25 Grisly Archaeological Discoveries
A set of skeletons discovered in York, England, belonged to tall men who died before the age of 45. What makes them gruesome is that all of them had also lost their heads. Their heads were buried with them, sometimes on their chests, and sometimes between their legs or feet.
Researchers aren’t sure why most of the skeletons at the Driffield Terrace were decapitated. They date to between the second and fourth centuries A.D., when the area was part of the northern Roman Empire. Because most of the skeletons were particularly tall and showed signs of trauma, they may be the bones of gladiators. They might also have been military men. A genetic analysis of seven of the decapitated skeletons found that six hailed from Britain, while one may have come from Lebanon or Syria. [Photos: Headless Gladiator Skeletons]
Evidence of war
About 10,000 years ago, something horrible happened in what is now Kenya. Twenty-seven people — men, women and children — died of trauma. Their bones, discovered in 2012 in the sediments of Lake Turkana, show the marks of blunt weapons like clubs and sharp projectiles like arrows. Archaeologists think that the size of the group indicates ancient warfare rather than a violent domestic dispute. One woman (shown here) was found with both knees broken, hands extended in front of her, prompting speculation that she may have been bound.
Pit of death
A property development project in France uncovered something truly shocking in 2012: A pit, 6.5 feet (2 meters) deep and 5 feet (1.5 m) in diameter, filled to the brim with bones.
Even more sickening, the bones consisted of severed arms and fingers as well as the skeletons of infants, children and adults. Researchers found at least seven upper arms, including one from a young teenager. On top of the amputated limbs, seven bodies had been tossed into the pit, including that of a middle-age man who’d had an arm chopped off and suffered a blow to the head. These bones dated back about 5,335 years.
The bodies (and body parts) most likely were casualties of war, the researchers told Live Science. Some may also have been executed in a sort of brutal Neolithic justice.
When Spanish archaeologists unearthed the 1,600-year-old skeleton of a Roman woman, they were surprised at what they found in her pelvis. Peeking out from between her hips was a calcified ball of bone containing four malformed teeth.
This creepy discovery was an ovarian teratoma, a kind of tumor that arises from germ cells. Germ cells are the precursors of human egg cells, so they can form body parts like teeth and bones. The most common teratomas are benign, as was the one in the Roman woman’s pelvis. Complications from the tumor could have eventually killed the woman, archaeologists said, but she may never have known the toothy thing was inside of her abdomen.
Polish ‘vampire’ burials
The real story behind Eastern European vampires is quite possibly creepier than the fictionalized tales of Dracula. Between the 1600s and 1700s in Poland, some people were buried with sickles over their necks or rocks wedged under their chins. These precautions were taken to prevent the dead from rising again as vampires who, locals believed, would return to suck the blood of friends and family.
In 2014, researchers found that the “vampire burials” at Drawkso cemetery in Poland were the bodies of locals who had not died of trauma. They were likely victims of a cholera epidemic that would have felled them rapidly, the researchers told Live Science.
Remnants of a witch hunt
Sometimes an archaeology discovery doesn’t need to involve bones to be disturbing. A 15th-century church in Aberdeen, Scotland, contains an artifact like that. The chapel contained a stone pillar set with an iron ring, which may have been used to restrain accused witches in 1597.
Aberdeen hosted a series of witch trials that year known as the “Great Witch Hunt.” Around 400 people were tried, and approximately 200 executed in an eight-month period. The deaths were grisly. One of the most famous cases, Jane Wishart, was convicted along with her son Thomas Leyis. Both were strangled and then burned.
Civil War massacre
An attempt to expand the library at Durham University in northeast England turned into a discovery of 17th-century pain and suffering.
Archaeologists excavating in advance of construction discovered two mass graves containing 1,700 skeletons dating back to the mid-1600s. The skeletons are probably the remains of Scottish prisoners of war taken captive during the Third English Civil War, a battle between Parliamentarians led by Oliver Cromwell and Royalists loyal to King Charles II.
The skeletons belonged to men between the ages of 13 and 25, suggesting that they were military men. They showed few signs of trauma and probably died of disease while imprisoned, only to be thrown into anonymous mass graves.
“These are ordinary soldiers from the Scots army, probably raised from the lowlands of Scotland, some highlanders, and up into the northeast of Scotland, whose names we don’t have,” said Pam Graves, a senior lecturer at Durham University. “We know the names of contemporary officers, but so rarely do we ever know the names of ordinary soldiers.”
Their necks flexed and jaws gaping, dozens of skeletons peer up from an ancient mass grave near Athens. Their blank expressions aren’t what make this discovery grisly: It’s that many of the skeletons still wear shackles.
The skeletons — there are 80 in the mass grave, 36 of which have iron shackles around their wrists — belonged to prisoners who died between around 650 B.C. and 625 B.C., archaeologists say.
