Identifying Mass Graves: Modern and Historic

Bosnian Mass Grave, via Wikimedia Commons

Bosnian Mass Grave, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Human bones and skulls in a brick-built pit. Via Sloane Letters and Wellcome Library, London.

Human bones and skulls in a brick-built pit. Via Sloane Letters and Wellcome Library, London.

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!

Works Cited

ResearchBlogging.orgGowland, R., & Chamberlain, A. T. (2005). Detecting plague : palaeodemographic characterisation of a catastrophic death assemblage Antiquity, 79 (303), 146-157

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

13 responses to “Identifying Mass Graves: Modern and Historic

  1. When you say they hope to use satellites to identify mass graves, what do you mean how can that be possible? Also when you say’ identify’ do you mean find or figure out why?

    • I would suggest checking out the original article for all the details. Their goal is to identify areas with mass burials using LiDAR to determine low spots and abnormalities. I’m not very familiar with the technique- but the article explains it well.

  2. Another huge research interest of mine (mass graves). Hoping to get to study one for my PhD. 9-11 can be seen as a mass grave site. The Boston explosion would have classified as a mass disaster site wouldn’t it, if there had been more fatalities?

    • No, the location of death has nothing to do with location of burial in this case. Mass graves are places where individuals are all buried together, which doesn’t necessitate death together. It is highly unlikely the Boston incident victims will be buried in the same grave. I would also question whether 9/11 is considered a ‘grave’ since it wasn’t a site for purposeful burial.

  3. Do you know the “San Juan ante Portam Latinam” prehistoric mass grave. It might be of your interest. Here is a webpage about the site:
    Also here:
    This is the monography ref.:

    There are at least other 2 impressive prehistoric mass graves in Spain: La Sagrera (Barcelona) and Caravaca de la Cruz (Murcia)

  4. Other reasons for mass graves include

    – poverty. In the UK and Ireland there were a network of Workhouses which were institutions that accommodated the poor, principally those who were unable to work through sickness, disability, or old age, or those unable to find work. In Ireland they were particularly packed during the Great Famine (1845 onwards).
    They were managed by Poor Law Unions, and run cheaply. Mass graves were normal. These were often unmarked.
    Tightly packed gravestones for Leeds Workhouse, Yorkshire, show multiple names:
    The old Workhouse building is now part of the city’s St James’s Hospital.

    In the UK local councils still bury or cremate around 3,000 poor people a year in Public Health funerals.
    My understanding is that Common graves are used (graves that are used multiple times for unrelated people, which is another form of mass grave).

    – premature, stillborn and other babies. In the UK babies who die in hospital are often buried by the maternity hospital. These babies are usually buried in Common graves (a form of mass grave).

    – disasters e.g. ship sinkings, aircraft crashes,
    The aircraft carrier HMS Dasher sank off the Scottish town of Ardrossan near the Isle of Arran off the west coast of Scotland on 27 March 1943 with the loss of 379 of her 528 crew. Of the 68 bodies recovered, 24 were buried at Ardrossan Cemetery. It is not known what happened to the other 44 bodies. The war disaster details were classified as secret.

  5. Thank you for bringing (more) awareness to mass graves! I did a research paper on mass graves caused by warfare in my last semester of undergrad and I intend to continue that research later in grad school (ph.D).

  6. Pingback: Plague of Justinian: The Older Brother of the Black Death | Bones Don't Lie·

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