Archeology often involves endless hours of work, resulting in nothing more than the discovery of a few shards of old pottery, if anything at all. However every now and then archeologists dig up something unexpected, which uncomfortably displays the darker side of human nature.
Here are my choices for 5 of the most disturbing archeological discoveries, which you may wish had remained buried deep in the ground and out of sight.
5. The Vampire of Venice
While excavating a mass grave on an island in Venice, archeologists unearthed more than they were expecting. The skeleton of a long dead woman was discovered with what appeared to be a large brick forced into her mouth. This led to speculation that whoever buried the woman may have believed that she was a vampire, and placed the brick there to prevent her from feeding on the living. This disturbing discovery is believed to be the first time that the remains of an alleged vampire have been unearthed.
Whilst this may seem bizarre to the modern mind, belief in vampires was extremely common in the middle ages, and for good reason. The stages of decomposition that dead bodies go through was poorly understood and often misinterpreted as being unnatural. Tombs and burial sites would often be reopened during times of disease such as the plague, when countless new corpses needed to be buried. Those doing the burying would often find signs of decomposition on the dead such as bodies bloated by gas, hair and nails appearing to still be growing as the skin shrinks and is pulled back, as well as blood leaking from the corpses mouth.
Burial shrouds would often sag into the corpses mouth, where bacteria would eat holes into the shroud, creating the appearance that the dead person was chewing on their shroud, earning them the nickname of shroud eaters. People believed that these vampires were the cause of the plagues which were spreading through their towns, and that the only way to stop the dead from rising was to remove the burial shroud, and place something into the vampires mouth.
However this was not the last time the remains of an alleged vampire have been found. A medieval skeleton was recently unearthed in Bulgaria with an iron rod plunged into its chest. The left leg below the knee had also been removed and placed next to the skeleton. The iron rod weighed almost two pounds, and shattered the shoulder bone of the man when it was thrust into his body. It’s clear that whoever did this had a strong belief that whoever was buried here might not stay dead, and took matters into his own hands to ensure that he would not rise again.
At another burial site in Poland, skeletons have also been found buried sickles under their necks, or rocks under their jaws. The sickles were placed in this position to decapitate the corpse should it attempt to rise from the grave, and the rocks were designed to pin the jaw shut and thus prevent the suspected vampire from feeding.
It’s clear from these cases that medieval era people had a genuine belief in vampires and the undead, and went to a lot of trouble to prevent the dead from rising, but were they just superstitions, or did they know something we don’t?
4. The Tomb of the Sunken Skulls
In 2009, a railway line was being built which would pass through a site which used to be an ancient shallow lake. Before construction could begin, an excavation of the site was carried out to check for any artifacts that might be buried there.
What archeologists found was bizarre and has remained a mystery to this day. In what has since become known as the tomb of the sunken skulls, the skulls of up to 11 people including men women and children were found dated at over 8,000 years old.
Two of the skulls were mounted on wooden stakes, and several more showed signs of having once received the same treatment. The skulls were found alongside tools and animals bones laid out in a stone tomb which had been built at the bottom of the lake, however the story gets even weirder. One of the female skulls was found to have had pieces of another woman’s skull stuffed inside it.
This bizarre scene has baffled researchers, and theories about what took place at the site continue to be presented. Some believe that the skulls are the remains of enemies killed in combat, which were mounted on stakes by victorious warriors to be displayed as trophies of war. Others believe that the dead may have been placed here after decomposing, and had their bones displayed as part of a burial ritual, which explains the wooden stakes.
These theories fail to account for why the skull fragments of one woman were found stuffed inside somebody else’s skull though, and many believe that something much darker occurred at this ancient lake.
3. The Pit Of Severed Hands
During routine excavation of a palace in the ancient Egyptian city of Avaris, archeologists made a chilling discovery. The skeletons of 16 human hands were dug up, contained in four ceremonial pits. The hands are thought to be around 3600 years old and were described as large, and are therefore assumed to be male, and interestingly they were all right hands – no left hands were found at the site.
So what could explain this gruesome pit of severed hands? The leading theory is that they are trophies of war. After battle, the victorious soldiers would slice of the hands of the enemies they had personally killed. This served several purposes. Firstly, the hands could often be exchanged for bounties of gold when the soldiers returned home as well as proving the prowess of the warrior. Removing just the right hand also made counting victims easier, as one right hand would equal one kill. It was also believed that removing the hand of a foe would deprive them of their power in the afterlife, forever punishing them for daring to take up arms against you.
It is unknown who the unfortunate owners of the hands are, however it is assumed that they were soldiers from somewhere in Egypt or the middle east, and the find marks the first physical evidence of the ancient Egyptian practice of warriors exchanging hands for gold, which had previously only been depicted in writing and art.
The hands could have been taken from slain enemies, as well as captured living prisoners. Such barbaric treatment of prisoners in ancient Egypt is not without precedent. The Narmer Palette is an ancient artifact which depicts scenes of decapitated prisoners, as well as the image of a pharaoh poised to smash the head of a man kneeling before him.
Just when this tradition of collecting hands as trophies began is a mystery, however trophy taking during times of war is a common theme in human history, with everything from scalps and teeth to ears and skulls having been taken as proof of a kill.
