From what we know of history, most of it was not particularly pleasant or peaceful. Nevertheless, it is an archaeologist’s job to dig up our past – both figuratively and literally – regardless of how uncomfortable or even downright abominable it turns out to be. These next entries highlight just how gruesome some archaeological findings can be.
10. Child Sacrifice in Carthage
On the subject of Carthaginians being so merciless that they would ritually sacrifice their own children to the gods, this is what Roman historian Diodorus had to say. He claimed that in the city of Carthage there was a bronze statue of Cronus with his hands extended, palm up. All babies placed within would roll down into a pit of fire. The historian even made mention of rich families who bought poor children and raised them specifically for sacrifice.
For millennia, this practice was considered so heinous that it was dismissed as propaganda by the Romans and Greeks. But then archaeologists found the proof in cemeteries called tophets.
The tophets contained tiny cremated human bones packed into urns and buried underneath tombstones with inscriptions that gave thanks to the gods. Some archaeologists have made the argument that these were not victims of child sacrifice, but rather beloved children who died around birth.
While this would certainly be a more pleasant thought, the Oxford team that published a study on the topic categorically dismissed the idea. The inscriptions on the tombstones asked the gods to “hear my voice and bless me”. Some urns contained animal remains which have definitely been sacrificed and were buried in the exact same way as the children. Finally, the discovered skeletons were far too few to represent all the stillbirths and infant deaths that would occur in a city the size of Carthage 2,000 years ago. The study declares the evidence in favor of child sacrifice as “overwhelming.”
9. What Sunk the Hunley?
The H. L. Hunley has a memorable, but tragic history. It is hailed as the first submarine to sink a warship in combat – on February 17, 1864, the Confederate Hunley attacked the USS Housatonic, a Union sloop-of-war which was blockading the port of Charleston, South Carolina.
Five crewmen of the Housatonic perished as the ship sank, but so did the eight men aboard the submarine. In fact, 21 people died in total on the H. L. Hunley, including the engineer the boat was named after. It sank on three separate occasions, each time taking the crew with it.
On the third occasion, the fate of the Hunley turned into a 130-year-old mystery. It disappeared on its way back home following the attack on the Union vessel and its location remained a secret until 1995. The wreckage was finally recovered in 2000 and, since then, researchers have been arguing over what, ultimately, doomed the submarine and its crew.
When the wreck was salvaged, an archeological team made an eerie discovery – all the skeletons were still at their stations. The emergency failsafe had not been activated. This suggested that whatever destroyed the Hunley either killed or incapacitated the crew as they made no attempt to escape.
At the moment, the prevalent theory is that the Hunley’s demise was caused by its own spar torpedo. This primitive version was simply attached to a long pole which the submarine rammed into the enemy ship. A modern recreation suggested that the blast was powerful enough to incapacitate, even kill the men instantly.
8. Daggers Made Out of Humans
Up until late last century, warriors from New Guinea used bone daggers in hand-to-hand combat. They were often made from the thigh bones of large, flightless birds called cassowaries, but there were also some which were rarer and highly-prized. These were made from human bones.
These revered weapons were made from the remains of men of high status. Usually, they were the fathers of the warriors who, presumably, donated their bones willingly. These daggers were worn prominently on the biceps and the ones made from human remains were far more intricate and adorned.
This conferred to them more of a ceremonial status than a practical one, but anthropologists wanted to know which type of weapon was actually better. They tested eleven daggers – six cassowary, five human – and found that the blades made from human remains retained more of the natural curvature of the bone and were stronger.
7. The Battle of Tollense Valley
Back in 1996, an amateur archaeologist roaming the grounds of the Tollense Valley in northeastern Germany stumbled upon a single human arm bone. He didn’t know it yet, but there were over 10,000 more bones waiting to be discovered there, as he had just uncovered the earliest known site of a major battle in European history.
