10 Gruesome and Gory Archaeological Finds

10 Gruesome and Gory Archaeological Finds

Michelle Powell-Smith - July 22, 2018

Archaeologists expect to dig up pot shards and building foundations, and even the occasional skeleton. In some cases, what they find exceeds any expectation of an every-once-in-a-while skeleton. In these digs, the remains may be far more than anyone expected and may yield stories of lives that ended in pain and sacrifice. These are some of the most gruesome archaeological finds in modern archaeology, and range from stories of human sacrifice to evidence of battle trophies, from tiny skeletons of newborns to cannibalized bones.

10 Gruesome and Gory Archaeological Finds
The Pit of Hands. Image: Austrian Archaeological Institute in Cairo and the Institute for Egyptology.

The Pit of Hands

Archaeologists excavating a palace complex in the city of Avaris, Egypt came upon an unexpected and disturbing find. The city of Avaris was, at the time of the palace, under control of the Hyksos, a people most likely from northern Canaan in western Asia. During the course of the excavation, archaeologists found four pits, dug when the palace was in active use. Two of these pits were located quite close to a central throne room, and two others in an outer area of the palace. The two outer pits date to a slightly later time than the pits near the throne rooms. The complex dates to approximately 3,600 years ago.

Within these four pits, archaeologists found disembodied hands. While graves are quite a common find at archaeological sites, disembodied body parts are much less likely. The pit of hands, in particular, dates to the reign of King Khayan. In total, spread amongst four pits, there were 16 total hands. All of these were right hands, and all, on the basis of size, belonged to adult men.

While archaeology often provides unexplained mysteries, this is a mystery that can be solved rather easily. Historians have, for quite some time, known that military leaders frequently returned to their king with the right hands of their enemies. These hands were then presented to the king, or to his representatives. When the soldier presented the hand or hands, he received a gift of gold. This presentation frequently appears in the art of ancient Egypt, but the origin of these 16 hands is unknown. They could have been the hands of Egyptians or of another enemy of the Hyksos in the region.

The hands not only proved one’s own valor in battle, but also served to weaken the enemy by removing his power both in life and in the afterlife.

10 Gruesome and Gory Archaeological Finds
Skull and sickle. Image: History.net.

Vampire Burials

At a number of locations, particularly in Eastern Europe, odd burials have been located during excavations of old cemeteries. These burials varied somewhat, but shared some distinct, and creepy, characteristics. These include placing a sickle across the body or a large rock under the jaw; however, there are more extreme cases as well. These include nailing the body to the coffin, decapitating or dismembering the body, or driving a stake through the body.

In Eastern Europe, misfortune, from disease to crop loss, was frequently blamed on vampires. The first place the community looked was at the recently dead, particularly individuals who failed to fit into society appropriately, including alcoholics, the insane, or those with physical differences. In addition, people born “in the caul” or with an unbroken amniotic sac were more likely to become vampires after death. The sort of social misfits frequently associated with vampirism were similar to the individuals accused of witchcraft in Western Europe; however, vampirism was a less-bloody situation. The accused were, of course, already dead.

The Eastern European idea of the vampire or revenant, someone who rises from the dead, is quite a lot broader than the Hollywood image of a vampire. These practices may have identified these dead individuals as any number of different demonic figures or forces.

By and large, according to recent studies, these were local people. They were identified by the people of their own communities as vampires, or possible vampires, following their deaths, and the corpses were treated accordingly, either before burial, or after disinterment.

10 Gruesome and Gory Archaeological Finds
The Templo Mayor. Image: BBC.

Aztec Human Sacrifices

Human sacrifice was relatively common among Mesoamerican peoples prior to the arrival of European forces; it was not considered particularly shocking at all. In fact, for the Aztecs and others, it was a rather ordinary part of the cycle of the religious year, something essential to maintain balance with the gods and to maintain their favor.

Amongst the Aztecs, sacrifice can be broadly divided into two categories. The Aztecs sacrificed some of their own people; this was considered a highly honorable death, much like dying in battle for a man or childbirth for a woman, and resulted in an afterlife in paradise with the gods. It is likely that Aztecs sacrificed to their gods went relatively willingly, and without any significant fuss or complaint.

While these sacrifices came from all social classes and age groups, many were, according to reports from Spanish conquistadors, from the upper classes, including the wealthy and noble. This was a social norm for the Aztecs, and for many other Mesoamerican groups. When you place human sacrifice within this context, giving someone of higher value, rather than lower value, is a logical choice to appease the gods.

