As we’ve established before, our past is full of grim, brutal, and revolting moments and it is up to archaeologists to bring that darker side of history to life. Today we will be taking a look at another ten such archaeological discoveries that shocked, disgusted and horrified.
10. The Severed Hands of Avaris
A few years back, archaeologists were excavating the ruins of Avaris and found, for the first time, concrete evidence of an ancient Egyptian practice that had been, up until that point, only read about in texts – cutting off the hands of vanquished enemies.
This evidence came in the form of 16 severed hands, all of them right ones, buried in four pits throughout the former Egyptian capital. Two of the pits, each containing a single hand, were found in what was believed to have been the throne room, indicating that the presentation of the trophies was part of a much grander ceremony.
The hands were around 3,600 years old and came from an oft-forgotten part of Egyptian history called the Second Intermediate Period or the Hyksos Period. It was defined by the arrival of a new group of people called the Hyksos who conquered Lower Egypt and installed one of their own as king. Therefore, Salitis of the Hyksos became the first pharaoh of the 15th dynasty and, in the process, also moved the capital to the city of Avaris.
Up until this discovery, this custom had only been referenced in ancient art and writing. However, one point that is still being debated is whether this practice was introduced by the Hyksos or was already present in Egyptian society before their arrival.
9. The Skeletons in Benjamin Franklin’s Basement
If you go to Craven Street in London, you’ll be able to visit the Benjamin Franklin House, a museum dedicated to the Founding Father located inside the only one of his former residences which is still standing. Franklin lived here for 16 years while serving as an ambassador for the colonies.
Prior to the opening of the museum, the four-storey townhouse underwent renovations in 1998, time during which workers made an unexpected and grisly discovery – human remains buried in a pit in the basement. Following excavations, they unearthed over 1,200 bones belonging to anywhere between 10 and 15 different people, some of them children. Tests showed that all the bones were around 200 years old, buried in the basement while Franklin lived there.
So what was the deal? Could it be that the beloved Founding Father was a murderous maniac who dismembered his victims in his basement? Well, no. Fortunately, the truth was pretty grim, but not quite that grim. Scholars unanimously pointed the finger at William Hewson, a surgeon friend of Franklin who lived there for a few years.
Many of the bones featured cuts from medical saws or scalpels or even holes drilled by a trepanning device. Today, Hewson might be referred to as the “father of hematology,” but back then he, like many other surgeons, appeared to be in the habit of performing secret autopsies on corpses stolen from cemeteries to study the human anatomy. When he was done, to minimize the risk of getting caught, Hewson simply buried the remains in the basement.
8. The Knife-Armed Longobard
Back in 1985, Italian archaeologists were excavating a necropolis built sometime between the 6th and 8th centuries AD by a Germanic tribe called the Longobards. After years of digging, they found the skeletal remains of 222 individuals.
Examining these many remains takes time. It wasn’t until 2018 that they began studying one of the skeletons belonging to a middle-aged male who had been designated T US 380. What they soon realized was that the man’s right arm had been amputated and fitted with a prosthetic iron knife.
Researchers aren’t sure how the man lost his arm. It had been removed through blunt force trauma, but it could have been an accident, or during combat, or even as a form of punishment. What was clear from the healing of the bone was that the man lived for a long time after losing his limb. In and of itself, this is pretty impressive, but the addition of the blade prosthetic makes it unique.
That being said, we’re still talking about 1,400 years ago, so the use of a prosthesis put great strain on the body. The man’s teeth were extremely worn, particularly on his right side where the pulp cavity had been opened and infected. Researchers believe that T US 380 regularly used his teeth to tighten the straps that held his prosthesis in place. Moreover, his shoulder had developed a C-shaped ridge from the unnatural position in which he held his arm. Overall, the skeleton showed extreme signs of frequent “biomechanical force.”
7. The Head of a King
Some incredible discoveries are made in ancient tombs or pyramids…others are made in dusty attics. In 2008, retired French tax collector Jacques Bellanger was going through the loft of the house which he had owned since the 1950s. In an old wardrobe, there was a box; and in the box, there was a mummified human head. But not just any mummified human head, because this mummified human head purportedly belonged to Henry IV, King of France.
