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Suspected Votian burial site damaged during excavation work

Work to install a geothermal heating system for the Kuremäe Library revealed an ancient burial site. Construction work that ignored prior agreements caused significant damage to remains.

Planned digging work between two protected zones was at risk of unearthing human remains, which is why heritage conservation authorities decided that their representative needs to be present for the work.

"The agreement was to halt the work if burial sites are unearthed. And the information I received was that the work started and was stopped soon after. I only learned in hindsight that the local government, contractor and heritage conservation had an agreement in place not to start digging before the latter arrived. It turned out they had started earlier," said Tauno Võhmar, mayor of Alutaguse Municipality.

"When the officials arrived in Kuremäe a part of the work had already been done. This despite a prior agreement according to which a heritage conservation archeologist would come and help with the dig. The ditch had already been dug when they arrived. A part of the skeletons had been unearthed, while some were still visible in the soil," said Anu Lillak, archeology adviser for the National Heritage Board.

The burial site is quite likely Votian based on the origin of nearby burial mounds. The most famous Votian burial mound in Estonia is located in nearby Jõuga.

The last time burial sites were discovered in the area was in 2003 when construction work to build a parking lot near the Kuremäe sacred spring unearthed 11 burials from the 12-15th centuries. The experts were not called.

How many burial sites were damaged this time and the age of the remains will become clear in the course of a recovery dig planned to take place in spring.

"The dig has cut through at least five burials at first glance. But a walk around the site revealed that number could be higher. We found several skull fragments despite the profile of the dig suggesting the skulls should still be in the ground, meaning that more burials may have been affected," said Martin Malve who studies bones.

Archeologists said that it is better for everyone involved when digs are suspended as soon as finds are unearthed.

"It is much more difficult to put together the puzzle in hindsight. Also here in Kuremäe, the whole process would have been faster, easier and less resource-intensive had archeological work been carried out first," Lillak said, adding that, unfortunately, there are several incidents like Kuremäe every year.

"We have talked to digger operators who have claimed they were haunted after hitting burial sites. Who knows, perhaps the curse of the Kuremäe cemetery will also befall those who carried out the work here," Martin Malve said.

The entire area was designated a temporary protected zone after the incident.

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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