There is an amazing relationship between human behavior and space. Our landscape and environment shapes what we can do on it, how we move through it, and where we can be; but it is also shaped by us- we can alter the landscape through construction and building, we designate certain spaces to have specific functions, and we ascribe meaning to places. For example- parks are areas that are protected from construction due to their natural beauty and significance as a natural landscape in what may be an urban enviornment, but we make the decision that they are to be protected and we do alter them in some ways- adding parking lots, pathways, signs, and bathrooms. Space in mortuary landscapes is also important. Where we choose to bury the dead has meaning to the deceased and the mourning community- we choose specific cemeteries because of religious or emotional reasons, or we may choose to scatter our relatives ashes in places of importance (For example, people have been scattering ashes on various Disney World rides since the 1990s despite it being illegal).
There are also practical issues we need to consider. Overcrowding in cemeteries is a serious issue today– there are limits on where we can bury the dead, family members of the deceased want to bury their dead within specific locations due to tradition or desire to keep family together, or certain religious sites can have important meaning if buried there. All of this leads to creative ways to bury the dead in space, such as stacking burials, cremating to save space, or building upwards to create towering necropoli. There are also sanitary issues with where we bury the dead- civil war eras cemeteries have begun leaking arsenic into the ground, and the cemeteries of London were once so bad that people had to move their homes to get away from the stench.
Beyond the emotional and practical aspects, the locations of burials can also be informative about major changes in populations that are caused by warfare, disease, famine, or natural disasters, and how these may have effected broader changes in political, social and economic structures. A new article by McCormick (2015) examines the locations of mass graves from the end of the Roman Empire. He argues that mass graves indicate mass fatalities that can be associated with a crisis, whether it be natural like a tsunami, human like warfare, or a combination like the spread of disease. By noting the locations of these burials, we can track instability within the Roman Empire and learn more about what caused the fall of its Western Empire during the 5th through 7th centuries CE. This study is a preliminary examination of where mass graves are located in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, and the next steps that need to be taken to use these to better interpret the past.
Mass graves are defined as “simultaneous primary funerary deposition of 5 individuals or more” (McCormick 2015:333). Since a mass grave is counter to normal burial practices (single inhumation burial), it indicates that something extraordinary happened that required burial of multiple individuals. McCormick (2015) notes the location, type, number of individuals and known information for all mass graves associated with the Roman Empire from the 4th to 8th centuries CE. He classifies these mass graves into two types: 1) all individuals buried at the same time and 2) successive burial of multiple individuals over time. A large number of these mass graves are associated with urban settings- which makes sense given that disease tends to be more virulent in cities, and there are also many that are associated with military events. One interesting pattern is that there is a trend in increasing mass graves. Only 5 mass graves date to the 4th century, 8 to the 5th century, and 9 in the 8th century. However, in the 6th century there are 24 mass graves and in the 7th there are 32. The Justinian plague and major environmental changes occurred in the mid-6th century, and there is major fighting and warfare between various kingdoms in Western Europe.
In the second installment of McCormick’s work (set to be released in early 2016), he is going to provide a gazetteer of all the mass grave sites that date to the Late Antique period throughout Europe, the Middle East and Asia. This will give us a better idea of the rise and fall of mass graves and where they are found on the landscape. Not only will this help us to track disease, war and other crises- it will help us understand where instability formed following deaths and see the spatial patterns of population change.
McCormick, M. (2015). Tracking mass death during the fall of Rome’s empire (I) Journal of Roman Archaeology, 28, 325-357 DOI: 10.1017/S1047759415002512