Tomb of Childeric

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On 27 May 1653 a deaf-mute mason named Adrien Quinquin, working on a construction project near the church of Saint-Brice in Tournai, Belgium, struck gold. As the abbé Cochet reconstructs the story in Le tombeau de Childéric I, he was down about 7 or 8 feet in dark earth when a chance blow of the pick suddenly revealed a gold buckle and at least a hundred gold coins. This surprise find caused him to throw down the tool and run about, waving his arms and trying to articulate sounds. The first witnesses who crowded around the trench saw some two hundred silver coins; human bones, including two skulls; a lot of rusted iron; a sword with a gold grip and a hilt ornamented in the gold-and-garnet cloisonné technique and sheathed in a cloisonnédecorated scabbard; and numerous other gold items, among them, brooches, buckles, rings, an ornament in the form of a bull's head, and about three hundred gold cloisonné bees.

The authorities acted quickly to gather together this "treasure," and news of it soon reached the archduke Leopold William, governor of the Austrian Netherlands, who had it sent to him in Brussels. He further ordered that a careful written account of the find be made and confided the collection for study to his personal physician, Jean-Jacques Chifflet, who also was a historian. The outstanding find was a gold signet ring inscribed with the figure of an armed warrior and the name CHILIRICI REGIS. In 1655 Chifflet published a folio volume of 367 pages with 27 plates of engravings furnishing an excellent visual record of all the artifacts and a careful discussion and interpretative essay identifying the subject as the father of Clovis I, the great ancestor of the French monarchy. This discovery is the starting point of Merovingian archaeology, and Chifflet's study deserves to be considered the first truly scientific archaeological publication.

This study has proved all the greater a boon because most of the original artifacts have disappeared. The archduke took them home to Vienna when he retired. Upon his death in 1662 they came into the possession of Leopold I, emperor of Austria, who, in 1665, sent them to France as a diplomatic present to young King Louis XIV. The collection survived the French Revolution intact, but one night in 1831 two thieves broke into the Bibliothèque Royal and stole the trove. By the time they were caught, most of the gold objects had been melted down, but a few artifacts, such as the gold cloisonné ornament of the sword, had been thrown into the Seine in leather sacks, and these were recovered.

What do we know of Childeric? The sixth-century ecclesiastic and historian Gregory of Tours tells us something of his life in Historia Francorum (The history of the Franks). Childeric may have been the son of Merovech, and he was considered a king so debauched that his own subjects drove him into exile for eight years among the Thuringians, at the court of King Basinus and Queen Basina. During this time the Roman general Aegidius ruled the Franks in his place. Upon his departure from court, Queen Basina followed him. They eventually married, and she gave birth to a son, Clovis. Meanwhile Childeric fought a battle at Orléans against the Visigoths and another at Angers against the Goths and Saxons. When he died in about a.d. 481, his son Clovis replaced him. On the basis of this information and the way in which Gregory recounts Clovis's subsequent (a.d. 486) defeat of Syagrius, Aegidius's son and heir, Childeric often has been presented in history books as a minor Frankish warlord whose power was based on the rather minor and out-of-the-way northern town of Tournai. (This is assumed because of the place of his burial.) He is thought to have played a supporting role to the Roman commanders in northern Gaul, who were attempting to defend what was left of Roman power there from the a.d. 450s to the 480s.

Much can be learned from Childeric's grave. Michel Kazanski and Patrick Périn offer a reconstruction of the burial and comment on how it fits into the complex and changing world of the later fifth century. The polychrome gold-and-garnet ornament so prominent in the grave closely parallels the finds at another contemporary princely warrior grave at Pouan, in Northeast France. The style points particularly to the Danube region, where rich assemblages like those in Pannonia at Apahida (now in Hungary) and Blucina (now in the Czech Republic) define an international barbarian elite style associated with the Hunnic empire. This "barbarian" side of the Childeric assemblage also is reflected in such details as the gold bracelet, which Joachim Werner has shown was the symbol of German royalty, set permanently on the wrist when the king first mounted the throne. In the tradition of late imperial "chieftains' graves," Childeric had a panoply of weapons. No evidence has survived of an angon, a kind of harpoon, or a shield, which are typical complements to such an assemblage, but their vestiges could have looked like so much rusty iron to onlookers in 1653.