The Aztecs also quite regularly sacrificed captured enemy warriors; in some cases, the enemies were largely fictional. Cities would agree to mock wars with one another to capture willing sacrifices from each side, for instance. In other cases, the enemy was captured in battle and sacrificed to the Aztec god of war. One can only assume this was likely a much less willing process.

Typically, the Aztec sacrificial ritual placed the victim upon a stone altar. An obsidian knife was used to penetrate the chest, and the heart, still beating, was removed from the victim. The bodies were rolled down the steps of the pyramid upon which the altar stood, dismembered, butchered, and cooked and served to the nobility.

10 Gruesome and Gory Archaeological Finds
Tollund Man. Image: Wikimedia.

Tollund Man

Tollund Man is an example of a bog body, or a body that has been remarkably preserved by a natural peat bog. A number of bog bodies have been excavated from European bogs, particularly in Denmark. These bodies take on a distinct appearance, with skin darkened by the peat, and a surprisingly lifelike face. In some cases, bits of fiber, clothing, and other materials have survived with the bodies, although often nearby, rather than on the body. While bog bodies often share the same state of preservation, Tollund Man has provided some distinct, and rather gory, information about his world.

When the Tollund Man was found in 1950, villagers did not call archaeologists, but rather the police. The condition of the body led them to believe that this was a relatively recent murder victim, not one from the distant past. Tollund Man, along with a number of other bog bodies, shows clear evidence of human sacrifice. The body was naked when it was interred in the bog, and no remains of his clothing have been found, but he did wear a leather cap and wide leather belt. The body has been dated to the Iron Age in Europe, or more than 2000 years ago.

The Tollund Man was found with a still-extant rope wrapped around his neck; he had been hanged. His face appears peaceful, but his body has been lost. In 1950, we lacked the technology to properly preserve bog bodies. Artists have constructed a replica on display with the head, rope still intact. Other bog bodies also show clear evidence of human sacrifice, although not always as peacefully as Tollund Man. One body, referred to as Grauballe Man, had his throat cut ear-to-ear. In addition, an unusually high number of bog bodies show evidence of various physical deformities, ranging from relatively minor to quite severe.

10 Gruesome and Gory Archaeological Finds
An infant skeleton from Ashkelon. Image: Ancient Origins.

The Sewer of Babies

The sewer of babies is a rather gross name for a sad and challenging archaeological find. Under the ruins of a Roman bathhouse in Ashkelon, Israel, archaeologists discovered the remains of more than 100 infants. At first, archaeologists on the site assumed they were finding animal bones and remains, perhaps from meals. They soon realized they were incorrect.

Forensic anthropologists have carefully analyzed the remains of these infants. All remains analyzed appeared healthy, with no clearly definable cause of death. The more than 100 sets of remains found in the sewer were all less than one week old. It is quite important to place the Roman attitude toward newborns in context. Newborn infants were not considered fully human and infanticide was widely practiced, and socially-speaking, it was relatively accepted.

The most common means of infanticide was exposure. The newborn was placed in an open area; these babies could be left to die, or claimed by other families and adopted to be raised in a different family. While infanticide through exposure was relatively common, the babies found in the sewer did not die from exposure. These babies were intentionally killed, and disposed of within the sewer beneath the bathhouse. They may even have simply been thrown into the drain.

While the finding of a large number of newborn infants is unusual in itself, DNA testing has revealed, where possible, an unusually high ratio of male to female infants. Naturally 20 male infants are born to every 21 females, but in a sample of 19 of the infant skeletons, 14 were male and only five female. Based on this, it appears that significantly more male newborns were killed than female.

Why were so many newborns discarded in this sewer? There are several theories, but none quite fit. Some have suggested that prostitutes were more likely to discard male infants, and that these were, therefore, the discarded infants of prostitutes. This argument is the most common, but prostitutes of the time did have access to abortion procedures and herbal medicines, so full-term pregnancies were uncommon. By this time, in addition, unwanted infants could be sold to slave traders, making killing them economically impractical. There is no clear explanation for this gruesome archaeological find.

10 Gruesome and Gory Archaeological Finds
Image of an Inca child mummy. Image: . SCIENTIFIC REPORTS AND GÓMEZ – CARBALLA ET AL

Inca Child Sacrifice

Many archaeologists working in Peru have made finds that are both wondrous and gruesome. Many readers have seen images of the child mummies of the Inca. These are mummies of children sacrificed to the Inca gods, often in response to a significant event, like an earthquake or famine. Unlike the more familiar Egyptian mummies, these are natural mummies, mummified by the harsh environment of Peru.

