Top Ten Grisly and Gruesome Archaeological Discoveries of 2015
Archaeologists are sometimes faced with gruesome discoveries, which reflect brutality, violence, sacrifice, or painful surgical procedures carried out in ancient times. Here we feature ten such findings that made the news this year.
Renaissance Italians who held power are infamous for intrigue, back-stabbing, power struggles, war and homicide, including murder by poisoning. In keeping with this theme, archaeologists discovered that the mummy of a 14th century Veronese warlord appears to have been deliberately poisoned with foxglove.
The man whose body was exhumed recently was Cangrande della Scala of Verona, who died in 1329. There were rumors he was poisoned, but his death in written documents of the time had been attributed to drinking from a polluted spring days after he made a triumphant entry into the city of Treviso. Cangrande entered Treviso on July 18, 1329. He became sick days later after suffering from vomiting, diarrhea and fever. He died at age 38 on July 22.
Scientists led by Gino Fornaciari, a paleopathology researcher from the University of Pisa, exhumed Cangrande’s body from his elaborate tomb at Santa Maria Antiqua Church in Verona and did an investigation of his remains. They found traces of pollen of foxglove or Digitalis purpurea in the rectum of his relatively well-preserved body. Eating any part of a foxglove plant, the leaves, roots or flowers, can induce nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, hallucinations and a potentially fatal change in heart rate. Cangrande's symptoms of fever, diarrhea and vomiting, which were described in accounts from the time, are consistent with a foxglove overdose.
Drilling holes in the head, otherwise known as trepanation, is the earliest surgical technique known. Holes were bored into a patient’s skull in an attempt to relieve physical ailments and mental illness. However, this year, researchers discovered the first example of the drilling technique used on other body parts in pre-Columbian Peru.
Marks were identified on two skeletons found at the pre-Columbian site of Kuelap, in northeastern Peru. The bones of the individuals, dated to 800–1535 AD, displayed evidence of having undergone drilling techniques on their legs in a manner similar to trepanation. The depth and placement of the drilled holes suggest the surgeries were done to relieve pressure from an injury or infection which caused a build-up of fluid in the leg.
Although the shamans of Peru were known for their therapies and healing skills, in this particular instance, the drilling procedures do not show evidence of healing, suggesting the patients died soon after.
Officials building a huge cross-London underground railway are starting to publish the identity of around 5,000 people buried 400 to 500 years ago in Bedlam cemetery. Established in 1247, the notorious Bethlem (“Bedlam”) Royal Hospital was the first dedicated psychiatric institution in Europe and possibly the most famous specialist facility for care and control of the mentally ill, so much so that the word bedlam has long been synonymous with madness and chaos.
The graveyard, which dates back to 1569, was found in 2013 during excavations to construct the 13-mile high-speed Crossrail tunnel under Central London. People in the database are described as sons, wives, daughters, poor men, servants, strangers, apprentices, bachelors, householders and by various occupations.
The people buried in Bedlam burial ground were mainly from the lower echelons of society and could not afford proper burial or were interred there when churches were overwhelmed by deaths from the Black Plague. Some buried there did not adhere to a religious faith and so were not buried in regular churchyard graves.
Archaeologists stumbled upon a surprising find in 2009 when they uncovered a preserved brain in a skull, buried in an Iron Age pit in Yorkshire, England. Known as the Heslington Brain, the find has continued to perplex experts; how did the spongy brain survive the decomposition that took the rest of the soft tissue remains? Research conducted this year revealed that the skull belonged to an individual, age 26 to 45, who had been decapitated in the sixth century B.C. It is thought that the head was removed from its body with a “small, sharp knife”. The jaw and two vertebrae were still attached to the skull.
When researchers found the head buried in the wet, clay-rich environment of the pit, the skin, hair and flesh on the skull had decomposed. The brain had shrunk over time, and was loose within the skull cavity. The tissue had ultimately resisted decomposition, leaving astonished archaeologists with the oldest preserved human brain in Britain.