Such practices are not confined to ancient history either, during world war two it is estimated that 60% of the bodies of Japanese soldiers killed in the Mariana Islands were sent back to Japan with the skulls missing.
2. Human Bone Keepsakes
30 miles outside of Mexico city lies a two thousand year old pre Aztec archeological site where 5,000 bone fragments were unearthed, the analysis of which has revealed a bizarre and morbid custom.
People who lived in the area around 2,000 years ago would use human bones to craft tools and everyday items such as buttons, needles and even hair combs. Further analysis of the bones has proven that they did not belong to foreigners killed or executed in times of war, but were local people, likely to be the dead family members of the people whom the grisly items belonged to.
Thigh bones, shinbones, and human skulls seem to have been the more popular pieces used, and were thought to have been transformed into usable products shortly after the relative passed away. Stones would be used as makeshift knives to strip away the flesh and muscle, although whether the flesh would be discarded or used for some other purpose is yet unknown.
Only fresh corpses would have been usable, as bones become too fragile to sculpt shortly after death, and it seems as though only the bones of healthy adults were chosen, as older people may have had diseases which made their bones brittle, while the young may have had bones which were too fragile.
Analysis of the bones shows no signs of ritual sacrifice, and they do not match samples taken from the skeletons of foreigners sacrificed in the city, which points to them being of local origin. This fits with what we know about how death was viewed in the pre Aztec world. It would have not been something to be feared, and it was common for family members to buried under the houses where their surviving relatives lived.
It is theorised that a local bone factory may have transformed bones of the recently deceased into keepsakes or tools which would serve as an eternal reminder of a lost family member, however it may also be that bone was simply viewed as a good raw material, and was therefore used for practical purposes rather than letting it go to waste.
Bizarre as it may sound, making tools and utensils out of human bone was not uncommon in human history, and examples have been found all over the world. Cups made from human skulls estimated to be around 15,000 years old have been found in England, and bone fragments found with the cups had bite marks which indicates cannibalism was involved.
Scrapes and marks on the bones indicated that they were methodically scraped clean of flesh shortly after death, and what is surprising is not just the savagery involved, but also the skill and precision demonstrated in the craftsmanship. This would not have been a task that just anybody would have been able to perform, and hints at the possibility that whoever made the skull cups had a long history of working with human bone.
Other examples of cups made from human skulls have been found in Greece and China, and their use may have been part of a ritual where the cup held anything from blood or wine to food, however they simply may have been trophies fashioned from the heads of defeated enemies.
1. The Screaming Mummies
In 1886 an Egyptologist was studying the mummies of 40 kings and queens which had recently been found buried 300 miles south of Cairo near the valley of the kings. The haul contained some of the most well known Pharaohs including Rameses the Great, however there was one mummy that stood out from the others. It was found inside a distinctly plain coffin, unlike the highly decorated and elaborate coffins the other mummies were entombed within.
When the coffin was opened, the mummy inside appeared to be frozen in a scream, as though he had been experiencing immense pain at the moment of his death. The mystery of the screaming mummy deepened, when further inspection revealed that his body had been wrapped in a sheep or goatskin, which was deemed to be an unclean item amongst ancient Egyptians.
Why would the Egyptians go to all of the trouble of mummifying his body, only to wrap him in a ritually unclean goatskin, and entomb him in a plain coffin? His coffin contained no inscription, which in ancient Egyptian eyes would have been a surefire way of sending him to damnation for all time, as identity was seen as vital for a man to enter the afterlife. His hands also appear to have been bound together so tightly that marks from the rope were found on his bones.
It was clear that although buried amongst royalty, this particular man had not been buried with the dignity of the royals who’s mummies surrounded him. The screaming mummy soon became known as “Man E”, and further tests led scientists to the conclusion that he had been poisoned, and his last moments of agony had been left fixed upon his face as he died.
The leading theory is that Man E was the son of Rameses III and had attempted to seize power from his father. The plot was unsuccessful however, and as a member of the royal family he would have likely been given the option of ending his own life by drinking poison.
Although Man E was originally thought to be screaming in agony as a result of the poison, it is now understood that the phenomenon of screaming mummies is actually caused by the corpses head falling back during the mummification process. If the jaw is not strapped shut upon mummification, it will naturally fall open when the body begins to decompose, making it seem as though the face is contorted in a chilling scream.
Other screaming mummies have been found since, notably in Peru, where this mummy appears to not only be screaming, but also covering his face in terror. In fact creepy mummified bodies are not only a product of ancient history, but have also occurred in more modern times. In the early 19th century an Italian anatomist named Girolamo Segato perfected his own method of mummification using methods that have since been lost to time, but have been described as petrification, seemingly turning bodies to stone. After demonstrating his disturbing work, rumours spread that he had acquired Egyptian magic and he destroyed his detailed notes prior to his death, taking his secrets to the grave.
Despite several attempts to replicate his methods, nobody has yet been able to do so and his process remains a mystery, but you can still see his creepy handiwork on display at the Anatomical Museum of the University of Florence.
So those are my choices for 5 of the most disturbing archeological discoveries – what do you think was the creepiest? Let me know in the comments below, and I’ll see you again on the next video.