10 Horrifying Archaeological Discoveries (Part IV)

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You probably know the routine by now. Like before, this is where we take a look at some grim discoveries made by archaeologists, which serve as useful reminders to us of humanity’s dark and disturbing past.

10. The Vampires of Sozopol

We start off with an excavation in Bulgaria where scientists uncovered evidence of a pagan practice which was once relatively common in the Balkans – staking the bodies of “vampires.”

Back in 2012, archaeologists were digging in an old monastery near the seaside town of Sozopol when they found the 700-year-old remains of two men who had been stabbed in the heart with iron rods because others feared that they were vampires. A year later, they discovered another one at the ancient ruins of Perperikon,except this one had his chest pierced with a plowshare. 

Each new discovery shows us that this superstition was a lot more prevalent than we thought. There are around 100 of these vampires that have been discovered in Bulgaria over the decades, some dating all the way back to the 1st century AD. 

We don’t know what they did to earn this reputation, but the director of the National History Museum in Sofia speculated that one of the alleged vampires from Sozopol might have been a pirate named Krivich who later became a nobleman and served as town mayor.

9. The Headless Gladiators of York

Speaking of grisly finds, about 15 years ago, archaeologists digging in the ancient English city of York uncovered the 1,800-year-old remains of a decapitated man. Soon afterwards, they found another one…and then another one…and so on until they had an entire cemetery of over 80 corpses, over half of which had been beheaded.

Some of the men had been killed by the decapitation. Others were already dead and had their heads cut off postmortem. The level of attention and respect that had been awarded to each deceased varied from person to person – some had their heads thrown in their grave carelessly, others had them placed carefully on their chests; some were buried with goods and valuables, others weren’t.

All of the bodies came from the Roman era, sometime between the 2nd and 3rd century AD. Back then, York was called Eboracum and was the provincial capital of Roman Britain. However, not all the dead men weren’t locals. Genome sequencing showed that they came from all over the Roman Empire, as far away as Syria. 

The biggest question that needed to be answered involved the circumstances surrounding the deaths. At first, scholars believed they could have been executed criminals, or some sort of human sacrifices. However, studying the remains showed that the men were very similar. They were all under 45 years of age, they all had battle injuries, both new and old, and they were all above average height and build. 

It’s possible they could have been soldiers, but the most recent theory suggests they were gladiators, brought from all over the empire to entertain the people of Eboracum. As evidence, scientists point to an unequal arm development, indicating the fighters specialized in one-armed combat, and that at least one of them had marks from fighting a large carnivore such as a lion.

8. What Happens at Littlemore Priory…

For five centuries, people heard the scandalous stories of the things that occurred at Littlemore Priory in the English county of Oxfordshire. In 2015, however, archaeologists found evidence which hinted at the less-than-holy lifestyles of the nuns who lived there..

In the early 1500s, rumors appeared of licentious behavior and brutal violence at Littlemore Priory and the main instigator was the prioress herself, Katherine Wells. She appeared to have had a baby with a priest and had pawned everything of value belonging to the monastery from jewelry to pans, pots, and candlesticks in order to pay for the child’s upbringing. If the other nuns tried to speak up, they were punished severely. Some were directly beaten by Wells while others were placed in stocks for long durations, sometimes even up to one month at a time. 

In 1517, a commissary for the Bishop of Lincoln visited the priory and saw the abuses firsthand. Wells was relieved of her position as prioress, but was allowed to stay and perform administrative duties. A year later, the bishop himself went to Littlewater and saw that the debauchery never stopped, but that it was now performed by the other nuns as Wells had no more authority over them. 

We don’t know what actions were taken against the nuns. Littlemore Priory simply wasn’t mentioned in official records again, until 1525 when it was closed down alongside other decaying monasteries.

