Excavation of a poor house cemetery in Switzerland
Joke Somers, Amelie Alterauge, Sandra Lösch (Department of Physical Anthropology, Institute of Forensic Medicine, University of Bern, Switzerland)
During a construction project in Riggisberg, Switzerland, carried out in September and October 2016 the cemetery of the former poor house was partially uncovered. The institution was established in 1881 for the care and shelter of the elderly as well as the mentally and physically ill. The excavation was conducted by the Department of Physical Anthropology, Institute of Forensic Medicine, of the University of Bern. Once a layer of intact graves was discovered we commenced excavation of the skeletal remains. Over a time period of 3 weeks, 109 single graves and several complexes of commingled bones were uncovered, recorded and recovered. The excavated area was situated in the south-eastern corner of a former cemetery and measured 88 m2. Seven rows of closely aligned burials were uncovered. Due to the presence of nails and wood we assume that all individuals were buried in a coffin. With only a few exceptions, all graves were orientated east-west orientation. Buttons and metal clasps present in the graves suggest that the individuals were buried clothed. In one grave even the trousers were preserved. Our preliminary anthropological observations in the field (Buikstra and Ubelaker 1994; Ubelaker 1989) indicate a dominance of male individuals as well as the absence of children. Death mostly occurred at an advanced age. During the first observations in the field broken ribs, a lower leg amputation and a cranial autopsy already came to light.
Despite the fact that one row was intercut by another row and the disturbance of the cemetery due to previous construction work, most skeletons remained undisturbed. This implies that the graves were most likely marked in some way so that it was visible where one was buried.
Archaeologically documented cemeteries from such institutions are relatively rare in Switzerland. Therefore, the skeletons from Riggisberg provide an extraordinary research opportunity. They are individual witnesses of their time and store biological information. A cemetery plan and register of the inhabitants exist, and would allow for identification of the burials. The history of the patients described in the reports could be compared to the congenital, disease-related or traumatic changes that can be detected in the bones. Since in the 19th and early 20th centuries these types of institutions were intended to remove the poor, sick and disabled from the cities, considerable neglect and ill-treatment of the inhabitants might be expected (Carlichi 2015; Perz et al. 2014).
The skeletons are currently stored at the Department of Physical Anthropology of the Institute of Forensic Medicine of the University of Bern for further study. The preservation and archiving of the bones will be a first step towards further study of the sample. A desirable goal would be to reconstruct and critically evaluate the living conditions in the institution by an interdisciplinary research team composed of physical anthropologists, archaeologists, physicians, historians and social scientists. This is, not least, a moral-ethical obligation of today's society. People with mental and/or physical disabilities have been marginalized in the past, so that through the knowledge of past medical and nursing practices, we can develop a stronger awareness of the way we deal with these groups of people today. By comparing different and, above all, independent sources, it would be possible to revise the history of the poor house.
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