A True Ghost Story Installment D: I see dead people. Hey, It’s my job!

I wrote earlier about the graves that were dug daily to receive the dead. In truth, the details of this procedure are still being worked out by archaeologists at the McGregor Museum in Kimberley, but when we were there on this particular trip, part of the grave yard to which I refer had been just discovered, accidentally uncovered during a public works drainage project. I’ve never seen anything quite like it in all my years as an archaeologist.

It should not have been terribly surprising that there were graves in this particular patch of land, just across a small road from an existing cemetery. Indeed, bodies had been discovered in past decades in this neighborhood, and many people suspected that the graveyard was in fact much larger than the marked area with the headstones that was traditionally defined as a cometary.

We saw the graves opened and carefully excavated. Each hole, as described earlier, was carefully emptied out of all but the skeletons and some of the objects. A 24 hour guard stood watch to make sure no one or no thing got in … or out. Not that there was anything of real monetary value, but people to covet the strangest objects.

Many of the holes did have more than one skeleton, and quite often the skeleton was clearly tossed in haphazardly. In one case, a person’s body was lying at the base of the grave, but his legs were stiffly leaning against the wall. All of his bones were in place but his kneecaps, which rested enigmatically on his pelvis. What has happened was this: The knee caps were, of course, where they were supposed to be (at his knees) when his body was tossed in the grave. Later, his flesh rotted away, but his pants remained for a while, forming a tube shaped void containing his leg bones. The kneecaps slid down the tube, which was eventually filled with compressed dirt.

Another grave had a haphazardly tossed-in skeleton and on top of that was a carefully placed and well decorated coffin containing a woman.

Many of the skulls were cut transversely as one would do to remove the brain. It seems that the coroner or the undertaker or someone was harvesting this particular organ. Those were the days when everyone was doing physical anthropology. Perhaps the local doctor was conducting a study…

The people of the neighborhood were of course concerned about this graveyard, in part because many of these people descended from earlier Kimberley citizens, and in part because these days in South Africa burial of the dead is taken quite seriously, and treatment of the dead is a major social and political issue. In parallel cases elsewhere in the country, the people demanded that the burials be recovered and left alone. But in this case the overwhelming feeling was to apply the science to the finds, to figure out as much as could be learned about the history and circumstances of these original burials.

Personally I attribute this local citizen’s interest in the science to the excellent work done by the archaeologists at the McGregor Museum in developing an awareness of archeology and its benefits. In addition, as I have alluded to earlier, there is a certain amount of historic denialism associated with the events and affairs connected to Kimberley, South Africa. And today, the inclination of many South Africans seems to be to discover rather than deny that which can be known.

But I mention the skeletons here because if we are talking about ghosts wandering around in an old infirmary, it is notable that those hearing the ghosts had been messing with the remains of the dead on the other side of the town.

In fact, that’s not the only way we were messing with the dead…

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