Last week, a cemetery at the St. Remigius Church in Long Clawson, England reported that four of their graves had been desecrated. The cuprit: Badgers.
In England, Badgers are a protected species, therefore their removal from the is illegal, and they have not been granted a license to relocate the animals to another area. The badgers have taken up residence beneath the graves, so they cannot even rebury the bones in the proper area without fear of hitting the animal’s den. The second conern is that since the site is protected, any effort to move the bones or the badgers would result in more damage than good. For the time being, the advice is to pick up the bones that are displaced and reinter them elsewhere (Britten 2010).
While this news does not reveal any interesting new finds or drastically change history, it does have important methodological implications. It has been shown by various authors in forensics and mortuary archaeology that animal behavior must be considered when looking at burial sites. In “Archaeology of the Dead”, Duday notes that burrowing animals, such as moles, can create cavities in burials which may cause bones to roll into the empty space. In particular he cites an example where a skull had rolled backwards an couple inches, not because the individual had been decapitated, but due to a collapsed hamster tunnel.
Other studies in archaeology have shown that the action of modern and past animals can drastically alter sites. We need to consider how local animals may have altered skeletal patterns before we wrongly interpret the burial context.
There are a number of studies which show how different animals can have different effects on archaeological material.
Crabs in Papua New Guinea were found burrowing into sites, especially those around the beach (Specht 1985).
Trampling animals, like water buffalo and goats, were attributed with grinding artifacts into the ground as much as 21 cm (Science Daily 2010).
Armadillos are also burrowing animals, and experiemntal archaeology showed that there could be significant movement of artifacts of all different sizes (Araujo and Marcelino 2003).
It is important in archaeology to consider not only the past and our contemporary excavation of it, but also to look at the history in between. There is a wide range of processes that affect archaeological material between the time it becomes part of the archaeological record until it is excavated. As seen in the cemetery in England, a skeleton missing a leg may not be an amputee, but rather a badger dug it up and a child picked it off the ground to show to his parents.
Araujo, A.G. and J.C. Marcelino. 2003. The Role of Armadillows in the Movement of Archaeological Materials: An Experimental Approach. In Geoarchaeology 18(4):433-460.
Britten, N. 2010. Badgers dig up human bones in graveyard. Daily Telegrah. Electronic Document. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/howaboutthat/8059257/Badgers-dig-up-human-bones-in-graveyard.html
Specht, J. 1985. Crabs as disturbance factors in tropical archaeological sites. In Australian Archaeology 21. Pp. 11-18.
Science Daily. 2010. Trampling Animals may alter sites. Sceince Daily. Electronic Document. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/09/100923162408.htm.