The Inca took human sacrifice quite seriously; the sacrificial ritual or the Capacocha was quite important to their religious faith, but remains shrouded in mystery. Child sacrifices were typically the children of chiefs and nobility, and were chosen for their beauty. The child or children chosen had to be physically perfect, and for a time before the sacrifice, were treated as divine. The family received significant honor for the sacrifice.

While the Aztec practice of human sacrifice was relatively quick and straightforward in many cases, the practice of child sacrifice among the Inca was, on the other hand, rather elaborate. The child, accompanied by priests, family members, and other nobility, would be taken on a journey to Cusco from their home village, with feasts and celebration with the emperor. After this period of feasting, the child would be taken to a base camp at a lower elevation of a high mountain. These base camps provided comfortable residences for priests, sacrificial victims, and workers during the construction of a sacrificial altar much higher on the mountain.

The sacrificial altar was a sort of large platform, with heavy retaining walls on all four sides; these would serve as the child’s tomb, along with significant and valuable grave goods.

Analysis of these child mummies suggests that they were given alcohol to reduce any discomfort before being placed within the platform. Skull fractures on the bodies suggest that they were likely knocked out with a single blow to the head, likely cushioned to reduce any potential suffering from exposure. The priests continued to return to the site, making offerings, for some time after the child’s death.

The mummies of the child sacrifices of the Inca are, for modern observers, sad and tragic. Within the context of their own culture, these children were honored gifts to the gods. Their bodies serve as a potent reminder of their sacrifice.

10 Gruesome and Gory Archaeological Finds
A tomb memorial. Image: Kim Traynor/Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0

Digging up Arctic Explorers

In 1845, the H.M.S. Terror and H.M.S. Erebus, under the command of Sir John Franklin, left Britain to explore the Canadian arctic. This was Franklin’s fourth arctic expedition, and his third as commander. On one of those, an overland expedition, he had nearly starved, surviving by eating his boots. They were seeking out the Northwest Passage, or a river and water route from one coast to the other for trade. They would not return from their journey. When the expedition left, it was quite well provided, with ample stocks of food. Their food supplies should have been adequate for a period of three years.

The two ships left Britain, and reached Canada, but disappeared soon thereafter. They were last sighted at Lancaster Sound. Repeated expeditions were sent in search of Franklin and his crew, but found little more than rumor. Franklin’s wife pushed quite strongly for rescue missions after his disappearance. Among the Inuit, there were some rumors of sightings or encounters with the men from Franklin’s ships. Inuit stores were eventually key to finding the H.M.S. Erebus in 2014.

Franklin’s fate is known; a note found describes that he died prior to the crew abandoning the ships, and that the ships were mired in ice. Some time later, the men abandoned the ships, hiking inland. They likely sought out a fur trading post, hoping to find help and shelter. As early as 1854, traders in contact with the Inuit reported that the Inuit had encountered starving white men, and had artifacts from the Franklin expedition to support this. Franklin’s wife, refusing to believe this, did everything in her power to discredit these stories.

The story of a tragic, failed expedition is not a particularly gory one, until other facts come to light. Inuit oral history also told of piles of human bones, cracked in half to access the marrow. This is the final stage of cannibalism in starvation conditions, a desperate attempt to maintain life. While the specific fate of the sailors on Franklin’s expedition is unknown, some of them, at least, became meals for their crewmates, and none ever reached local trading posts to tell their own story. The H.M.S. Erebus was found by Canadian researchers, supported by the government, in 2014.

10 Gruesome and Gory Archaeological Finds
Bones from Goyet cave. Image: AFP Photo/Emmanuel Dunand

Neanderthal Cannibalism

One of the hardest things for any archaeologist to discover is evidence of cannibalism. Cannibalism has, of course, existed in various contexts throughout time, but recently, archaeology has made it clear that cannibalism also existed, with enough frequency to be apparent at multiple sites, among one of our ancient cousins, the Neanderthals. In some cases, the evidence is quite clear; however, in other cases, it is less decisive. Dating and location suggest that this must be the work of other Neanderthals; there was, in these situations, no possibility of contact with modern humans or Homo Sapiens.