There was a spear (the figure on the signet ring is shown grasping one, as a symbol of royal authority) and a throwing axe (francisca)—everyday weapons, balancing the parade-ground pomp of the gold-and-garnet double-edged long sword and the short, single-edged scramasax. The style of the very fine cloisonné ornament on these weapons recalls Byzantine-Sassanid techniques crafted in Byzantine workshops and often distributed as diplomatic gifts. Could Childeric have traveled east and received them, perhaps during his long Thuringian exile? Kazanski sees the Childeric material as reflecting motifs and techniques widespread in the Mediterranean world; he and Périn suggest that at least some of the work may have been done locally for Childeric, perhaps by craftspeople trained in the East. There is thus an international flavor to the barbarian side of the burial.

The Roman side is represented most strongly by a gold cruciform fibula with a finely decorated foot. Such brooches were worn by high-ranking Roman officials, affixing to the right shoulder the official purple cloak, or paludamentum. The gold signet ring, too, suggests both the authority of a Roman commander and the technology of writing: it is used to seal orders. The image engraved upon it deftly blends the two sides, Roman and barbarian: the king is depicted as a Roman general with cloak and body armor, but he has long hair. Long hair, a symbol of vitality, was the prerogative of the royal lineage with its claim to divine ancestry.

There were said to have been two human skulls in the grave, one smaller than the other, and this led to suggestions that Childeric had been buried with his wife, Basina. A sphere of rock crystal, always a feminine artifact, was found in the assemblage, but there are no other clearly feminine objects, so this theory seems unlikely. More plausible is the hypothesis that a horse was buried within or near the king's grave (a horse's skull was found). This is a custom with many parallels in the Germanic world, and some of the iron fragments could have derived from harness equipment. Indeed some think the enigmatic decorative objects, the bull's head and the golden bees—finds that remain unique—could have ornamented the royal harness rather than a royal robe, as was long thought.

In the 1980s understanding of Childeric's grave and its significance was revolutionized by a series of excavations led by Raymond Brulet. This research was part of a larger investigation of Tournai, originally a Roman town of secondary importance located at the border of two civitates, or states, whose status rose in the late empire until it became the seat of a bishopric. Why was a Frankish war leader like Childeric buried there? Nothing in the meager written sources suggests any specific connection, let alone a reason. What was the context of the grave? Was it isolated, as has often been suggested?

The site of the grave itself is precisely known, thanks to Chifflet, but inaccessible: a house with a deep cellar has replaced it. Brulet was able to excavate underneath the street in front of it, and he obtained permission from the homeowners to dig trenches in their backyards. It soon became clear that Childeric's grave was part of a cemetery where the northern Gallo-Frankish style of furnished burial was practiced: weapons common in men's graves and jewelry in women's graves, with a funerary deposit of late imperial tradition common to both. It is possible, even plausible, that Childeric's was the "founder's grave," the focal point around which the cemetery grew. The two most unexpected discoveries were the monumental conception of the entire tomb and evidence of lavish sacrifice no doubt associated with the funeral. The archaeological features upon which these deductions rest are three pits with several horse burials surrounding the royal grave like satellites and an undisturbed zone encompassing the royal grave itself. This is interpreted as evidence of a monumental tumulus, or grave mound, 20 meters or more in diameter.

Twenty-one horses were packed into the three pits. All of the skeletal material was studied carefully, and carbon-14 tests were run on bones from five animals. The results focus on the later fifth century as the most likely time of burial. The animals themselves were clearly a very selective, not a random, group. Most were geldings—warhorses—and many of the rest were stallions; only one probable mare could be identified. Four were colts, and seventeen were mounts, adults ranging from six to eighteen years old. This seems to have been the royal stable, sacrificed in a lavish gesture at Childeric's funeral.

The king was buried in a stoutly built timber funerary chamber over which the great tumulus was built. It would have been clearly visible from the Roman road, passing a little to the south on its way to the bridge over to the right bank of the Schelde (Escaut) River, where the main part of the town was located. The royal tumulus thus would have become perhaps the most striking monumental feature of the landscape around the town. It fits well with the lavish nature of the grave goods and with the extravagant gesture of sacrificing the royal stable. Was the funerary symbolism meant to recall the mighty figure of Attila, the great war leader in the time of Childeric's youth, who also was buried under a great tumulus and whose funeral featured mounted Huns circling it, singing laments?

Guy Halsall, who has insisted on the need to understand the ceremonial and even theatrical aspects of funerary practice, calls the scale of Childeric's burial display staggering. He also asserts that it was not Childeric but rather his son, Clovis, who created the tomb to demonstrate his right to succession. There is no evidence to support this hypothesis; indeed if Childeric already controlled Gaul as far south as the Loire, as Halsall, following the revisionist thesis of Edward James, argues, the choice of a small town far to the north to make this demonstration seems curious.

