An article from University of Tromsø – The Arctic University of Norway

The remains of a young man who was autopsied tell a story of the earliest public health services in Finnmark. (Photo: Asgeir Svestad)

Secrets in the cemetery

A grave is like a time capsule. Archaeologists literally burrow into them to get insights into past beliefs and religious conceptions.

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University of Tromsø – The Arctic University of Norway

University of Tromsø – The Arctic University of Norway is the northernmost university of the world.

"Death says a lot about a community. The way we treat the dead is more important than you might think," says Asgeir Svestad, who has studied the Sami transition to Christian burial customs.

This kind of research involves literally digging into the issue.

A funeral is an embodied action − it is something we do in a particular way because we have always done it that way. 

"People don't think very much in a reflective way about funerals, about how they should be conducted − we just do it the way it has always been done before," says Svestad.

There is a lot of information about our past that is buried with our ancestors' remains. (Photo: Asgeir Svestad)

He thinks it becomes clear in this kind of situation that our things play an active role, like our silent support staff. Our things hold the ritual together.

Old, shallow graves

So what does a grave tell us?

The graves in the cemetery at Gullholmen, a town in northern Norway, are so overgrown and so long abandoned they are very hard to notice, even when you walk around the cemetery and see the few tombstones that remain.

But archaeologists noticed that the graves in the oldest part of the cemetery, from the mid-18th century, were too shallow to be typical Christian graves.

A. Svestad (2010). De døde skjuler mange ting - Arkelogiske undersøkelser på Gullholmen kirkegård. (The dead hide many things - Archaeological investigations at Gullholmen Cemetery). Tana-årboka/Deanu jahkegirji, p. 77.

The coffins were 65-70 centimetres deep, which is quite shallow, compared to the six feet or two metres called for by Christian tradition.

This characteristic seemed to be more typical of the Sami pre-Christian beliefs about death and the deceased's double existence of the soul or spirit. It was important that the soul or spirit not be impeded on its journey to the hereafter or in its travels among the living.

“According to Sami tradition, a person didn't cease to exist even if he or she had died. It was unwise to disturb the graves," says Svestad.

This tradition claims that the dead person's spirit was able to leave the grave and seek out the living world, and could act as a force of good or evil. This spirit could watch over reindeer and be useful, but he or she should not be disturbed or visited.

“It turns out that some of these beliefs were transferred to the Christian era,” he adds.

Before the late Middle Ages, it was common for the Sami people to wrap their dead in bark and bury them in sledges.

Svestad says they often found split reindeer bones from sacrificial meals.

“Reindeer bones were also found in association with a Christian burial on Gullholmen and probably also came from a sacrificial meal.”

The graves at Gullholmen are from the 1730s. The most recent grave dates from 1868. It is during this period that Christian burial customs began to take over.

Gullholmen's many stories

One of the most interesting graves in Gullholmen is a triple burial site. The coffins in the grave were buried in a way that was informed by Christian tradition, from west to east, and there were remnants of the cross on all the three coffins.

At first glance, archaeologists believed that this was a family tomb, but when they got a look at the coffins and dug out the skeletons inside they came away with a completely different story.

The middle coffin contained more detail than the other two. In it lay the remains of a 25-year-old man who appeared to have had a painful death.

"He had actually been autopsied, his skull was clearly sawn through," says Svestad.

The skull showed signs of a tumour, and three round calcifications were found in the area where the stomach once was.

Svestad's collaborator, a human osteologist at the University of Copenhagen, discovered that these calcifications were due to an infection from a parasite caught from a wolf or a reindeer. This infection had probably spread to the man's brain, and was likely the cause of his death.

“In view of the problems that predators posed in earlier times, perhaps it was a wolf hunt that led to the young man's infection?” asks Svestad.

In any event, these findings and analysis provide a unique insight into diseases and the earliest public health service around the area.

Problematic reburials

Research on Sami graves can be problematic.

Between 1830 and 1940, many skeletons were exhumed to use for physical anthropology and research on the Sami as a race. In many cases, these skeletons were removed despite protests from the local population.

The conclusions from this research were quite negative about the Sami people, who were described as very underdeveloped.

“Today's research is obviously of a very different character than before, but the old practices and findings continue to haunt us,” says Svestad.

This has left a deep psychological scar in the Sami population, and also makes it difficult to initiate research to learn more about the Sami past.

"We know very little about some aspects of Sami history, and a grave potentially contains a great deal of information," says Svestad. "When we want to dig up graves, people are likely to object."

That's why the researchers always inform the local population where they plan to do their excavations. And that's why they also rebury remains after they are done with the research.

Nevertheless, this is a solution that is far from optimal from a research standpoint, he says.

Remains of old Norse skeletons are not reburied, for example.

Svestad points out that when they study graves and human remains, the potential for new knowledge is quite substantial, and we can learn even more as we develop new methods. So reburials can be problematic.

Much of the past history of the Sami people has not been written down, so excavating graves is a very important source of information that can tell these stories. These stories may even contradict written sources.

“Graves are a unique source for understanding the past," concludes Sveastad.

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