Generally referred to as the “Good King Henry,” this member of the House of Bourbon ruled over France in the late 16th-early 17th century. Although he is fondly remembered today, he was hated by his contemporaries because he tried to instill religious tolerance at a time when the Catholics and the Protestants weren’t too fond of each other. Eventually, this got him killed in 1610. He suffered further insult during the French Revolution when his body was dug up along with other royals and thrown into a pit.
From then on, the history of Henry’s remains gets a little iffy. He definitely lost his head at some point in time and, according to the story, it was during the French Revolution, when an admirer wanted to save the king’s head. Or maybe they just wanted a memento, who knows…
Either way, the head exchanged owners an unknown number of times until it was bought at auction in 1919 by Joseph Bourdais, the man who owned the house before Bellanger and the one who left it in the attic.
A team led by anthropologist and forensic pathologist Philippe Charlier analyzed the head and concluded that it definitely belonged to Henry IV. They found evidence such as a small mole in the same spot that Henry had and a healed stab wound from a previous assassination attempt, not to mention that the facial reconstruction matched his portraits and death mask. However, a later team said that DNA testing showed that the owner of the head was not a Bourbon and, therefore, could not be Henry. The initial team and many others argued that the head was too degraded and contaminated to obtain an accurate DNA sample and the debate has raged on ever since.
6. The Reach of the Black Death
As the world struggles to deal with a new outbreak, archaeologists got a grim reminder of the deadliest pandemic to sweep across Europe when they unearthed a mass grave in the English countryside full of victims of the Black Death.
This grave contained at least 48 men, women, and children, most of them between the ages of one and 17. However, because it showed signs of being disturbed prior to the modern excavation, researchers believe that it could be part of a bigger grave which contains even more victims.
There is no mystery as to what killed these people. The remains were dated to the mid 14th century, around the same time that England was in the midst of its deadliest plague outbreak which killed off almost half the country’s population. Moreover, DNA tests revealed the presence of Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that causes the deadly disease.
What makes this mass grave stand out is its location – it’s in the countryside of Lincolnshire, near the ruins of Thornton Abbey. It was discovered by chance in 2013 during a survey of the area and the results were just published at the beginning of 2020.
Such examples of the ravages of the Black Death were far more common in larger towns and other places with a higher density of people. Unsurprisingly, in England, most plague mass graves were found in or around London. However, this discovery shows that even small, rural communities were overwhelmed by the Black Death to the point where they couldn’t cope anymore and had to bury everyone in one giant grave.
5. The Fate of the Lindow Man
Peat bogs have proven to be remarkable environments for the preservation of human remains for centuries, even millennia. These naturally mummified corpses are often found with their internal organs intact and even their skin undamaged. In fact, the Tollund Man, arguably the most famous of the so-called “bog bodies”, was initially treated as a recent murder victim before it was established that he died during the Iron Age.
Today we’re not focusing on the Tollund Man, but rather another example which became notorious for his gruesome and excessive death that still puzzles scholars – the 2,000-year-old Lindow Man.
Discovered by chance in 1984 at Lindow Moss, it was one of England’s first bog bodies. He was of average height and medium build and died in his mid-20s even though he was in good health. His demise was a textbook example of overkill – first, he was struck in the head twice with a heavy object; then he received a hard blow to the back which broke a rib; afterwards, a cord was used to strangle him and then break his neck; after that, his throat was cut and, finally, he was dumped in a pool face first. Suffice to say that someone really wanted him dead.
Who exactly that “someone” was remains a mystery, as many hypotheses have been presented in the decades since his discovery. Lindow Man had well-kept fingernails and trimmed facial hair, leading some scholars to speculate that he was a man of high status and that his death was ritualized as part of a human sacrifice. Some even suggest he may have gone along willingly.
4. The Frankenstein Mummies
Back in 2001, archaeologists excavating a site called Cladh Hallan in Scotland found two ancient bodies, a male and a female. As they kept studying these remains, their intrigue turned to surprise and then shock as the discovery began raising more questions than answers.
At first, they appeared to be two regular burials, although the skeletons were unusually placed in the fetal position. The man died sometime around 1600 BC while the woman died 300 years later. However, researchers soon discovered that the bodies had actually been buried centuries later, around the late 12th century BC. They had been intentionally preserved in peat bogs to help the bodies mummify and afterwards were retrieved and buried. This alone was a tremendous revelation to scholars since intentional mummification has been rarely seen in Europe.
