History really is full of surprises, but they are far closer at hand than we generally like to think. The field of archaeology focuses on just such remnants, as it is “the Study of the ancient and recent human past through material remains,” according to the Society for American Archaeology. Analyzing what remains of the past can reveal secrets, but some can be less than savory.
From human sacrifice to the undead, archaeologists are often on the front lines of the weird – and of making sense of it for the rest of us.
1. The Headless Vikings of Ridgeway Hill
The seaside town of Weymouth in Dorset, England is home to more than just tourist attractions. Archaeologists discovered a gruesome mass Viking grave there in 2009 while surveying property earmarked for a new roadway. Among the fifty or so dead, the bodies had been piled in one area and the skulls in another. Apparently, somewhere between 970 and 1025 AD, the invaders had been captured, likely during a raid, and then killed by local Anglo-Saxons. However, they had done so with particular rigor – hacking the young men’s heads off in one blow, even as the Vikings faced their executioners, refusing to look away.
2. Screaming Mummies
For archaeologists in the past, the banal could often appear terrifying. For instance, when Gaston Maspero, the Head of the Egyptian Antiquities Service in 1886, first opened a plain sarcophagus, a screaming face met his gaze. The man inside had had his hands and feet bound before being buried in sheepskin, which ancient Egyptians viewed as unclean. Yet, the mummy known as Unknown Man E was simply victim to the natural process of decay, during which heads often fall backwards, creating the impression of anguish. More striking is an iconic mummy from the Chachapoya Indians of Peru, whose hands seem held over its face in terror. However, both are merely happenstance expressions – not actual, undead emotions.
3. Vampire Corpse
Vampire corpses are found the world over, but perhaps nowhere has so great a concentration of undead remains as Bulgaria. With over 1000 such graves unearthed so far, this country has a long history of hunting the creatures of the night, going back to the Middle Ages. At that time, the suspected undead would have an iron or wooden stake hammered through their chests to prevent them from doing harm. Most likely, this tradition originated with the opening of crypts to bury plague victims, whose bodies would bloat with gas and have blood seep from their mouths after death.
4. Neanderthal Cannibals
In 1994, archaeologists discovered the 49,0000-year-old bones of a Neanderthal group deep within Spain’s El Sidron cave system. At first, it was unclear how the possible family of 3 men, 3 women, 3 adolescents, and 3 children had all died suddenly and simultaneously. However, bone markings indicated that they had been disarticulated, muscle had been removed, and long bones had been shattered for marrow. Even their skulls had been split to extract their brains – a clear sign that they had been attacked and eaten by other Neanderthals. Worse yet, there was apparently no fire present, so they had been eaten raw – and with vigor.
5. Tomb of the Sunken Skulls
In Motala, Sweden, experts discovered the remains of a strange stone structure at the bottom of a prehistoric lake bed in 2009. It had apparently been sealed at the lake bottom, with stone tools, animal bones, and the 8,000-year-old remains of 11 people of various ages stored inside. The strangest thing was their condition, as several had been set alight after having stakes driven through them. One skull that had been lodged deep into the mud inside the structure had been smashed using another of the skulls, as evidenced by a fragment lodged inside it. Archaeologists have since concluded that this was likely a monument of war trophies crafted by a group of warriors after defeating their enemies.
6. Pits Full of Severed Hands
One of the most bizarre discoveries in the study of ancient Egypt was a series of pits full of dismembered hands. A team of archaeologists unearthed four such pits at the 3,600-year-old palace of King Khayan in Hyksos, an area of Northern Egypt once ruled over by a West Asian civilization. Two had been placed outside the palace walls and two just outside the throne room, but all contained the right hands of adult males. Archaeologists later deduced that these were the evidence of an ancient practice of ritually removing enemies’ hands in order to steal their power. Upon presenting them to their leader, soldiers then received a reward, while the hands were dumped into just such ceremonial pits.
7. The Bog People
Thanks to their lack of oxygen, low temperatures, and high acidity, the peat bogs of Northern Europe are full of perfectly preserved human remains. In particular, going back to the early Medieval period, people used these grounds to execute criminals or commit ritualistic murder. Farmers today regularly unearth their remains – each incredibly preserved as they were in the moments after their untimely demise, with food in their stomachs and blood in their veins. The most famous is Grauballe Man, who was murdered after a bad harvest in 8,000 BCE and whose stubble indicates that he was a held for a time before being killed and buried in a consecrated bog area.
8. Huacas de Moche Temple
Peru has hosted several remarkable civilizations, including the Incas and, before them, the Moche. This sophisticated northern society existed between 100 and 800 AD and consisted of a hierarchy topped by a powerful warrior class where religion and battle were one and the same. Unsurprisingly, captives were sacrificed at temples, with many murals portraying bound foreigners offered to the gods. The biggest find has been at the ruins of the adobe-brick Huacas de Moche complex. There, archaeologists continue to unearth the remains of people from distant lands whose bodies were mutilated – with skulls forged into cups and bones into displays. There was even a ditch where the last bits were left for scavengers.
9. Tools Made of Human Bones
Although it may be shocking to some, the bones of family members have been commonly used to create tools throughout human history. One of the most well-known traditions goes back to the pre-Aztec civilizations of modern Mexico. For instance, research done in the ancient city of Teotihuacan has found that bones were transformed into household implements from combs to buttons. In particular, family members would scrape flesh from bone shortly after death and then shape them into the necessary forms. Alternately, some of the oldest cups crafted from skulls have been found in Somerset, England, where they were likely used as part of a cannibalistic group, over 14,000 years ago.
10. The Sacrifices of the Peruvian Temple
Last but far from least, one of the most troubling examples of human sacrifice comes from Peru. In 2012, archaeologists were investigating a tomb at the Temple of Pachacamac, whose complex included around 20 pyramids and a full cemetery. However, they discovered an astonishing arrangement of adult skeletons inside a concentric circle of baby ones, some of which had false, wooden heads. All were likely diseased pilgrims who had traveled to visit the mysterious Ychsma tribe, an ancient, pre-Incan civilization associated with an unclear cure. Whatever fate they met – whether death by natural causes or as sacrifices – will likely never be known.
Many of the above examples are truly astonishing, but all make a certain degree of sense when placed into the cultural and social context of their own era. Archaeologists help demystify these seemingly bizarre remnants of the past. In so doing, they also do the incredibly important work of help humanity learn from history – rather than being doomed to repeat it, human sacrifice and all.
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