Historical records tell of an ancient coup in 632 B.C. that could explain the bodies. The Olympic champion Cylon attempted to take over Athens and failed. The bodies could be those of his executed followers, archaeologists said, though that interpretation is by no means certain.
True love was forever for Louise de Quengo, the Lady of Brefeillac. The widow died in 1656 and was interred with a rather alarming trinket: the heart of her husband.
Toussaint Perrien, Knight of Brefeillac, died in 1649. As was sometimes done at the time, his heart was removed, embalmed and put into a lead urn.
“It was common during that time period to be buried with the heart of a husband or wife,” Fatima-Zohra Mokrane, a radiologist at Rangueil Hospital at the University Hospital of Toulouse in France, said in a statement. “It’s a very romantic aspect to the burials.”
Mokrane and colleagues used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computed tomography (CT) to study Perrien’s heart as well as four others from elite graves at the Convent of the Jacobins in northwestern France. The organs were so well preserved that researchers could still see buildup of plaque on many of the arteries.
A tragic sacrifice
Mountaineers climbing near Aconcagua in Argentina in 1985 stumbled across a dark memento of the past. Nestled in a stone structure was the huddled mummy of a 7-year-old who died about 500 years ago.
The little boy was the victim of child sacrifice. The ritual was called capacocha, and it was practiced by the Inca people. As in “The Hunger Games,” children were called as tribute from rural regions to the city of Cuzco, where they would live for about a year before they were drugged and walled into their tomb to die of exposure. Many of the mummies sport skull fractures, so there is debate over how they were killed. They may have been knocked out in order to decrease their suffering, archaeologists say.
You work for years, supporting the first female emperor to China and smoothing her rise to power. You break your own arm instead of fighting against her for a rebel army. You help her mollify civil disorder.
And then your little brother goes rogue and gets you all executed.
That’s the sad story of Yan Shiwei, one of the favorite officials of Wu Zetian, the founder of China’s Zhou dynasty. Archaeologists uncovered Yan Shiwei’s 1,300-year-old tomb anddiscovered the tale on a stone-inscribed epitaph. Yan Shiwei’s little brother, Yan Zhiwei, turned against Wu Zetian around 699. As a collective punishment, the entire family was executed and, according to the carvings, “carelessly buried.”
Bones in a tree
A season 6 episode of the crime show “Bones” involves the case of a skeleton discovered with a dogwood tree growing through it. Something similar really happened in Ireland — though the tree was a beech.
In 2015, a 215-year-old tree blew over in a winter storm in Collooney, Ireland. Entangled in the roots was a mass of bones. They turned out to belong to a boy who died between the year 1030 and 1200. Making the discovery all the more creepy, the boy’s ribs and hands showed knife marks, suggesting that his death was violent.
Ancient cold case
Skull fractures on a 430,000-year-old skeleton found in a Spanish cave point to a likely cause of death: murder most foul.
The victim’s remains were found in a cave in the Atapuerca mountains, along with bones from 28 individuals of various Homo species. The bodies seem to have been moved there on purpose, making this spot possibly one of the oldest burial grounds ever found.
The sex and even species of the murder victim remain unknown, but researchers think that the wounds found on the skull couldn’t be explained either by a fall or by postmortem damage. The murder weapon may have been a spear or an ax, but it’s safe to say that after 430,000 years, the suspect is not still at large.
Cannibalism in the Canadian Arctic
When Sir John Franklin and his crew headed off for their Arctic expedition in 1845, they hoped to navigate the Northwest Passage. They almost certainly did not expect that they’d be resorting to cannibalism within a few short years.
The Franklin expedition’s two ships, the HMS Terror and the HMS Erebus, became trapped in ice … which failed to melt summer after summer. By April 1848, 24 men had died, and the remaining crew set off in an attempt to trek to the nearest trading post. None were ever heard from again.
Over time, the bones of some of the crew members were found. In 2015, researchers reported in the Journal of Osteoarchaeology that the bones had been hacked and boiled, and many were even cracked to get at the marrow inside. The discovery speaks to the very desperate situation in which those men found themselves,” bioarchaeologist Anne Keenleyside of Trent University, who was not involved in the study, told Live Science. “You have to imagine yourself in that situation, what would you do?”
Archaeology is the study of human society — but for our purposes, Neanderthals are close enough (we did interbreed, after all). In 2010, researchers reported the discovery of the skeletons of a family of Neanderthals in a cave in Spain. What makes the find so chilling is that the bones showed signs of cannibalism.The three adult females, three adult males, three teenagers, two kids and an infant may have become a meal for another group of Neanderthals (humans weren’t around in Europe at this time, so they’re off the hook). This family isn’t the only evidence of Neanderthal cannibalism, archaeologists said. It seems that when times got tough, Neanderthals weren’t shy about chowing down on each other.
