Remains dug up at mass grave site in Japan suggest epidemic in 1800s

The Umeda Grave, one of seven historical burial sites in Osaka, was unearthed as part of a redevelopment project near a main train station.

The foundation of a structure at the Umeda Grave burial site in Osaka
The foundation of a structure at the Umeda Grave burial site in Osaka

Archaeologists have dug up the remains of more than 1,500 people, many of them believed to have died in an epidemic, buried in a 19th century mass grave in Osaka, Japan.

Officials at the Osaka City Cultural Properties Association studying the remains said they believe the remains were of young people who died in the late 1800s.

The Umeda Grave, one of seven historical burial sites in Japan’s bustling merchant city of Osaka, was unearthed as part of a redevelopment project near a main train station.

Archaeologists have dug up remains of more than 1,500 people
Archaeologists have dug up remains of more than 1,500 people (Osaka City Cultural Properties Association via AP)

The more than 1,500 remains were found during the latest round of excavation that started in September 2019, following an earlier 2016-2017 study that dug up hundreds of similar remains at adjacent locations, according to Yoji Hirata, an official at the association.

As in the earlier excavation, the remains of some of the people showed lesions on their limbs, suggesting they fell victim to an epidemic in the region. All the remains have already been removed from the excavation site, and experts will further examine the latest harvest and other artefacts in hopes of finding more details related to the deaths.

Many of the remains were in small round holes, where bodies were apparently stacked and buried. Archaeologists found coffins containing multiple remains, a sign that many victims of an epidemic were buried together.

Human bones buried in holes at the burial site
Human bones buried in holes at the burial site (Osaka City Cultural Properties Association via AP)

Experts also found about 350 urns and a possible ossuary at the site, which are signs that bodies were cremated. They also unearthed coins, Buddhist prayer beads, headdresses, combs, sake cups and clay dolls that were believed to have been buried with the dead.

Remains of several piglets were buried in the north side of the cemetery, and two horses in the south, while those of cats were in containers.

Experts plan to compile their findings and analysis in a report expected at the end of next year.

The burial site is in what used to be a farming area outside of the urban community near Osaka Castle and was one of seven major cemeteries in the city. People used to tour around the cemeteries to pray for their ancestors during the mid-summer Bon season under the Buddhist tradition.

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