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Synonyms for exhume include unearth and disentomb. The definition says "Dig out (something buried, esp. a corpse) from the ground". I've only ever heard it in context of a body, is it possible to apply this to other contexts. For example, would it make sense to exhume a treasure buried at sea?

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I may be guilty of an etymological fallacy here, but I really like to think of the connections between exhume, posthumous, and humus itself, the last of which is a direct loan from a very common but morphologically somewhat atypical Latin noun. – tchrist Apr 26 '12 at 4:29
You have not used the word 'human' even once in the Q. However, I think that is where the answer lies. – Kris Apr 26 '12 at 6:57
@Kris - as noted below, "human" comes from "homo" not from "humus" – J. Won. Apr 30 '12 at 19:56
up vote 4 down vote accepted

Yes, exhume can be used for the unearthing of things other than bodies.

See this recent story about exhuming buried WW II planes.

There is also precedence for using the term for bringing up sunken treasure and shipwrecks. (But maybe, technically, the treasure needs to be buried in the sand of the ocean bottom in order to be "unearthed," not just lying out in the open.)

The UN points to the discovery and archeological exhumation of the Pandora off the coast of Australia. We learned the true ending of the Mutiny on the Bounty and what happened to the mutineers by studying the wreckage. (Source for sunken treasure/ship article)

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In one sense, I think the question is the wrong way round. We tend to use "exhume" for bodies, because "digging up" sounds rather sordid. It is more that the word implies reverential removal from the earth, and so could be applied to treasure or other artefacts.

However, in most cases, it makes more sense to just say you are digging them up. We seem to have a problem if we tell a relative that we are going to dig up their dead relatives corpse, so we use other words to say that the process is being done with care and reverence.

Strictly, as others have pointed out, anything being removed from the earth could be exhumed.

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+1 for revering Latin- and Greek- rooted words over the "sordid" Anglo-Saxon – J. Won. Apr 26 '12 at 22:00

Sometimes it is used for that, although usually in order to evoke similarities to exhuming bodies.

There are things that are buried that are not bodies, however: flags, religious documents, and the like.

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In the metaphorical sense, exhumation may refer to the revisiting of old feelings, as in the Randy Travis song, "Diggin up bones." ("... Exhuming things that's better left alone. I'm resurrecting memories..." )

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Yes. Neither the OED's literal definition, nor the figurative, specifies what it is that is to be dug out.

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I always thought this word was related to "human". Actually a derivation, merely taking the prefix ex- and the suffix -tion.

Its use in any other context must, therefore, be metaphorical, alluding to the usual way of exhuming a human body.

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No: the Latin humare means "to inter" and that's related to humus ("earth"), so exhumation is not related to "human" in that way. Even "human" doesn't relate to humus: it's derived from homo. "Posthumous" literally means "after burial", not "after being human". – Andrew Leach Apr 26 '12 at 7:41

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