Radiocarbon dating placed the artifacts in the 13th century BCE, during the Early Bronze Age. The original arm bone had an arrowhead embedded in it which suggested a fight. An initial small-scale dig quickly revealed more remains with signs of violence – a skull that had been bashed in by a club, more weapons, and a thigh bone with a fracture consistent with a fall from a horse.
This warranted further investigation and the site has been routinely excavated since 2008. Since then, archaeologists have found over 13,000 bone fragments, most of which were human and belonged to young men.
Hundreds of soldiers died on the Tollense Valley battlefield in a fight that likely involved thousands. It was on a scale previously thought impossible for that region and that time period. It forced historians to reconsider the complexity and the violent nature of Bronze Age societies which, up until that point, didn’t appear that concerned with warfare.
6. The Lloyds Bank Coprolite
Not all horrific archaeological discoveries point to our murderous past. Some artifacts can shock for entirely different reasons – the Lloyds Bank coprolite, for example, might be the biggest piece of fossilized human feces in history.
It was found in 1972, during excavation for what was to become a branch of Lloyds Bank in York, England. It is seven inches in length and two inches in diameter and dates back to the 9th century CE. Fittingly, it came from a viking who inhabited the settlement known back then as Jórvík.
Microscope analysis of the fossilized feces revealed traces of pollen grains and cereal bran. It indicated that its creator, let’s call him, subsided on a bread-heavy diet. The coprolite still contained parasite eggs which showed that the person was infected with whip worms and ascaris lumbricoides, a dangerous parasitic worm that can bore through tissue and emerge through all human orifices, including the corners of the eyes.
They may not be pretty, but coprolites can provide us information about the health and diet of the average person from bygone eras that you could never get from books or scrolls. The archaeologists who specialize in this kind of study are called paleoscatologists and the ones who studied the Lloyds Bank coprolite regard it “as precious as the crown jewels.”
5. The Vampire Child of Lugnano
A few summers ago, American and Italian archaeologists were working side by side, excavating a cemetery in Umbria. The burial place was known as La Necropoli dei Bambini, or Cemetery of the Babies. Understandably, the work was already rather unnerving, but researchers made a particularly disturbing discovery. They found the skeleton of a child with a stone forced into its mouth in a rare and eerie example of a “vampire burial.”
The child was around 10-years-old, of indeterminate gender, and died 1,500 years ago. It was positioned on the left side and had a limestone about the size of a large egg stuck in its jaw. Cement had been plastered over two sides of the rock and still had visible teeth marks. Archaeologists believe this ritual was performed so that the child would not rise from the dead and spread malaria. Locals have called the unfortunate youth the “Vampire of Lugnano.”
4. The Great Flood of China
Analysis of crushed skeletal remains of children suggests that China suffered a major flood around the same time as the “great flood” from legendary folk tales which gave rise to the Chinese civilization.
According to traditional oral history, China was once heavily plagued by floods until a legendary hero called Yu the Great arrived. He put an end to the flooding and then founded the Xia Dynasty, the first of the Chinese dynasties. There was never any historical evidence for this story until a few years ago when researchers found proof that suggested the Yellow River, indeed, suffered a massive deluge about 4,000 years ago.
The team found remnants of a landslide which blocked the river in modern Qinghai province. This natural dam lasted for months, building a vast lake with all the water stored on one side of it. Finally, one day, the dam broke, causing a flood powerful enough that it extended for 1,200 miles downstream.
Unsurprisingly, this deluge was lethal, and archaeologists found the skeletons of 14 people, most of them children, who were crushed by the torrential waters. Radiocarbon dating of their bones put their death around 1920 BCE which lines up with the mythical flood that birthed the Xia Dynasty. While it is certainly not conclusive, it does lend credence to something which was previously considered just a legend.
3. Neanderthals and Cannibalism
Evidence recovered from multiple sites indicates that Neanderthals not only practiced cannibalism, but also fashioned tools from the bones of their own kind.