Then it got weird. By testing all the bones that made up the male skeleton, scientists were startled to discover that they did not all belong to the same human. The skeleton was a composite made out of the remains of three different men who lived centuries apart. They then tested the female body and found the same thing – it was made out of parts from three people, both male and female.
The purpose of these ancient Frankenstein mummies is still a mystery. Some scholars argue that it was purely practical – the people who handled the mummification couldn’t retrieve the whole bodies from the bog so they just stuck somebody else’s skull or arm to complete the set. Others believe the practice was deliberate and symbolic and intended to signify the merger of multiple lineages.
3. The Massacre of the Usipetes and the Tencteri
The Usipetes and the Tencteri were two ancient tribes who were massacred by the legions of Julius Caesar in 55 BC. We have known about their slaughter for thousands of years from ancient texts, including Caesar’s own account from his book on the Gallic Wars. However, we were never sure exactly where it happened, until 2015 when Dutch archaeologists claimed they found the site of the bloodbath near the town of Kessel.
According to ancient sources, the conflict began in the winter of 56 BC when the two tribes (who were referred to as Germanic but may have actually been Celtic) crossed the Rhine into Gaul after being driven away from their homeland by the Suebi. The Usipetes and the Tencteri asked Caesar for permission to settle in Gaul, which was denied. After negotiations failed, the Roman legions launched an attack on their camp and killed everyone in sight. Caesar himself describes the assault: “there was also a great crowd of women and children and these now began to flee in all directions. I sent the cavalry to hunt them down…When they reached the confluence of the Meuse and the Rhine, they saw they had no hope of escaping farther. A large number of them were killed and the rest flung themselves into the river, where they perished overcome by panic, exhaustion, and the force of the current.”
In his personal account, Caesar said there were around 430,000 people and that he slain them all. Modern scholars put the number at around 150,000 to 200,000, and some of them definitely survived as the tribes were still mentioned the following century. They opine that the inflated number was because Caesar wanted to portray them as a great threat and himself a protector of Rome.
2. The Black Sarcophagus
This was the big archaeological story of the summer of 2018. While excavating in the ancient city of Alexandria, Egyptian archaeologists found a giant, 30-ton sarcophagus made out of black granite. Immediately, imaginations ran wild speculating over what (or who) could be inside. Some even dreamed that it could even be the final resting place of Alexander the Great. In the end, the sarcophagus was opened and the contents were somewhat of a letdown, although they did provide a nice combination of morbidity, disgust, and intrigue.
Inside the sarcophagus were three skeletons – two men and one woman. And no, unfortunately, none of them were Alexander the Great, as the male skeletons were much older. They weren’t in particularly good condition, either, because the remains were floating in red sewage. As it turned out, the sarcophagus had not been sealed properly and liquid had seeped in and drenched the skeletons, thus creating the most disgusting consommé in the world. This, however, didn’t stop people from launching a petition seeking permission to drink the vile red liquid. Yes, really…
As far as the identity of the skeletons, that remains an open question. There is no cartouche on the sarcophagus to mark them as royalty. They could have been military officers, but women in the ancient Egyptian military were exceedingly rare so, if that’s the case, this is truly a unique find. Even so, the skeleton that garnered the most attention was that of the oldest male, aged in his mid 40s. His skull had a hole in it, a sign of one of the oldest medical procedures in the world – trepanation. The wound had healed so the man had survived his surgery, although it is impossible to tell what it was intended to treat.
1. The War at Jebel Sahaba
Last, but not least, we go all the way back to the beginning, to what may be the oldest-known large-scale conflict in human history. It took place in North Africa, in modern day Sudan, at a site called Jebel Sahaba in the Nile Valley which contains a 13,000-year-old cemetery. Excavated since the 1960s, the site revealed the remains of men, women, and children who had been killed by archers.
Based on the evidence, violent interactions between these two sides were not a one-off. They took place over months or even years. Many of the remains featured marks of older injuries which had time to heal, indicating that fighting was a common practice.
The reason for the conflict is uncertain, although two scenarios are the most plausible. It could have been a race war – one side consisted of sub-Saharan Africans while the other was a different ethnic group that may have originated in the Mediterranean Basin. Or it could have been a water war – the region was experiencing a severe drought and drinkable water was a precious resource that these groups probably did not want to share.