The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Built on an Indian Burial Ground

This entry is poorly constructed and probably barely legible to anyone other than myself. I'm not proud of those facts, I'm just lazy. You have been warned.

So, I was listening to the pilot episode of a new radio show called Curiosity Aroused, which was a pretty cool show (you can hear it here: In one segment, the host (Rebbecca Watson of discusses media coverage of an alleged ghost sighting at a gas station (what a lousy place to spend eternity). As usual, one of the various folks interviewed by the news crew comments that "this place used to be an Indian burial ground."

Yep. An Indian burial ground. How many times have you heard this one? It's as if the entire continent has seen Poltergeist one too many times. Feel uneasy at your house? Must be built on an Indian burial ground. See something weird at your office? Must be built on an Indian burial ground.

I wonder what kind of burial grounds the British blame their misfortune on.

Incidentally, I once worked in an office building that actually WAS built on an Indian burial ground. What's more, we frequently had human bones in the office. Want to know what happened there? Absolutely nothing - unless you count the soul-crushing boredom of Monday morning staff meetings.

Wait a minute...maybe the human remains in the office from our excavations put a curse on the building, and the burial ground put another curse on the building, and the two curses ate each other! Hmmm...I may yet make a name for myself in parapsychology!

I also once spent a week carting human remains (mostly bone, but also some preserved soft tissue) around in the trunk of my car - at the insistence of the Sheriff Coroner's office I might add - and other than some trouble with my starter and alternator, my car shows no signs of being haunted or cursed (and I'm inclined to chalk the electrical troubles up to the fact that my car is 13 years old and has never had any part of the electrical system replaced - though it is fun to yell obscenities at the spirits when my car won't start on a cold morning). Still, those were remains of white people, and therefore most of my fellow honkies will likely superstitiously not believe that they have the power of 'dem Indian bones.

But I digress. Back to the main point...

...anytime I talk to someone who feels uneasy in their home or thinks that they or someone they know has a haunted house, inevitably the old "built on an Indian Burial Ground" trope gets brought out. If all of the places that were allegedly built on burial grounds were, in fact, built on burial grounds, then I can say with confidence that there are more dead people in North America than there were ever alive people on the continent. For those who doubt the truth of that statement, I'll have you know that I arrived at that conclusion by using my archaeological training to compile and analyze data before pulling a conclusion completely out of my ass.

So there.

I used to work in the Central Coast Archaeological Information Center at UC Santa Barbara*. This facility houses all of the records for all recorded archaeological sites within Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties. In other words, this was the perfect place to examine the claim that any of the alleged haunted places in the county were built on Indian burial grounds.

So, I looked at the locations of several places that I had heard were haunted due to being built on burial grounds. One was built on a location that used to hold a flake scatter (where a couple of Chumash fellows had been manufacturing or modifying stone tools - but where there would have been no burials), all others were built on "archaeologically sterile" ground - no sites of any kind, including burials.

I did find a few buildings that were actually built on burial grounds. One was a building where I would eventually work, as described above (and where, when questioned, nobody who worked there had ever experienced anything odd at all). One was a museum that one would think was ripe for ghost stories for a number of reasons, and, yet, it had none at all. And one was a physics/engineering laboratory where several friends worked, and none of them had ever experienced anything that they would consider strange.

Oh, and one was a sewage treatment plant - unpleasant, but decidedly not haunted by anyone's estimation.

So, the places that really did hold burial grounds were all not haunted. The places that were supposedly haunted but definitely did not have burial grounds all had the rumor of a burial ground attached to them. That should tell you something.

And yet, stories of hauntings due to burial grounds continue to proliferate. When the folks behind the Amityville hoax decided to pull their prank, they even concocted an Indian burial ground/insane asylum story as part of the hoax.

My personal favorite rant about the horrors of Indian Burial grounds comes from this lunatic:**, who draws some rather odd conclusions about how people behave around these sites. For example, if people avoid burial grounds, how do we account for the vandalism often seen at these sites? Also, I got a good laugh from the claim that construction workers stop work at burial sites out of fear of the supernatural. If there's not an archaeologist like myself or a Native American monitor present to stop them, construction crews will blow right through burial sites without a second thought.

Don't believe me? Go to Google and type in "Playa Vista Gabrielino Burials". When the construction company has the legal right to plow through, or else the management thinks that they won't be caught, they do just that. The fear of the supernatural does nothing to stop them.

What's curious is that so many of these stories allege specifically Indian burial grounds. While you will occasionally here about a more run-of the mill white-bread cracker cemetery being the source of a haunting, it is usually the Native Americans who get the blame. Why is this?

Well, I don't know for certain, but I suspect that it has to do with three things: 1. Unlike most historic cemeteries, prehistoric Native American cemeteries don't have clear surviving grave markers that are obvious to the layman, and therefore it becomes an untestable hypothesis to most folks (it's essentially a "god of the gaps" argument - in the face of ignorance a questionable conclusion is drawn, and since you can't disprove it, it must be true! The illogic of the position should be pretty obvious). 2. Even prior to the current re-evaluation of North American colonialism, most folks at least agreed that the native peoples of the continent weren't happy with the European who were the ancestors of many of us, and therefore would have a motive for wanting to do all manor of horrible things to them - apparently including annoying them by moving their descendants car keys and knocking picture frames off of walls - hardly a fitting retort to genocidal policies, really. 3. There is a, frankly, racist notion that non-white people are somehow mystically powerful and therefore terrifying and not to be trusted (which has been a recurring theme throughout much of western colonial history - incidentally, the current obsession of young white people with India is typically little more than a current manifestation of this long-running racist belief) and this notion that even the dead non-white people are mystically powerful seems to be little other than a continuation of this tendency.

So, next time someone tells you that a place is haunted due to being built on an Indian burial ground, point at the person and laugh. You'll be glad you did.

* For some reason, the people of Santa Barbara consider themselves the "Central Coast" despite the fact that they are clearly in Southern California - but it gets even goofier when you consider that the Information Center in Fullerton is called the South Central Coast Information Center - there is nothing central about Fullerton! It's in fucking Orange County! San Luis Obispo County could arguably be described as the South Central Coast - but not Orange County.

** This guys has other entries with titles such as, and no I am not making this up, "Gall Bladder Disease and Demons", "Car shopping and Deliverance", "Dolls, toys, and stuffed animals - better burn them too", "Candles - Don't Burn Them; Get Them Out Of Your Home!", "Diabetes - Squid like demons attack ten parts of your body", and oh so many more.

Oh, and my favorite sentence on the site, from the page on doctors, is this "The dental symbol is a triangle in a circle. This same symbol is the highest satanic symbol." Yep. Your dentist is a Satan worshiper.

You can go to yourself to see the true insanity of it all.


Betty said...

I'll take your word for the rest of it, but I believe that part about dentists.

Mandy said...


Ye gods.

Kay said...

"I wonder what kind of burial grounds the British blame their misfortune on."

Answer: Druids

I always knew dentists were evil....

Alfhild said...

Over here in the UK, we tend to blame hauntings on - depending on local legend - somebody getting murdered or committing suicide on a particular spot, an old gallows, somebody disturbing a Christian burial ground, or somebody being buried in non-sanctified ground. Take your pick.