In 2015, archaeologists found the remains of over 90 people who had been buried at Littlemore over the centuries. One of them was a 500-year-old skeleton of a woman which had been subjected to the unusual punishment of being buried face-down. This treatment was often reserved for witches or, in some cases, women who lived a wicked life. And between her legs were placed the remains of an infant. Could this have been the final resting place of Katherine Wells or perhaps one of the other sinful nuns?

7. Skulls on Stakes in Sweden

Back in 2009, construction work on a new railway over the Motala Ström River in Sweden was halted when archaeologists found artifacts belonging to hunter-gatherers from the Mesolithic era from 8,000 years ago. The dig site, which subsequently became known as Kanaljorden, revealed something gruesome that scholars were definitely not expecting – the first known instance of Mesolithic people mounting human skulls on stakes. 

Among the various animal bones and other items, there were also the skulls of ten people – nine adults and one infant. They were all placed on display on a packed layer of stones, something which had clearly been done deliberately. All the skulls had their jawbones removed and two of them still had well-preserved wooden stakes inside them, fitted through the bottom of the cranium. Furthermore, there were hundreds of bits and pieces of other wooden stakes around the area, suggesting that the other skulls had been mounted, as well.

The big question that scholars still don’t have an answer for is “why?” What was the purpose of this practice? Was it something they did to their enemies or was it a way of honoring the dead?

6. The Heslington Brain

Finding human remains from thousands of years ago is interesting, but it’s not incredibly remarkable as it occurs relatively often. Therefore, when researchers from the York Archaeological Trust found a man’s skull in a clay pit in Heslington back in 2008, they didn’t have a reason to get excited just yet. However, the truly astonishing discovery occurred a bit later, when they took the skull to be cleaned and examined in a laboratory. Inside, there wasn’t just dirt and bone fragments and whatever else you might typically find in an Iron Age cranium, but also a well-preserved brain.

The Heslington Brain, as it became known, is 2,600 years old. It belonged to a man most likely in his mid 30s who was hanged and then decapitated. It’s not the oldest brain we’ve ever found, but it is the brain in the best condition from ancient times, being described as having retained a “tofu-like texture.”


Ever since it was discovered, the biggest puzzle surrounding the Heslington Brain is how exactly it was preserved. Finding soft tissue of any kind from thousands of years ago is incredibly rare because it starts breaking down immediately after death through a process called autolysis. The brain is particularly susceptible to degradation because it is mostly water. 

It wasn’t until earlier this year that scientists had a breakthrough and concluded that the autolysis process was interrupted by an outside element, but not any of the chemicals used for artificial preservation. It was probably some kind of acidic fluid that breached the brain, although its exact identity and the circumstances still remain a mystery.

5. The Whistling Terror Bullets

Nowadays, the slingshot might have been relegated to the weapon of choice for juvenile menaces, but there was a time when it was used as legitimately lethal weaponry in combat. The Romans used a sling called a fustibalus which was mounted on a staff to give it extra range and could hurl stones as big as lemons with deadly force.

Archaeologists uncovered evidence of Romans employing slingshots at Burnswark Hill in Scotland where they found 1,800-year-old slingshot bullets. These weren’t just regular stones, they had been carved to make them as aerodynamic as possible and some even had basic patterns for decoration. But the feature that truly puzzled scholars was that some of them had been pierced through with holes a few millimeters in diameter.

It would have been a time-consuming task so archaeologists were sure there had to be a reason behind it, but they didn’t know what it was. The likely solution actually came from one of the researchers’ brother who, as an avid fisherman, thought the holes would create a sound, like some modern lures.

He was right. When thrown, the stones created a shrill, piercing whistle. Scholars now believe the Roman whistling bullets were a primitive form of “terror weapons,” used to sow panic and confusion on the battlefield.

4. The Site of the Sand Creek Massacre

Although mainly forgotten today, the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864 remains one of the most shameful acts in U.S. history, when an army led by Colonel John Chivington butchered and mutilated a group of Cheyenne and Arapaho people attending a peace parley. Between 100 and 150 people were killed, two thirds of whom were women and children. The soldiers then scalped them all, and took fingers, noses, ears, and genitals as trophies.

