Skip to main content.

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
grave shaft soil
Side by side burials indicated by difference in the grave fill, which include fragments of stove and brick.Image courtesy of: Historic St. Mary's City

Steps Involved in Excavating Burials:

1. A plan drawn before excavating shows the shape of a grave. The shaft soil differs in color and composition from the surrounding undisturbed soil because digging and refilling a grave mix soil layers.

2. Excavators work down until they find evidence of a coffin or human remains (see photo at right). They screen soil for unrelated items in the grave or grave fill because the age of these "accidental" artifacts can help in dating the burials. They may sample the soil for pollen to determine the season of burial. They also map the position of nails, which show the presence and shape of a coffin long after wood has decayed.

grave shaft soil
A skeleton is measured in-situ to determine body size. Images courtesy of: Smithsonian Institution

3. A forensic anthropologist examines the bones in place, or in situ, before removing them for further analysis (see photo at left). Drawings and photographs document the body in the burial. The positions of the bones can indicate how a body was readied for burial and placed in the grave.

Watch a video demonstrating this process.