Burial space, part 11: mass graves at Choeung Ek

The mass graves at Choeung Ek in Cambodia offer us another test case. A total of 8,985 bodies are said to have been exhumed from 86 graves.

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A further 43 graves are said to have remained untouched. This map shows the excavated graves:

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Here is an aerial view:

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The excavation seems to have been highly chaotic, and it’s not clear how the number of bodies was calculated.

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Curiously, the number of skulls kept on site is variously claimed to be “over 5,000” or “over 8,000”. It’s unclear why there should not be a definite number made available, or why the number of skulls should differ to such an extent from the number of bodies. In the conditions shown in the above image (disarticulated bones), counting the bodies is not an easy task, unless they are simply counted by the skulls. In spite of the unfortunate lack of precision in the accessible data, we will assume that the figure 8,985 is correct.

Determining the original area of the excavated graves is rather difficult. The original map of the site shown above does not correspond exactly to what one sees on modern aerial images (which are also obscured by trees) or a current map (which does not show all 86 excavated graves). Nevertheless, using the scale from the google maps aerial view and the above map of the excavated graves, we can estimate the area of the field of excavated graves; 0.5 hectares appears to be a reasonable estimate, but a certain degree of uncertainty is unavoidable. Dividing gives us a density of approximately 18,000 bodies per hectare.

It should be clarified that this figure is calculated based on solely the area of the field of graves, and not on the area of the entire site. If at Treblinka the entire 4 hectares of the upper camp were similarly filled with mass graves (including the location of the gas chamber buildings, the barracks for the workers, the cremation grates, the trees that were never cut down, etc.), only 72,000 bodies could be buried, not the more than 700,000 that were supposedly buried there.

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