New Morbid Terminology: Excarnation, Evisceration and Exhumation

Statue from the Imperial Habsburg Tomb, via Wikipedia

Statue from the Imperial Habsburg Tomb, via Wikipedia

Excarnation, evisceration and exhumation are three related terms for mortuary archaeologists. All describe methods for making the movement of the deceased over long distances easier as well as reasons that interpretation of secondary burials can be more difficult. Weiss-Krejci (2005) examines secondary mortuary behavior of the Babensburg and Hapsburgs of 19th century Europe. The ideal Christian burial was to be placed in sacred ground, specifically those of the family church or wealthy parish. Royal or elite burial within these special consecrated grounds was important to the maintenance of the dynasty and alliances. However, given their mobility it was possible for death to occur a distance from these preferred burial locations. There were a number of ways of allowing burial in the correct plot if a long-distance death occurred.

The first is evisceration, removal of the entrails, organs and viscera to delay putrefaction and allow for transport. Often the body is filled with salts and aromatics to prevent odors and decay. We know this occurred based on historical documents, though it is possible that the process of removing the organs could leave marks on the ribs. Most likely, an evisceration would not be detectably archaeologically. Sometimes the internal organs were burned at the place of death and these could be marked or remembered.

Excarnation is the second, which involves cleaning the flesh from the bone with the former buried away and the latter at the family or elite site. The body is cut into pieces, and the flesh is removed using boiling water. This process would leave a number of marks on the bones which could be potentially identified. Joints would have cutmarks made to separate them. Further, boiling bones can leave shiny areas from rubbing against the side of the pot. Once the bones were clean, the flesh was burned and the skeleton transported to its final burial.

Finally, there is exhumation which involves a primary temporary burial and then movement of the bones later to the appropriate location. This process can take a number of years due to potentially slow decay of the flesh. It is often practiced when transportation of the remains wasn’t possible at that time due to political or social circumstances. In certain eras this method was preferred due to religious ban of the separation of flesh from the body.

Treatment choice depended on the spatial and temporal circumstances of the death, as well as cause. The disposal of the corpse was not always correlated with the funeral, sometimes a funeral could occur without the body even present, years after secondary burial, or multiple times. The funeral aspect of death is often more important as ritual for maintenance of social order than as a part of disposal. Sometimes the funerals were postponed due to the political or social climate. Post-funeral exhumation could also occur for these same reasons. Secondary burials are not related to death, but often to events in life. As seen in my articles on famous exhumations, there are a multitude of reasons for a secondary burial. Weiss-Krejci (2005) concludes that there is no single factor that determines the variation in burial type in this period, but rather a suite of them depending on the social, political, spatial and temporal context of death.

This article is important because it shows the importance of context in determination of corpse treatment. It also shows a division between disposal and funeral, further emphasizing that secondary burial is less about the deceased and more about social and political factors. One needs to be careful to examine the burial considering all the potential factors that might cause variation.

Works Cited

Weiss-Krejci, E. 2005. Excarnation, Evisceration, and Exhumation in Medieval and Post-Medieval Europe. In Interacting with the Dead: Perspectives on Mortuary Archaeology for the New Millenium. G. Rakita, J. Buikstra, L. Beck and S. Williams, eds. University Press of Florida: Gainesville. Pp. 155-172.

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10 responses to “New Morbid Terminology: Excarnation, Evisceration and Exhumation

  1. I’d never considered the logistics problems associated with the death of a royal or elite away from his or her home. Are there some notable examples of each of these treatments?

  2. Reminds me of the practice in prehistoric Jerico where skulls were found in house foundations that had been relocated from an earlier burial. Some theorize that there was an earlier conception of death where the transition to the underworld took much longer; a dead body “seasoned” for a time in the ground and then was moved to a site inhabited by proper ancestors. All the practices described above seem to resonate with this older sense of “dying.”

  3. Another comment from medieval lore about the Iona Abbey boneyard Relieg Odhrain, where “the bones” of many Scottish and Irish kings (including Duncan and Macbeth) were sent to be interred because of a prophecy that Iona would survive the final flood. In the legend of St. Oran (Odhrain), the monk is buried in the footers of the abbey to appease a spirit angered by the cutting of the sward. Once buried, construction of the abbey can continue. After three days and nights, St. Columba, the first abbot of Iona, wishes to look upon the face of his friend again, and he has it unburied (some say he also wished for news of the Otherworld). Oran’s eyes fly open and the mouth speak, “All you say about God and man and heaven and hell are wrong. In fact, the way you think it is is not the way it is at all!” St. Columba has Oran’s head re-buried, but goes on to make Oran / Odhrain the patron saint of the boneyard, saying that “No man may access the angels of Iona but through Odhrain.” There was an Odhrain sacrificed by druids at Iona some 13 years before the arrival of Columba, so Iona may have always had a funerary ritual associated with the internment – and re-internment — of the dead. The Road of Souls leading north from the abbey toward Dun Manannan may have in pre-Christian times symbolized the long passage of the dead back to the ancestor god.

  4. I may be asking an silly question but it is possible to differentiate between marks made by excarnation and those made by possible cannibalism as it struck me that the treatment of the body is very similare …

    • It would probably be difficult for most cases- but context would likely make the difference. If the human remains were properly buried maybe excarnation, and if found in trash pits they may be cannibalized. Of course, that wouldn’t always be true- but combining that evidence with history, broader context and looking for other marks like pot shining or bite marks would help. If we didn’t know anything about the culture it may be impossible to tell! So I guess this is a good warning to the assumption of cannibalism.

  5. An impressive share! I have just forwarded this onto a friend who had been doing a little research on this. And he actually ordered me breakfast because I discovered it for him… lol. So let me reword this…. Thank YOU for the meal!! But yeah, thanks for spending the time to talk about this matter here on your blog.

  6. Pingback: Modern Ways the Deceased are Memorialized | Bones Don't Lie·

  7. Pingback: Bones Don’t Lie: Modern Ways the Deceased are Memorialized | pundit from another planet·

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