A plethora of burials unearthed

Helen Mihelson
, reporter
Please note that the article is more than five years old and belongs to our archive. We do not update the content of the archives, so it may be necessary to consult newer sources.
Photo: Ragnar Saage

Real estate developments and roadworks are revealing previously undiscovered pieces of history.

No fewer than 900 burials were unearthed last year – a figure that surprised even experienced archeologists.

A little over 100 burials have been documented this year. An extension of the local grocery store in Tori, Pärnu County revealed 88 burials. The former state farm cafeteria was erected right next to the church and in the middle of the parish cemetery in 1966. A multitude of bones and items were discovered but were not studied at the time.

Now, construction work means disturbing the graves once more. Once the skeletons have been analyzed, the remains will be buried at the current Tori Cemetery.

Bone specialist with the University of Tartu Martin Malve said that most burials discovered in Tori date back to the 17th and 18th centuries, while a few are from the middle ages. The oldest grave was dated to be from the 13th century. Foundation work in the Valjala churchyard in Saaremaa revealed 13 burials. One grave even predated the church, likely dating back to the 12th or 13th century.

It has become a trend in recent years: archeological digs accompanying construction work reveal information on previously undiscovered burial sites. Discoveries are followed by hurried rescue operations to extract as much information from the sites as possible with minimal losses.

The “trouble” with discovering new burial sites is that paying them due attention – opening the graves, cleaning the skeletons – takes a lot of money, patience and time. Every skeleton’s position, nearby items and fragments of the coffin need to be recorded.

This is followed by a thorough analysis of the skeletons in a laboratory: whether they belonged to a man or woman, how old might the person have been when they died and what could have been the cause of death. Senior Inspector of the National Heritage Board Anu Kivirüüt and Martin Malve listed the five biggest archeological finds from last year.

The mass grave discovered in the cemetery of an early modern settlement in Vana-Vastseliina, Võru County is considered to be the most important find of last year. A month’s work unearthed 144 skeletons of which 100 belonged to adults and 44 to minors. The cemetery stands out in terms of the number of skeletons exhibiting signs of a violent death.

The grave revealed thee grown men, two women, and a youth aged between 12 and 16. Five of them had injuries caused by sharp objects, mainly in the back of the head and neck area of the skull. Analysis of the bones found that five skeletons had nearly 40 cut marks between them, while most headwounds had penetrated the skull. This points to injuries sustained in battle. It is unclear which battle that might have been.

A knife, banded ring and pendant found in the grave suggests it is from the 16th or 17th century.

Skulls with tops sawed off found in Tõnismäe

Last year’s most extensive rescue dig took place directly opposite the Kosmos movie theater in downtown Tallinn. The work took nearly three months to complete as the foundation bed of a planned residential and office building and a nearby heating pipes ditch yielded a massive 525 skeletons.

Based on items wound in the graves, archeologists discovered the cemetery was used from the second half of the 16th century to the end of the 18th. It was a civilian cemetery where men, women and children were buried.

Archeologists found coins, pins and brooches, but also rings and knives buried with the dead. Most were buried in nailed-down plank coffins.

Skulls and hollow bones of a few dozen skeletons showed signs of syphilis. Other noteworthy finds included a few skulls the top halves of which had been sawed off. This points to the possibility that the bodies were autopsied.

14th century warriors in Länga

The heritage board was told that a detectorist had found two human skulls in a clearing in Länga village, Saaremaa in May of last year. Near one of the skulls, the detectorist had found a crossbow bolt tip while the other was discovered near a piece of iron. The skulls were found some 200 meters from each other.

To determine whether these were random bones or parts of skeletons, the board decided to clean the finds and check whether the location might be a burial site. Both skeletons had been damaged by growing trees and felling work and lied just a few dozen centimeters from the ground.

Both were buried in an unusual position. The younger man, no more than 30, was buried on his back, with his left leg bent at the knee and the bones of his right leg missing. The position of the bones suggested his hands could have been curled into fists and that he might have been holding something.

The older was placed on his right side and his skeleton had several roots growing through it. This complicated the dig. Nevertheless, archeologists discovered that both graves had been opened some time after the men were buried (and after the meat had decomposed off the bones in the case of the older) and individuals bones had been moved, removed or even turned upside down.

Because the fashion in which the men were buried was reminiscent of stone age customs and the bolt tip and piece of iron could have been there accidentally, the board had both skeletons’ teeth carbon dated. The analysis revealed the men had died somewhere in the 14th century and that the tip of the crossbow bolt could have had something to do with their deaths.

Both were likely warriors whose deaths could have been associated with unrest following the St. George’s Night Uprising.

A heap of items in the Kodavere cemetery

Work on the pedestrian and bicycle road of the Alatskivi-Kodavere highway near Lake Peipus surprisingly stumbled upon a previously unknown burial site. It turned out the site had been disturbed before and mixed bones reburied inside the cemetery. A total of around 75 burials were unearthed in the course of fieldwork.

Humid conditions meant that the bones were poorly preserved, with only skulls and hollow bones surviving in most cases. Characteristically of medieval and early modern cemeteries, more than half of skeletons belonged to children.

Archeologists were impressed by the sheer number of items unearthed. Brooches, rings, pendants, coins, knives and buckles found were from the turn of the ancient and medieval eras all the way to the late 16th, early 17th century. An ancient women’s bronze knife sheath was also found.

Some graves revealed remarkably rich finds for a medieval cemetery. A woman’s grave produced coin pendants, pendants and a knitting sheath. Another was buried with a bracelet, ring, coin pendant and a knife.

Detectorists reported several bronze bracelets, rings and other items found near Urvaste. Võru County in July last. National heritage specialists discovered some bracelets still around their owners’ bones.

Ornate woman from the Urvaste cemetery

The burial site was first discovered in the 1930s, when the landowner brought items he had found in a field to the Valga Museum. Most finds were destroyed when the museum burned in the late 1980s and knowledge of the site had been lost by that time.

Because one of the skeletons found last summer lied just 30 centimeters deep and exhibited, in addition to a bracelet, wire decorations and fragile patterns made from a copper alloy around the pelvic bone, it was decided to open and document the grave.

Analysis of clothing and the bones suggested the skeleton belonged to an adult woman. The upper part of the skeleton had been destroyed by plowing as the site was used as a field for a long time.

The cemetery is important for archeologists as it is likely where people were buried over a short period before a church was built in the area. The cemetery offers a glimpse into the ancient Ugandi period when antiquity became the middle ages.