By Pia Bennike
Warfare and society : archaeological and social anthropological perspectives, edited by Ton Otto, Henrik Thrane and Helle Vandkilde (Aarhus, 2006)
Introduction: Mass graves or individual graves situated outside a cemetery may indicate an unusual preceding event. If the remaining skeletal material is well preserved lesions, fractures and abnormalities of the bones may reveal the nature of the event. However, the discovery of a mass grave does not necessarily mean that a war was waged in the vicinity. It is well known that victims of various epidemics, such as plague, cholera etc. were buried in mass graves as well. Such graves contain a majority of the remains of children and old people, whereas young individuals, who supposedly have the strongest immune systems, had a better chance of recovery. The demographic pattern in a mass grave may therefore reflect that part of a population succumbed to a disease which does not necessarily leave any visible traces on the bones of a skeleton.
Mass graves are found all over the world, and can be traced to all periods in the history of mankind. Two Mesolithic skull-pits discovered at Ofnet in Germany contained the remains of c. 32 individuals: 5 males, 10 females and 17 sub-adults. Because of the unusual and rather strange arrangement of the skulls, the pits were named the ‘skull-nests’. Many of the skull fragments exhibit a variety of lesions, and the find is thought to be related to a massacre. Collective megalith graves in Denmark have been dated to the Neolithic periods and represent a different kind of mass grave. In contrast to mass graves from later periods, collective megalith graves from the Middle and Late Neolithic were functional over a long period of time. They could contain over 100 individuals, and the number of injuries seen on the remaining bones is rarely unusually high.