Brulet suggests that Tournai may have been where Childeric's ancestors were buried; a contemporary Roman writer, Bishop Apollinaris Sidonius, relates that about a.d. 450 the Salian Franks under Clodio seized the nearby civitas of Arras. This is likely to have been Childeric's grandfather, who then occupied the lands as far south as the Somme. As Périn points out, funerary archaeology supports this limit for Frankish power in Childeric's day, and Tournai makes more sense as a central place within it. Childeric's burial always has seemed exceptional for the lavish display of grave goods; Brulet's reconstruction of the funerary environment makes it stand out all the more, accentuating the pagan and barbarian resonance of this cosmopolitan funerary monument.

As imperial authority was fragmenting throughout the western empire and new polities, mostly identified with barbarian leaders and peoples, were emerging to replace it, funerary ritual offered a potent means to claim power symbolically. There is no reason to assume that so successful and decisive a figure as Childeric in the complex and changing political and cultural environment of the day would not have decided so fundamental a matter as his own funeral. Indeed he appears to have fashioned from various traditions (most notably the Germanic "chieftain's burials" that his Frankish ancestors had known for generations) a bold new funerary model fit for a king. Within a few years the astounding success of Clovis, eliminating rival rulers and conquering most of Roman Gaul, changed all the fundamentals of the situation. Clovis centered his new power on Paris, in the Seine basin, far southwest of Tournai. Furthermore, by converting to Catholic Christianity, Clovis turned away from the too pagan funerary model of his father. His own death in Paris in A.D. 511 opens a new funerary chapter, that of royal ad sanctos burial (burial next to or near a martyr or a saint-confessor).

See alsoMerovingian Franks (vol. 2, part 7); Sutton Hoo (vol. 2, part 7); Merovingian France (vol. 2, part 7).


Brulet, Raymond. "La sépulture du roi Childéric à Tournai et le site funéraire." In La noblesse romaine et les chefs barbares du IIIe au VIIe siècle. Edited by Françoise Vallet and Michel Kazanski, pp. 309–326. Association Française d'Archéologie Mérovingienne Mémoire 9. Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France: Musée des Antiquités Nationales, 1995.

——, ed. Les fouilles du quartier Saint-Brice à Tournai. Vol. 2, L'environnement funéraire de la sépulture de Childéric. Louvain-la-Neuve, France: L'Université Catholique de Louvain, 1990–1991. (Details the excavations of the 1980s, including the original specialist reports.)

Carver, Martin. Sutton Hoo: Burial Ground of Kings? London: British Museum Press; Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998. (See chap. 5.)

Cochet, Abbé. Le tombeau de Childéric I, roi des Francs, restitué à l'aide de l'archéologie. Paris: Gerald Montfort, Brionne, 1859. (A nineteenth-century attempt to put the Childeric grave in context.)

Dumas, Françoise. Le tombeau de Childéric. Paris: Bibliothèque Nationale, Département des Médailles et Antiques, 1976.

Gregory of Tours. The History of the Franks. Translated and with an introduction by Lewis Thorpe. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin Books, 1974. (See book 2, sections 9, 12, and 18 on Childeric and sections 27–43 on Clovis.)

Halsall, Guy. "Childeric's Grave, Clovis' Succession, and the Origins of the Merovingian Kingdom." In Society and Culture in Late Antique Gaul: Revisiting the Sources. Edited by Ralph W. Mathiesen and Danuta Shanzer, pp. 116–133. Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate, 2001.

James, Edward. The Franks. Oxford: Blackwell, 1988. (A revisionist view of Childeric.)

Kazanski, Michel, and Patrick Périn. "Le mobilier de la tombe de Childéric I: État de la question et perspectives." Revue archéologique de Picardie 3–4 (1988): 13–38.

Müller-Wille, Michael. "Königtum und Adel im Spiegel der Grabkunde." In his Die Franken: Wegbereiter Europas, 2 vols. Vol. 1, pp. 206–221. Mainz, Germany: Verlag Philipp von Zabern, 1996.

Périn, Patrick. La datation des tombes mérovingiennes: Historique, méthodes, applications. With a contribution by René Legoux. Geneva, Switzerland: Librarie Droz, 1980.

Périn, Patrick, and Laure-Charlotte Feffer. Les Francs. Vol. 1, A la conquête de la Gaule. Paris: Armand Colin, 1997.

Werner, Joachim. "Neue Analyse des Childerichgrabes von Tournai." Rheiisches. Vierteljahrsblatter 35 (1971): 43ff.

Bailey K. Young