A few years ago, archaeologists discovered 40,000-year-old Neanderthal skeletons in the Goyet Caves in Belgium. Their bones had cut marks, pits, and notches – all signs that they had been butchered. Moreover, the bodies had also been skinned and cut up and their bone marrow extracted. This all suggested that the people had fallen victim to cannibalism by other Neanderthals. Other food sources found in the same caves such as reindeer and horses had been prepared in the same way. Furthermore, the thighbones and shinbones were then used as knapping tools.
This wasn’t the first time that archaeologists discovered signs of cannibalism in Neanderthal society, showing us that this was not a one-off. All the way back in the 1990s, researchers found the remains of six Neanderthals, including two children, in Moula-Guercy Cave in France. They had the same marks as the others, but they also had finger bones which had been chewed on by Neanderthal teeth.
2. A Mysterious Massacre
The locals of Öland Island in Sweden knew to stay away from the ruins of Sandby Borg and even warned the archaeologists who visited the place to do the same. A few seasons of excavations showed them why – a brutal death was the fate of all the people who once lived in the prosperous village 1,500 years ago. They were massacred in their homes. It was swift and merciless and we have no idea who did it or why.
All that remains today of Sandby Borg is a large, green mound but, in the 5th century CE, it was a ringfort which surrounded 53 homes. In 2010, after hearing that the area might be a target for looters, researchers decided to investigate to see if there was anything there.
Very quickly they started finding treasure and a lot of it – jewelry, glass beads, Roman coins, decorations, and hair ornaments. They had all been buried hastily and never touched again. Then they also started finding the bodies. The victims had been killed and left to rot where they fell, although some of them appear to have been thrown in hearths. Fragments from tiny bones showed that the children were not spared. Some may even been desecrated after death such as a man’s skull that was found stuffed with sheep’s teeth.
Archaeologists have found no written or oral account of what happened at Sandby Borg. We don’t know who massacred the villagers or why, although it is clear they didn’t do it for the money because they didn’t bother to dig up any of the loot.
The place became taboo for locals who have left it alone for centuries and never resettled it. In turn, this is a boon for modern archaeologists who get a unique, albeit incredibly grim look at ancient society during the Migration Period.
1. Mutiny, Murder and Mayhem on the Batavia
Two years ago, archaeologists exploring the islands off the coast of Western Australia found a mass grave containing five people. Their bodies had been arranged neatly and placed in a row, showing no signs of violence. Although grim, one could say that they were the lucky ones because those five people had been passengers on the Batavia, a ship which saw one of the bloodiest, most depraved mutinies in history.
In 1628, the Batavia sailed on its maiden voyage from Amsterdam, headed for the Dutch East Indies, with 341 people aboard. It was part of a convoy, but a violent storm separated it from the rest. Tensions were running high between the commander of the voyage – Francisco Pelsaert – and his second- and third-in-command – ship’s captain Ariaen Jacobsz and junior merchant Jeronimus Cornelisz.
The latter two planned to mutiny. Would they have done it if the ship stayed on course, we’ll never know, because on June 4, 1629, the ship wrecked off Australia’s Beacon Island. Around 40 people drowned, but the rest made it to land. After the survivors were safe, Pelsaert organized a party with Jacobsz, the senior officers, soldiers, and some passengers to search for a water source.
Pelsaert’s voyage was supposed to be the dangerous part. He ended up sailing for over a month until he reached the city of Batavia where he received another ship to return for the other survivors. He had no idea what hell had broken loose on the island following his departure.
Cornelisz had organized a mutiny. He had gotten rid of the other able men by sending them in search of water, not expecting any to return. All who remained were the ill and feeble, women, and children. Most of them were tortured and killed, except for some of the women who were kept alive to be raped.
Eventually, Pelsaert returned with soldiers and hanged the mutineers, but not before 125 people died during the massacre. The story of the Batavia is still being told as archaeologists make new discoveries that point to the horrors that took place on Beacon Island.