Facedown Burials Widely Used to Humiliate the Dead

June 23, 2009

Burying the dead facedown in ancient times didn't mean RIP, according to new research that says the practice was both deliberate and widespread.

Experts have assumed such burials were either unusual or accidental.

But the first global study on the facedown burials suggests that it was a custom used across societies to disrespect or humiliate the dead.

Lead study author Caroline Arcini of Sweden's National Heritage Board detected a common thread in the burials she studied: "That society sanctioned this apparently negative treatment of the dead," she said.

The unnerving burials often appear to signify "behavior that is out of the norm—it is not accepted, what [the dead] have done," Arcini said.

Shaming the dead "is most probably a deep-rooted behavior in humankind."

Social Status

Arcini searched existing literature to make the first ever catalog of facedown burials from around the world.

She found descriptions of more than 600 bodies from 215 grave sites, from Peru to South Korea.

Dating from 26,000 years ago all the way up to World War I, these so-called prone burials include men, women, and children, though the majority were men. Facedown burials occurred in all sorts of graves, including single graves, double graves, and mass graves.

(Related: "Earliest Known Nuclear Family Found; Died in Massacre?")

In locations with several prone burials, the dead were often buried in shallow graves toward the edge of the cemetery, most of them without coffins.

The phenomenon has various possible explanations, Arcini said.

Some people had their hands and feet tied together, suggesting they had been criminals or prisoners of war.

Other burials indicate the practice was linked to social status, as in the case of 80 bodies found in a Mexican cemetery that dates to between 1150 and 850 B.C., Arcini said.

There, 6 men are sitting in their graves, while the other 74 are in a prone position, Arcini noted.

"It might be that the people [buried in a sitting position] are high priests, and the others are in a lower social position."

Religious Conflict

The archaeologist highlights religious and cultural conflict as another potential factor.

The highest frequency of facedown burials in Sweden, for instance, dates to the period of the Viking age when Christianity arrived in the region, Arcini said.

Pagan Vikings may not have accepted those who converted to Christianity and may have buried the bodies in a way that reflected their dislike, she explained.

Rule-breaking nuns and convicted witches were also buried in prone positions, she added.

The findings appear in the June issue of the journal Current Archaeology.

SOURCES AND RELATED WEB SITES

ADVERTISEMENT

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC'S PHOTO OF THE DAY

NEWS FEEDS     After installing a news reader, click on this icon to download National Geographic News's XML/RSS feed.   After installing a news reader, click on this icon to download National Geographic News's XML/RSS feed.

Get our news delivered directly to your desktop—free.
How to Use XML or RSS

National Geographic Daily News To-Go

Listen to your favorite National Geographic news daily, anytime, anywhere from your mobile phone. No wires or syncing. Download Stitcher free today.
Click here to get 12 months of National Geographic Magazine for $15.