Monday, January 24, 2011

when digging up bones . . .

My mother walks through cemeteries – it’s a habit she has. She likes how peaceful they are and she’s curious about the people at rest. When I was a teenager I walked with her through groomed graveyards, in the fall, in Connecticut.  Later, we visited cemeteries made lively and floral for Dia de los Muertos, Day of the Dead – in San Antonio, Texas. We looked over the tombstones of another era and wondered about the lives lived between the dash, between date of birth and date of death.

And now I’ve gotten comfortable excavating human remains (this feels like a weird sentence to write), but the tedious work of removal is my focus. This season one burial was different and made me think about the people whose skeletons rested, still and brittle. We exposed several skulls within a few minutes of excavation, until we had a total of four. We slowly exposed the rest of the skeletons (often the skulls are easy to clear, but the ribs, and so many other fragile parts, take hours to properly expose). As I looked upon these bodies, laid together - I related to them, whoever they were.

Here was the skeleton of an adult, and on those bones were two children, and to the side of the adult, an infant.  Something happened to these people and it happened all at once. Maybe it was disease or famine, but not likely anything unseemly, besides death. They were interred with care. I mapped the assemblage of femurs and tibias, ulnas, tiny and large, and mandibles with baby teeth. I drew them how they were interred - and how that had decayed. The right arm of the adult lay under the right arm of one child, as if it was reaching around its skeletal pelvis, holding it. It was all so tender – holding children in the eternal night. Placed this way it seemed a message traveled through time; it was a moment I could understand. Here was love and loss. I wrote practical notes, took measurements and other standard field practices – but I also felt moved by the circumstance of their mass death. And one day soon the biological anthropologist will examine those human remains and will say more about them – about their physical bodies and maybe about their lives. But so much time has passed, and those who knew them have passed. Much will never be known. The life they had, in some ways, remains secret forever.


  1. The never ending quest of the living human being...thinking about the mystery of death and what may lie ahead for those of us who still remain. I hope you are staying safe Gaea...hearing reports that internets are down, no planes in or out of Cairo...stay safe my dear!

  2. Don't worry - I'm not going near Cairo! More news soon.


  3. Your great grandmother, Florence Burt, always liked visiting the cemeteries. I liked going there with her and taking picnics - they are peaceful places full of history and human drama.

  4. I don't mind going to cemeteries; if during the day only. In high school we used to go just to get our adrenaline pumping and tell scary stories. I love the really old cemeteries where all there might be is a simple inscription from the 1700's to 1800's...and so many children died from disease before modern medicine could save them.

  5. Sorry Gaea, I did it again...forgot to post my name...above comment was made by me...Deb/Beebe