A mass grave is a burial that includes multiple individuals within one grave. The term is often used for burials with three or more individuals, since burials less than that can be normal burial activity. Usually, the finding of a mass grave means that something specific occurred to cause this, since it is not a usual form of burial. A new study by University of Tennessee is examining mass graves, by creating their own. The project includes a number of different mass graves, and the goal is to use this to create better methods for finding modern mass graves. There are numerous examples of mass graves being used as evidence of warfare atrocities, such as the forensics team that is identifying and recovering remains of the “Los Desaparecidos,” citizens accused of being Marxists who went missing during the country’s “Dirty War” of the late 1970s and early 1980s in Argentina. Others are known to have occurred in Libya, Sudan and Syria, although many have not been found. This study by University of Tennessee’s Body Farm is experimenting with mass graves to see what types of radar can identify them. They hope that they will be able to use satellites to determine locations of these mass graves, using their study to identify viable methods. Also see this article on improved methods for finding mass graves.
Mass graves are most often associated with disasters: disease, warfare, and massacres. In this post, I’m going to discuss some studies that examine mass graves due to different causes.
Epidemic disease can lead to a drastic increase in deaths, so much so that individual burial cannot be done. The Black Death emerged in Europe in 1347, and quickly killed thousands of people in Britain. It is estimated that in total it led to the death of one-third to one-half of Europeans over the next five years. Due to this rise in mortality, burial pits were opened to deal with the thousands of bodies. In London, the officials noted the opening of two emergency pits at the outskirts of the city, and there were numerous smaller ones in the various parish churchyards. At the site of East Smithfield, excavations uncovered 600 hundred bodies in large graves thought to be associated with the plague. The site was identified as being indicative of disease because the demography of the population was more representative of a living population than that of normal cemeteries, which contains more young and old (Gowland and Chamberlain 2005). Mass burials in London from the plague continue to be found, and as construction continues we will probably hear of more.
A second cause of mass graves is warfare. An example of this is the assemblage of human remains from Uppsala’s Battle of Good Friday. The battle was part of a longer series of campaigns and violence between Denmark and Sweden throughout the 15th and 16th century. On Good Friday, April 6th, 1520, the Swedish army attacked the Danish troops stationed outside of Uppsala. A mass grave was discovered in 2001 that includes the remains of 60 males mostly between 25 and 34 years old. This type of age and sex demographic is primarily indicative of warfare, and likely is the remains of those individuals killed in the Battle of Good Friday. Analysis of the remains revealed that injuries primarily consisted of sharp force trauma. Distribution of the injuries is suggestive of a skirmish rather than face to face battle. Given the locations of the trauma, it was also determined that they were trained soldiers who caused them, inferred by the standardized patterns implying standard tactics. Based on the injuries which suggest a lack of armor and training in the deceased, it was determined this represented the remains of the Swedes (Kjellstom 2005).
Of course, mass graves aren’t always caused by disasters. In Italy during the 19th century, mass burial was common due to a lack of space for remains and the fact that reliable cremation techniques had not been developed. A similar occurrence was found in Paris during the 18th century, where the Cimetière des Innocents was used for mass burial until it was closed in 1780. It was because of the many mass burials and overburial in the city that the catacombs were created.
Thanks to Tracy Brown for sending me the information on the UT Mass Grave Project and inspiring this post!
Kjellstrom, A. (2005). A sixteenth-century warrior grave from Uppsala, Sweden: the Battle of Good Friday International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, 15 (1), 23-50 DOI: 10.1002/oa.746