: For more history about the proud women of Frisia, check our blog post Women of Frisia: free and unbound?

(this post relies heavily on E. Boers’ article, see below).

References:

  • Boers, E., Geheimen uit uniek graf in Grou (2020)
  • Jawlensky, von J., The Hunchback/Der Buckel (1911)
  • Museum Hert fan Fryslân, in Grou
  • Roller, de G.J., Bureau- en booronderzoek Halbertsma’s Plein te Grou, gemeente Leeuwarden (FR) (2017)
  • Tuinstra, S.J., Een archeologisch inventariserend veldonderzoek (IVO) door middel van proefsleuven nabij de Piterkerk te Grou, gemeente Boarnsterhim (Fr.) (2005)

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