Which ancient historical battles are corroborated by mass graves ?

AlpinLuke

Forum Staff
Oct 2011
27,614
Italy, Lago Maggiore
There are no meaningful records of Legionaries doing that: generally they didn't lose time to organize mass graves for defeated armies ... they trusted animals to clean the area ...

On the contrary, in a case there was a kind of competition among Romans and Germanic tribes to find the burial sites of the enemies to exhume the bodies to dishonor them.
 
Jan 2012
490
South Midlands in Merlin's Isle of Gramarye
On the other side of this hill where I live there has been a tradition, some centuries old that a great battle was fought between the invading Romans and the native British.

What we do have in reality is an early Roman period burial site - first and second centuries - close to an Iron Age temple reconstructed twice and dedicated to an evolving female god-head during the Roman period.

The idea that a battle took place arose I suspect from the regular, accidental disinterment of human remains during ploughing and other agricultural activity, coupled to a deliberate misreading of Tacitus by a local bishop.

The top of a hill that overlooks the site has been particularly well dug to the point that any archaeological enquiry would be meaningless. Treasure hunting has been the sport of the poor and the greedy for centuries.

The question I ask in this light, is would we know a mass-grave is connected to a battle if we found one? Unless dating evidence becomes available within the pit the grave is just a another grave. All we could do is surmise.
 

MG1962a

Ad Honorem
Mar 2019
2,392
Kansas
The question I ask in this light, is would we know a mass-grave is connected to a battle if we found one? Unless dating evidence becomes available within the pit the grave is just a another grave. All we could do is surmise.
Well that's the number one question that gets asked. What ties these remains to that battle.

Cause of death can be a good clue, assuming you have not stumbled onto a ritual killing site.

But usually at these site bodies are not found in isolation. All the debris of battle is usually found. Bits of broken weapons, armor etc etc.
 
Jan 2012
490
South Midlands in Merlin's Isle of Gramarye
It is highly unlikely that battle debris would be found in a mass grave for the simple reason that metal was a desirable item in whatever condition. It has been known since antiquity that battlefields were scavenged by non-participants for whatever items of value they could find.

After a battle the top men who had died were taken away for burial by their kinsmen. Lesser souls were dealt with according to their servants. The ordinary spear carriers were just left to rot unless the locals organised a burial party. Anything of value would be taken as payment for that service and either recycled or melted down for tools.

It is very unlikely that any battle debris would be buried in the ground with the bodies. Even after the Battle of Waterloo the corpses of dead soldiers had their teeth removed to serve as dentures as they would be `good' teeth.
 

MG1962a

Ad Honorem
Mar 2019
2,392
Kansas
It is highly unlikely that battle debris would be found in a mass grave for the simple reason that metal was a desirable item in whatever condition. It has been known since antiquity that battlefields were scavenged by non-participants for whatever items of value they could find.
Not all debris on a battlefield is either obvious or valuable. And I was not specifically referring to the actual grave but the surrounding area. For example at the location of the Battle of Bosworth field, small silver and gold objects associated to the battle lay in situ for over 500 years. It was the discovery of small amounts of ammunition scattered around the field that finally solved the final location of the battle, and lead to more valuable finds.

Basically in battle - stuff breaks :)
 

Kevinmeath

Ad Honoris
May 2011
14,135
Navan, Ireland
Not ancient but medieval

The Battle of Visby


And the battle of Towton


both have mass graves and are an interesting watch.
 
Mar 2015
923
Europe
Think about it. Who would be digging these mass graves?

The winners won't. They loot the losing corpses and take their own comrades back with them for a proper burial.
The losers won't. They have already fled or been taken captive.
There certainly are some ancient mass graves.
One is the tumuli of Marathon. The winners could have chosen to return their fallen to Kerameikos cemetery. Instead, they celebrated their victory by erecting monumental tombs - one for 192 Athenians, and a separate one for their 11 Plataian allies.
There is no grave for the 6400 fallen Persians.
 
Jan 2015
966
England
The question I ask in this light, is would we know a mass-grave is connected to a battle if we found one? Unless dating evidence becomes available within the pit the grave is just a another grave. All we could do is surmise.
I suppose it would be highly indicative if all the remains have evidence of a violent death. Sword or axe marks, arrow piercings, etc. And if it can be dated to the same period as a known battle in that area, that would also support such a conclusion.
 

Dan Howard

Ad Honorem
Aug 2014
5,153
Australia
There certainly are some ancient mass graves.
One is the tumuli of Marathon. The winners could have chosen to return their fallen to Kerameikos cemetery. Instead, they celebrated their victory by erecting monumental tombs - one for 192 Athenians, and a separate one for their 11 Plataian allies.
There is no grave for the 6400 fallen Persians.
War has been conducted for close to ten thousand years and we have already found some mass graves so it is self evident that they existed. My point is that they were a lot rarer than some here seem to think.
 
Jan 2012
490
South Midlands in Merlin's Isle of Gramarye
Not all debris on a battlefield is either obvious or valuable. And I was not specifically referring to the actual grave but the surrounding area. For example at the location of the Battle of Bosworth field, small silver and gold objects associated to the battle lay in situ for over 500 years. It was the discovery of small amounts of ammunition scattered around the field that finally solved the final location of the battle, and lead to more valuable finds.

Basically in battle - stuff breaks :)
The trouble with these pesky battles was that they tended to take place over a wider terrain that the point of conflict as armies manouvered about prior to and after any fighting. Any fighting might take place in a tight area and at a fast pace. There might even be more than one such location. This is why battlefields are often misplaced.