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  • Writer's pictureHans Faber

Notre dame of Grou

The Hunchback II, Jawlensky

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 village of Grou at Halbertsmaplein Square. Her grave is dated mid-eighth century. She received the title First Lady because until this find, it was not known people lived at Grou at all in the Early Middle Ages, already.

Grou is situated in the center of province Friesland, on former peatland bordering the clay-soil area what once were tidal marshlands. Grou itself is a terp village. A terp being an artificial settlement mound. Read our Manual Making a Terp in 12 Steps to learn more about these dwelling mounds, and how to make them! Previous archaeological research in 2005 already indicated that the terp of Grou was erected after AD 200. With the excavation in 2018 we may assume that the terp must have been erected between ca. 200 and 650.

The appearance of Grytsje is not that of what you might expect from first ladies in general. She had terrible ailments. Her right leg was short and her left arm hurt, while horrifying inflammation must have consumed her mouth. It was immediately clear after the excavation 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 the Boarn in the year 736 or 734 (sources differ). Read our post The Boarn Supremacy about this disastrous battle. Although she was buried, which is the christian way and cremation normally the practice of heathens, probably the woman was heathen nevertheless. This is probable because her body was buried in a north-southerly 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 in that her legs were not of the same length, and thus she was crooked. It must have been painful. There was a staff placed in her grave which she may have used when walking. No, this crooked woman was not healed through a miracle as happened in the Gospel of Luke (13: 10-17).

First Lady Grytsje also had severe wear on the joints of her arms and fingers, and led to painful bulges. Furthermore, she had a remarkably thin left arm which probably hurt a lot too. She will probably have spared her arm and hands during use. Albeit bone abnormalities are more common in early-medieval skeletons, Grytsje had quite many, though. In part, these 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. 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. Probably she preferred soft food. Because of this, a huge amount of tartar has formed over the teeth. Research based on isotope analyses suggests that she may have ate freshwater fish mainly.

At her feet several pieces of leather have been found. These are the remains of shoes. Grytsje also received a decorated comb in her grave. The comb 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 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 re-used to make this coffin. If interested in other ship burials in the region, read our post Rowing souls of the dead to Britain: the ferryman of Solleveld.

The staff in the grave, which for sure was 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 support this assumption on experiences elsewhere in the terp area.


Note 1 - Another disfigured woman is the Girl of Yde whose face has been reconstructed too (see our post The Killing Fields, of the Celts). Of course, we await a facial reconstruction of this remarkable First Lady, notre dame of Grou!

Note 2- For more history about the proud women of Frisia, check our posts Yet another wayward archipelago and Women of Frisia: free and unbound?

Note 3 – This post relies on E. Boers’ article, see Further reading below.

Further reading

Anderson, T., Dental treatment in Anglo-Saxon England (2004)

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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