Buried, exhumed, burned and re-buried: That’s the post-mortem fate of Alexander the Great’s half-brother and successor, Philip III Arrhidaios, according to historical texts. The question is, have archaeologists found what was left of the man after his people got done with him?
A royal tomb in Greece containing the burned bones of a man and a young woman could be the resting place of Philip III and his young warrior-queen wife Eurydice, who were respectively killed and forced to commit suicide by Philip III’s stepmother, Olympias, the mother of Alexander the Great. But some researchers argue that the entombed man is actually Philip II, Alexander the Great’s dad. That would make the woman in the tomb Cleopatra, Philip II’s last wife. (A different Cleopatra than the famous Egyptian queen, this Cleopatra nonetheless met a tragic end. She was either killed or forced to commit suicide by Olympias, whose bad side you didn’t want to be on.)
The debate still rages as to whether the tomb is the final resting place of Philip II or Philip III. The most recent volley of scientific debate hinged on whether the bones were burned dry or covered in flesh and viscera.
The search for the legendary Northwest Passage claimed many lives, including those of 129 explorers who went searching for a sea route through the Arctic in 1845. Lead by British Rear-Admiral Sir John Franklin, the doomed crew headed into the icy unknown, where they would all perish of starvation, scurvy, hypothermia and exposure.
To make matters worse, many of the men’s remains show evidence of lead poisoning, probably from the canned foods they were eating. High levels of lead in the body can cause vomiting, weakness and seizures.
At first, the dead received proper — if shallow — burials. Later on in the expedition as more explorers died, researchers say, bodies were left unburied, and some may have been cannibalized. Few bodies have been identified, despite attempts at facial reconstruction, as seen above.
Ancient Chemical Warfare
Ancient warfare was a messy matter, but a group of 20 or so Roman soldiers may have met a particularly nasty death nearly 2,000 years ago. During a siege of the Roman-held Syrian city of Dura, Persian soldiers dug tunnels under the city walls in an attempt to undermine them. The Romans retaliated by digging their own tunnels in an attempt to intercept the Persians. But the Persians heard them coming, and some archaeologists think they prepared a grisly trap: A cloud of noxious petrochemical smoke that would haveturned the Romans’ lungs to acid.
The tunnels were excavated in the 1920s and ’30s, and have been reburied now. But some modern archaeologists think the placement of the skeletons and the presence of sulfur and bitumen crystals suggests chemical warfare. The choking gas would have been like “the fumes of hell,” archaeologist Simon James of the University of Leicester told LiveScience.
The first leper
Leprosy, now known as Hansen’s disease, has long carried a stigma. The disease is not very contagious, but lepers have been banished and snubbed throughout history, owing in part to the disfiguring sores caused by the disease.
One archaeological find suggests that the stigma surrounding leprosy goes way back. A 4,000-year-old skeleton discovered in India is the oldest known archaeological evidence of leprosy. The fact that the skeleton survived suggests the person was an outcast: Hindu tradition calls for cremation, and only those deemed unfit were buried. The skeleton was buried in a stone enclosure filled with ash from burned cow dung, a substance then thought to be sacred and purifying.
Lepers haven’t always been universally reviled. In medieval Italy, they may have even joined the ranks of soldiers and fought battles. A skeleton recently unearthed in a medieval Italian cemetery bears the telltale signs of leprosy as well as what appears to be a sword wound. The man, who may have died in battle, was buried with his comrades.
Other graves in the cemetery are similarly macabre. At least two contained the bodies of men who’d survived massive head trauma, including what looks like a battle-ax wound. One man, likely wounded by a mace, seems to have gotten the medieval version of brain surgery after the injury.
A teen boy buried at an ancient alter at Mount Lykaion in Greece may have been a sacrifice to the god Zeus.
The site has an association with human sacrifice in ancient texts, including a legend that a king named Lycaon once sacrificed a baby at the alter and promptly turned into a wolf. That story was passed on by the writer Pausanias, who lived from A.D. 110 to 180. Researchers aren’t sure whether the teen boy was a true human sacrifice, but it was an unusual place for a burial, they said.
“It’s not a cemetery,” archaeologist David Gilman Romano of the University of Arizona told the Associated Press in August 2016.
Did Neanderthals eat each other? A bunch of bones found in a Belgium cave suggest the answer is yes.
In July 2016, researchers reported that they’d discovered cut scars and hammering markson bone fragments from four adult and one juvenile Neanderthals who lived between 40,500 and 45,500 years ago. The evidence was “unambiguous” for cannibalism, the scientists said. The Neanderthals had been butchered alongside horses and reindeer, whose bones were found alongside the human relatives. Evidence of Neanderthal cannibalism has been found at other European sites, including in Spain, where some bones appeared to have been broken to get at the nutritious marrow inside.