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.
Experts are still unsure why the brain survived all this time in such relatively good condition, however it is suspected the quick severing of the head from the body may have impeded the flow of bacteria which stems from the gut, and spreads outwards after death. It is thought this natural bacteria did not get a chance to contaminate the head, and this, combined with the oxygen-free pit environment, may have preserved the brain matter.
A 2,000-year-old cooking pot filled with cremated human bones was found by the banks of the Walbrook river in London, in what was known in ancient times as Londinium, a thriving capital of a Roman province nearly two millennia ago. The finding was made near an earlier discovery of dozens of human skulls, adding to the evidence that they are the remnants of a rebellion led by famous Celtic Queen Boudicca, who united a number of British tribes in revolt against the occupying forces of the Roman Empire in 60-61 AD.
The cooking pot packed full of bones was found next to an archaeological site where researchers had previously dug up 40 human skulls and 2 horse skulls (but not the rest of their bodies) that date back to the same time period. “It had been suggested that the skulls ended up in the river – which vanished into culverts centuries ago – by accident, eroded out of a Roman cemetery and washed downstream until they came to rest at bends in the bank,” The Guardian reported. “The new finds suggest a grimmer explanation.”
“We now wonder again if the skulls were deliberately placed on the banks. Certainly no river ever carried off the cooking pot with its cremated bones which was unquestionably deliberately placed here,” said Jay Carver, Crossrail’s lead archaeologist. “And the horse skull we found with one of the skulls didn’t come out of some equine graveyard, that was clearly also placed there”.
Previous analysis of the skulls revealed that they bore marks of trauma from blunt force or edged weapons, indicating smashed or slashed faces, fractures of the eye and cheekbones, and blows to the back of the head. The archaeologists suggest that, taken together, the evidence points to the skulls being the heads of executed criminals and rebels, or Romans slaughtered during Boudicca’s rebellion.
A disturbing scene unfolded as archaeologists in Peru excavated a 1,000-year-old tomb at the pre-Inca Pachacamac site, 30 km (18 miles) southeast of Lima: a ring of babies that had been buried with their heads facing into a grave site with the remains of 70 more people inside, some of whom had been diseased or sustained mortal injuries. Researchers pondered whether the babies had been sacrificed.
According to an article in Science Daily: “The tomb is oval in outline, excavated into the earth and covered with a roof of reeds supported by carved and shaped tree trunks. A dozen newborn babies and infants were distributed around the perimeter, their heads oriented towards the tomb. The main chamber was separated into two sections, separated by a wall of mud bricks which served as a base for yet more burials. Inside the chambers, the archaeologists uncovered the remains of more than 70 skeletons and mummies (many of which still retained their wrappings), all in the characteristic fœtal position. The burials represented both sexes and all ages, and were often accompanied by offrenda including ceramic vessels, animals (dogs, guinea pigs), copper and gold alloy artefacts, masks (or 'false heads') in painted wood, calabashes, etc. These items are currently under restoration and analysis. Babies and very young infants were particularly common.”
A team of physical anthropologists studied the remains. They were led by Lawrence Owens of the University of London, under the overall direction of Professor Peter Eeckhout of the Université libre de Bruxelles, who has been digging at the site for 20 years. They theorized that the people may have been related because of certain traits the skeletons share. Some of the people buried in this particular tomb suffered from serious illnesses, which led researchers to ponder whether Pachacamac was a place of pilgrimage for treatment, similar to Lourdes. Others suffered physical trauma or even mortal injuries.
About 6,000 years ago in France some hostiles in an apparent act of warfare and trophy-taking killed a group of adults and children, amputated their arms and buried the limbs in a circular pit underneath some other bodies. It was a common practice to bury people in circular pits at the time in a large area of Europe, but this gruesome case stands out from the rest as the only one with violence done to those buried.
The people who attacked the victims fractured their arms and chopped them off, then apparently buried those limbs in a layer in the pit underneath some other skeletons, all of which had their arms except one. The upper layer also contained a fragment of an infant’s cranium.
“Pit 157 represents clear evidence of what was probably an act of inter-group armed violence, that is to say ‘war’, although the true nature of these practices remains difficult to understand,” the researchers reported. “Interpreting this unique case is not easy, as, to our knowledge, no other example of amputation, or even of isolated articulated limbs, has ever been recorded for the Late Neolithic.”
In what is described as Egypt’s “dark secret,” a staggering 70 million mummified animals were found in underground catacombs across Egypt, including cats, birds, rodents, and even crocodiles. But surprises awaited a research team when they scanned the animal-shaped mummies and found many of them empty.
Many gods in animal form were worshipped by the ancient Egyptians. The mummified animals were considered sacred gifts and were used as offerings. Because this was such a popular religious practice, and demand was so high, some animals are thought to have suffered near or total extinction locally.
One of the catacombs contained around two million mummified ibis birds alone, and a network of tombs housed up to eight million mummified dogs. These incredible numbers and the surprising way in which the bodies were preserved suggest that the animal mummification industry of ancient Egypt was huge.
The skull of a man who was beheaded in the 15th century was at the center of a mystery until experts revealed the cranium was harvested to be used as medicine.
Within the crypt of Italy’s Otranto Cathedral resides an unnerving sight – the skulls and bones of some 800 men sit behind large glass panels, staring out as a commemoration of a tale of religious resistance. The dead men, alleged to have been executed by invading Ottoman Turks in 1480, are known as the “martrys of Otranto.”
According to Discovery News, one of these skulls is unique in that it possesses 16 perfectly round holes on its top. How the holes were made, and for what purpose, confounded experts and visitors to the cathedral. However, researchers were recently able to determine that the holes were trepannated – or drilled – into the skull after death as a way of harvesting the ground-up powder.
Skull and bone powder was thought to treat many illnesses and diseases, such as epilepsy, paralysis or stroke. These ailments and others were believed to be caused by demons or magical influences.
The Celtic inhabitants of a small, industrious Iron Age settlement in Dorset, England, are believed to have sacrificed a young woman by slitting her throat, before burying her body in a curious arrangement of bones. Archaeologists also unearthed a series of bizarre hybrid-animals, in which the bones of different animals were intentionally combined together in what is reminiscent of the mythological beasts of ancient cultures.
The burials of hybrid animal bones at the site recall myths from the Mediterranean and Near East about bird-woman harpies, goat-lion chimeras, eagle-lion griffins, man-goat satyrs, man-bull minotaurs and man-horse centaurs. Ancient peoples imagined combining various animal and/or human parts into one fantastic and sometimes grotesque beast. Some were understood as monsters, others as wise counselors or guardians of shepherds and the countryside.
The sacrifice of so many animals and the unusual treatment of their bones is likely to shed totally new light on Iron Age belief systems – and may suggest that the Ancient Britons had beliefs or mythologies which involved hybridized animals, just as the ancient Greeks had.”