Ethics of Acknowledging the Unknown

The Oaklawn Cemetery

The Oaklawn Cemetery is a potential excavation site that is suspected to contain mass graves connected to the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. (Brown, 2018) The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre is considered one of the worst episodes of racial violent in U.S history. (Brown, 2018) The massacre all began when a black man was accused of assaulting a white woman which led to hundreds of black-owned businesses and homes being set on fire in Greenwood. (Brown, 2018) In addition, more than 300 black people were killed, more than 10,000 black people were left homeless, and 40 blocks were left smoldering. (Brown, 2018)   Most importantly, there are still victims that still left hidden and unidentified.

Recent archaeologist was able to discover several signs of possible mass graves at various sites which also includes the Oaklawn Cemetery.  In order to reveal whether if people were buried there, forensic archeologist will have to excavate the site and examine the remains to be identified. More than that, forensic archaeologist can reveal whether the skeletal remains exhibit characteristics that relates to the massacre. (Baggaley, 2019)

As for the victims and families that were greatly impacted by the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, forensic archaeology provides a common ground for the families and communities to rewrite history.  As Forensic anthropologist Sean Tallman shares, “one great feature about forensic archaeology is that it can help to provide information about things that aren’t necessarily recorded in history, that are sort of clandestine or hidden,” and adds “It can augment the historical record by showing what actually happened to potentially a large group of people.”

Sandby Borg

The Sandy Borg is a 5th century ringfort on the south-east coast of Oland island, Sweden. Archaeologist performed an excavation within the oval area surrounded by stone ramparts. (Current World Archaeology, 2019) Beneath the ground, archaeologist was able to reveal an occurrence of a brutal massacre in the late 5th century AD. (Current World Archaeology, 2019) There was massive amounts of people that were slaughtered and left to rot. (Current World Archaeology, 2019) Consequentially, the human remains, and valuables left buried beneath centuries ago can now have an opportunity the re-tell a part of history that has never been revealed.

Archaeologists were able to discover multiple evidence of a massacre that occurred more than 1500 years ago (Kennedy, 2018) They found out that the site was abandoned after an attack, leaving the dead unburied. (Jarus, 2018) A fortress was under attack and inhabitants were slaughtered. (Jarus, 2018) In one of the sections, archaeologists revealed evidence of an old man’s skull being smashed. In another section, they also unraveled how even children were not spared during the attack. (Kennedy, 2018) Overtime, archaeologist was able to unveil more about the village and its “catastrophic end”. (Kennedy, 2018)

              Overall, contemporary archaeology gives communities a chance to revisits untold truths of the past that have been buried away, just like the 5th century massacre.  Moreover, the hidden memories allow us to take some time to acknowledge the victims of these violent deaths, respectfully. Whether or not the victims can be identified, a proper burial site for the victims of this massacre is required, that way the victims are not left to rot with their last memories of the attack.

Treblinka Extermination Camp

The 1943 Treblinka extermination camp in Poland was where more than 900,000 Jewish deportees had been killed during World War II. (Svoboda, 2016) (Mithcell, 2020) (Pappas, 2014) The killings went on for 16 months, leaving mass graves behind. (Pappas, 2014) Witnesses stated seeing men were beaten and hacked to death while still alive. The site also includes gas chambers that were used as a trap to poison large amounts of deportees with carbon monoxide within 20 minutes. (Pappas, 2014) Most of all, this particular space requires caution and attention in a way that allows victims of this mass murder to be heard throughout time.

Archaeologists carried out an excavation at the Nazi death camp and found massive amounts of skeletal remains, brick walls and foundations of the gas chamber. (Pappas, 2014) More specifically, forensic archaeologist was able to indicate multiple knife marks existing on the bones which reveals the victims were also stabbed or assaulted. (Pappas, 2014) Beneath the surface they also discovered how the Nazis dumped sand from a quarry close by to help disguise or cover up the death camp. (Pappas, 2014)

Ultimately, contemporary archaeology can help localize buried truths without causing too much disturbance to the soil and the hidden remains. In addition, archaeologist’s approach of excavating devastating sites similar to Treblinka must be considered and requires the community’s respect, trust, and approval.  Furthermore, contemporary archaeologist can act as a fine-tooth comb that teases out the unknown details that were purposely covered and left in the past.