Afterwards, Chivington presented this as a strong military victory against an armed and dangerous enemy. He probably would have been remembered as a brave commander were it not for other witnesses who came forward and testified as to what actually happened at Sand Creek. Eventually, an investigation by Congress concluded that Chivington “deliberately planned and executed a foul and dastardly massacre which would have disgraced the veriest savage” and that he took advantage of people “who had every reason to believe they were under the protection of the United States authorities.” 

Despite this clear indication of guilt, Chivington was never charged with any crime and the Sand Creek Massacre became a footnote in American history. It wasn’t until 1999 that it entered public consciousness once more, when archeologists found the location of the slaughter. It has since become a national historic site and holds the dubious honor of being the only such site with the word “massacre” in its name.

3. The World’s Oldest Cold Case

If they ever do a show called CSI: Pleistocene, they will have to cover the cold case of a person from 430,000 years ago who has the unfortunate distinction of being the world’s first known murder victim. 

The remains consist solely of a skull belonging to a young adult of unknown age and gender. They were found in 1984 in a cave in the Spanish Atapuerca Mountains. The site which was dubbed Sima de los Huesos or “the Pit of Bones” contained the remains of, at least, 28 Neanderthals. 

One skull had been broken into 52 different pieces. It took decades of work but, eventually, Cranium 17, as it was called, was put back together again, giving researchers an unexpected and disturbing revelation. Cranium 17 had clear signs of lethal blunt force trauma. The injuries were consistent with a face-to-face attack, but were not consistent with an accident such as falling down the cave shaft. Moreover, there was no sign of healing, indicating that the trauma occurred shortly before death and the injuries consisted of two almost-identical fractures, suggesting repeated blows with the same weapon. 

All the signs pointed to a deadly, deliberate attack, although it’s looking pretty unlikely that the killer will ever be brought to justice.

2. The Screaming Mummy

Mummification is a pretty gruesome process, but we can at least take solace in knowing that the person being mummified is dead. But what if that wasn’t the case?

That was the revelation that shocked Egyptologists 135 years ago when they first unwrapped a mummy recovered from the Valley of the Kings referred to simply as Unknown Man E. His mouth was open and his face was seemingly contorted in agony, earning him the more memorable moniker of the “Screaming Mummy.”

There were other irregularities with his mummification process which led scholars to conclude that the man had been the victim of foul play and had been wrapped up while still living and then either poisoned or buried alive as a form of extreme punishment. Scholars even had an idea on who the unfortunate victim was – Prince Pentawer, who had been involved in a plot against his father, Pharaoh Ramesses III. 

The identity of Unknown Man E as Pentawer has gained support in recent times thanks to modern technology. The idea of a living, screaming mummy, however, has not. In fact, it has been shown conclusively that the appearance of a dead body screaming can occur naturally due to movement of the jawbone that can happen after death. It is a problem that morticians solve simply with needle and thread.

1. To Serve Man

Going back 7,000 years ago, a big chunk of Germany was inhabited by people part of the Linear Pottery Culture or LBK from the German Linearbandkeramik. As their name implies, they were notable for early examples of pottery, as well as the spread of agriculture throughout Europe. And, going by one site in Germany…instances of mass cannibalism.

The site in question is called Herxheim, near the modern municipality of the same name. There, archaeologists found 80 oval pits which contained the remains of, at least, 500 individuals of all ages, as well as numerous animals. The bodies were carelessly thrown in the pits, most of them weren’t intact anymore, but that was not the most disturbing discovery. After analyzing the bones, it became apparent that the people in those pits had been carved and eaten like cattle.   

Moreover, researchers estimate that they’ve only found about half of the remains present at Herxheim. That sounds like a lot of people for a tiny, Neolithic settlement, which is why scholars believe that Herxheim had a special significance which attracted populations from distant lands. It’s possible that they brought slaves or even some of their own to be used as sacrifices, although this remains just a hypothesis.


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