Indiana Jones
Hooray for Halloween!
Bats 'n bugs
Befriending bats
Best brain bank
Grave robbers
Gorgeous graves
Here's what Tut's crypt looked like after the archeologists got through with it.
Image courtesy Diana Eggers and Darlene Bishop.


No wonder people were fascinated with King Tutankhamen, the Egyptian pharoah. Check out his sarcophagus!
Image courtesy Diana Eggers and Darlene Bishop.


a firefighter's grave

A firefighter's grave.
Photo by Brian Morris, courtesy Highgate Cemetary: Victorian Valhalla.


dancing skeleton
Image of Indiana Jones (at top of page) courtesy of The Wisconsin Center for Film & Theater Research.
Bats, brains, and burying grounds

Buried treasure?
Seen Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom? Then you know archeologists are impassioned by the pursuit of peerless plunder in the tombs of unimaginably dead rulers.

A view from the crypt At least, archeology was obsessed with those tombs. Remember King Tut, the Egyptian pharaoh who made headlines in the 1920s when his mummy, together with a glut of golden grave goods, were unearthed from Egypt and taken on a world tour?

Tut was the prime example of the old school of archeology as grave-robbery, but he was far from the only one. "Traditionally, archeology had a lot to do with opening tombs," says Dean Snow, a professor of anthropology at Pennsylvania State University. "Finding tombs full of grave goods was very attractive." Ancient rulers, typically, were laid to rest with symbols of their rule, together with nice threads and a supply of vittles for afterlife banquets. Some, like Tut, were also mummified -- chemically preserved. "King Tut was very hot stuff at the time," Snow points out.

A golden sarcophagus

While graves still play a role in archeology, as we'll see in a moment, that role has diminished as archeologists have begun to focus on what Snow calls "the 99.999 percent of people who were not buried in lavish tombs." In other words, ordinary people like you and me who aren't likely to wind up in pyramids, sarcophagi and crypts.

Instead of obsessing about the elaborate urns, figurines, weapons, and jewelry that ancient rulers took with them into the crypt, archeologists are democratically focusing on ordinary dwelling places and villages. "We're more interested in sampling populations than getting evidence for unique individuals," Snow says.

Another area of interest, he says, is ecological adaptation -- the way groups altered their hunting, farming and gathering habits to deal with changing environments. The interest reflects, to some extent, the looming threat of global warming.

Beyond the democratic interest in how most people lived, Snow says grave excavation in the United States "has gone down considerably" due to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990, which gave living descendents of dead people control over the remains.

dancing skeleton When archeologists do look at burials, they often are interested in what Snow calls "demographic" information. For example, a University of Pennsylvania excavation in Denmark is looking at bodies in graves to understand death patterns before, during and after a black plague epidemic in the 14th century.

While bubonic plague killed too quickly to leave informative marks on the bones, the graves may still offer indirect information about the epidemic, Snow says. "You have to look at the statistics. Is there a sudden change in age? Did burial practices change? If you find, say, 30 individuals in a mass grave, all young adults, with no signs of violence, that looks like an epidemic."

Marine archeologists aren't interested in graves either...

Nowadays, says Snow, graves are a "trivial part of what we do."

Maybe he hasn't heard about these gorgeous graves...

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