The image above illustrates a ground penetrating radar survey revealing a mass grave in Vinnytsia region of Ukraine. (Mitchell, 2020)

The image above depicts a volunteer helping with the excavation of the grave of Saturnino Til and Ramon Navarro, who were shot in 1936 by forces of dictator Francisco Franco in Gurrea de Gallego, Spain. (Reuters, 2017)

The image above is shows the 1997 Centreville excavation site that involves the graves of six Civil War soldiers being carefully revealed. (Ambrose, 2018)


*Ambrose, Kevin. 2018. “The forgotten graves of soldiers killed 157 years ago, during the oppressively hot Battle of Blackburn’s Ford” The Washington Post website, Jul 18. Accessed [June 1, 2020].

*Baggaley, Kate. 2019. “New evidence points to mass graves of people killed in Tulsa’s 1921 race massacre” Popular Science website, Dec 18. Accessed [June 6, 2020].

*Brown, L. DeNeen. 2020. “‘Tulsa plans to dig for suspected mass graves from a 1921 race massacre’” The Washington Post website, Feb 4. Accessed [June 1, 2020].

*Brown, L. DeNeen. 2018. “‘They was killing black people’” The Washington Post website, Sept 28. Accessed [June 1, 2020].

*Gannon, Megan. 2020. “Unearthing the True Toll of the Tulsa Race Massacre” Sapiens website, May 22. Accessed [May 24, 2020].

Goldstein, Lynne and Keith Kintigh. 1990. “Ethics and the Reburial Controversy.” American Antiquity 55(3): 585-591.

Haglund, D. William. 2001. “ Archaeologists as Forensic Investigators: Defining the Role” Historical Archaeology 53(1): 26-34.

*Jarus, Owen. 2018. “Photos: 1,500-Year-Old Massacre Site Unearth” Live Science website, Apr 25. [June 6, 2020].

Jones, D. Gareth and Robyn J. Harris. 1998. “Archeological Human Remains. Scientific, Cultural, and Ethical Considerations” Current Anthropology 39(2): 253-264

*Kennedy, Maev. 2018. “Swedish archaeologist uncover brutal 5th century massacre”  The Guardian website, Apr 25. Accessed [June 1, 2020].

Medina, Juan., Lupton, Emily and White, Sarah. 2017. “Spanish archaeologists dig up more civil war dead from mass graves” Reuters website, Aug 30. Accessed [June 1, 2020].

*Mitchell, William. 2020. “ Holocaust Archaeology Proves Deniers Wrong” Sapiens website, Apr 15. Accessed [June 1, 2020].

*Pappas, Stephanie. 2014. “First-Ever Excavation of Nazi Death Camp Treblinka Reveals Horrors” Live Science website, Mar 28. Accessed [June 6, 2020].

*Pearce, Joanna. 2019. “Digging up the Dead” Sapiens website, Nov 1. Accessed [May 24, 2020].

Scarre, Geoffrey. 2003. “Archaeology and Respect for the Dead” The Journal of Applied Philosophy 20(3): 237-249

Shelbourn, Carolyn. 2013. “Burial archaeology: reflections on the law, policy and ethics of research on human remains and ‘digging the dead’” Art Antiquity & Law 18(1): 59-75

*Strauss, Mark. 2016. “When Is It Okay To Dig Up The Dead?” National Geographic website, Apr 7. Accessed [June 1, 2020].

*Svoboda, Elizabeth. 2016. “Unearthing the Atrocities of Nazi Death Camps” Scientific American website, Apr 30. Accessed [June 6, 2020].

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