Top Five Reasons for Disturbing a Burial

I have discussed before that there are a number of reasons why graves are disturbed. My first post was on the top five reasons that single bones may be removed from a burial, the second was on the top five reasons to move an entire skeleton, and finally the top five reasons that an entire cemetery may be moved. However, I haven’t discussed the reasons for disturbing a burial or cemetery and not actually dealing with the remains themselves. Cemeteries are powerful places with a lot of symbolic and emotional meaning, so disturbing a grave requires a fairly powerful motivation. So, without further ado, here are five reasons for disturbing a burial.

1. Grave Robbing: the most salient example of grave robbing is the removal of exotic and prestige items from the tombs of Egyptian elites. It was a fairly common throughout Ancient Egypt’s dynasties for the tombs of royalty to be robbed, either by the lowest classes to provide for themselves, or by the incoming government to provide funds for the new dynasty or ruler. At the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, a 4,000-year-old stone tablet inscribed with hieroglyphics describes a rebellion during the reign of King Mentuhotep. The poor smashed open royal tombs, and looted the gold and jewels buried with the mummies. Stories from hieroglyphics of the 20th dynasty discussed the problems during this period from an administrative point of view. There are numerous accounts of priests, scribes and builders were caught attempting to steal from the tombs of the recently buried elite. Builders that were caught were noted to have said “Many sons of this people rob the graves just as we do and are not less guilty than we are”. Archaeological evidence of looting is easily seen in the high number of tombs which lack grave goods. The human remains are often disturbed, and in the Valley of the Kings, a number of mummies were found piled into a single tomb as the leftovers of a major raiding period.

2. Prevention of Bad Luck: A new study done at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, argues that the disturbance of human remains may be due to family members repositioning the bodies to prevent bad luck. The cemetery under analysis was Winnall II in southern England, dating from the mid-7th to early 8th centuries, and contained 45 graves. Initial examination proclaimed the graves intact, however, this new study found that the remains had been moved, individual bones were dislocated and foreign bones were present. Some had been strangely altered with twisted legs, tied feet, decapitate heads, or arms placed in front of the face. It was assumed they were buried like this, but closer analysis of soil and position showed that they were actually reopened and repositioned. The archaeologists argue that this prevented bad luck- by manipulating the bodies, the living hoped to confine the dead to their graves. There is no specific evidence for this interpretation, but it does provide a different interpretation from grave robbing. Textual evidence may back inferences like this if they are recovered.

3. Retrieval of Mementos: They same Austrain archaeology group studied the cemetery of Brunn am Gebirge, a sixth-century cemetery in Austria. The cemetery belongs to a Germanic tribe called the Langobards, which contains 42 graves. All of the graves, with only one possible exception, appear to have been reopened after the initial interment. During this period it was common, as a form of elite competition, to bury the dead with exotic and prestigious goods like brooches, necklaces, weapons, and belts of expensive materials. However, at this cemetery the archaeologists found primarily small stones and pieces of the goods, not the goods themselves, and also found more domestic items like combs and ceramics. They argue that the items were retrieved from the burial after internment as mementos and heirlooms, holding symbolic rather than monetary value. While there isn’t evidence to back up this interpretation as symbolic rather than grave raiding, it is plausible and does introduce doubt into the assumption of tomb robbing. Again, some textual or archaeological evidence is needed to back up this.

4. Early Scientific Investigations: Another reason for the disturbance of a burial without the removal of skeletal remains could be due to early ‘scientific’ or ‘anthropological’ work. During the 19th century, the removal of grave goods from Native American burial mounds or cemeteries was not seen as morally wrong, but instead was part of scientific inquiry. Artifacts were often taken from the burials as souvenirs or for preserving perceived ‘dying’ nations. The argument of the 19th century was that the quest for knowledge allowed for removal of the artifacts from graves. The skeletons could be left in place, destroyed, or also taken for display in museums or private collections. It was early practices like this which led to programs like NAGPRA which aid in returning burial goods and skeletons to the extant populations.

5. Prevention of Rise of the Undead: A number of burials in the past decade have been found either weighed down by rocks or with rocks in their mouths. In Europe, this custom is interpreted as the prevention of vampires, or the undead rising. In the Czech Republic, a 1,000 year old cemetery had a number of remains which had been reopened and desecrated. Individuals were decapitated, stones were placed across their bodies, stakes or nails through their head, and rocks in their mouths. Central Europe has a strong history of superstition of the dead rising. Since opening burials is symbolically and emotionally difficult, they must have had an extremely important reason for doing these acts. Vampires seems like a pretty good reason to me.

Works Cited

Perry 2011. Disturbed Medieval Graves. Live Science. http://www.livescience.com/16807-disturbed-medieval-graves.html

Naillon 2009. Vampire Cemetery. Suite 101 http://erin-naillon.suite101.com/a-vampire-cemetery-a314709

Bryant and Peck 2009. Encyclopedia of death and human experience.

Broder 2000. Egypt has long history of grave robbing. Fox News.  http://www.williamtolan.com/fno/EGYPT/story5.htm

Dollinger 2010. Reshafim: Law and Order.  http://www.reshafim.org.il/ad/egypt/law_and_order/index.html

6 responses to “Top Five Reasons for Disturbing a Burial

  1. Pingback: Top five reasons for breaking open a grave « Richard's Dystopian Pokeverse·

  2. I might offer a number 6 and this is reverence for the dead. Of course we all know about Medieval Saints and relics but even lay graves seem to have had parts of bodies removed. Bonnie Effros in Merovingian Mortuary Archaeology argues that in many cases the discovery of headless skeletons indicates skulls which were removed by relatives, not people who were executed by beheading. This is somewhat related to your number 3 but different enough to possibly deserve its own number.

  3. Hi. There is another reason why graves are disturbed. However, it doesn’t imply intentional action. In some cemeteries of Middle/Upper Cauca valley, Southwestern of Colombia, some human skeletal remains are incomplete in certain areas, although the body is in anatomical position. The color of the soil where the part of skeleton is lacking is different of the fill of the grave, a pattern very similar with that one of looter activity. However, no objects were taken, and stratigraphy indicates that it didn’t happen in modern times. It seems that prehispanic communities accidentally opened some graves looking for a space for burying some of their relatives. Accidentally disturbance has been reported in many sites of prehispanic Latinamerica.

  4. Pingback: Grave Robbing: Not Always What it Seems… | Bones Don't Lie·

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