It may first be helpful to define how archaeologists and anthropologists identify cannibalism. Obviously, there’s no way to know the true frequency of cannibalism among Neanderthals, but it is now certain that it happened. Cannibalism leaves distinct evidence in bone findings; these include cut marks created during the process of butchering, signs that the bones have been boiled, and bones broken and crushed in a way characteristic of marrow extraction. In some cases, bones have also been modified for use as tools of different sorts. These marks look, in fact, very much like those on the bones of animals used as food, and are not characteristic of burial or funerary practices.

The majority of evidence for Neanderthal cannibalism comes quite late in Neanderthal history, around 40,000 to 50,000 years ago. This includes sites in both Belgium and Spain. At this time, the Neanderthals had been pushed to the very edges of their range; this was quite nearly the end of the species. Given this, and the presence of evidence for funerary rites at other sites, it seems quite possible that this was a type of cannibalism commonly associated with survival needs. While this is not unheard of, even in the near-modern and modern world, it does not change the discomfort present with the idea of eating others of one’s own species, particularly children. At least one of these sites consisted of the skeletons of young adult males, and one child.

10 Gruesome and Gory Archaeological Finds
The Ruins of Dura Europos. Image: Wikipedia.

Chemical Warfare in the Roman Empire

Today, we think of chemical warfare as a modern phenomenon; however, in fact, chemical warfare dates back to the ancient world, in use as early as ancient Greece. One example of the use of chemical warfare was clearly found during early 20th century excavations. An excavation at the site of Dura-Europos, once a Roman-controlled city in modern-day Syria, shows clear evidence of chemical warfare, supported by archaeology.

In order to understand what happened at Dura-Europos, we must first set the scene, taking place in 256 C.E. Persian forces sought to take control of the Roman-held city. The Persian strategy appears to have been a relatively simple one; they sought to dig under the mudbrick walls surrounding the city. Extensive tunnels have been found in this area, including some from the necropolis to the city itself. In response, a group of Roman soldiers entered an underground tunnel, perhaps seeking to push back the invaders, dig their own tunnel, or reinforce the walls. This is the scene archaeologists found when the area was excavated in the 1920s and 1930s; however, more recent reinvestigation has provided new insights.

When the Roman soldiers entered this underground tunnel they did not encounter, as they may have expected, Persian soldiers. Instead, they were quickly overtaken by toxic fumes. All evidence suggests that the men quite rapidly died where they stood, arms in hand, and purses of coins on their belts. In addition, the remains of a single Persian soldier were found in the same area of the excavation. It is likely that the Persians set a simple fire, then placed sulfur and bitumen in the fire; a bellows may have been used to direct the smoke, or they may have relied on the natural movement of air and smoke within the narrow shafts of the tunnels.

This is only a theory to explain the findings of archaeologists in the 1920s and 1930s, but it is a theory that fits well with the excavation evidence, and with our understanding of ancient warfare. Chemical weapons of all types were actively in use in the ancient world, proving that science played a role even at that early date in human history.

10 Gruesome and Gory Archaeological Finds
A tophet in Carthage. Image: Tripfreakz.

Child Burials in Carthage

One of the most controversial archaeological discoveries is a cemetery; now, cemeteries are not at all unusual, but these cemeteries are quite different. Called tophets, these are cemeteries of infant burials, most not more than a few weeks of age at the time of death. Ancient writers reported on the prevalence of infant sacrifice in Carthage, however, these writings have frequently been questioned, with many scholars suggesting that these reports were incorrect or at the least, exaggerated.

Tophets are open-air spaces, containing a large number of urns containing cremated remains. These urns may contain the remains of human infants or of sacrificial animals. Inscriptions above the urns appear to be relatively standard dedications to the gods, similar for both animals and infants. Arguments have been made suggesting that these are infants who died of natural causes or were stillborn; however, there is little evidence to suggest this is the case.

One of these tophets, located on the outskirts of ancient Carthage, dates to 730 to 146 B.C.E. There were at least three periods of active use at this tophet, but additional tophets have been located at various Carthaginian outposts. The cremated state of the remains means that there is no decisive cause of death for the infants found in the tophets. It is, however, quite important to note that these cemeteries do not support any normal distribution of deaths; the infants are nearly all under three months of age. In addition, the infant burials are treated in the same way as the animal sacrifices.

From the 1970s onward, interpretations of the tophets were relatively gentle by modern standards; they were qualified as infant cemeteries, separate from adult burial grounds. The ancient sources were questioned and largely ignored. A modern reassessment of both written and archaeological sources suggests that archaeology supports the classical sources. Classical authors appeared to find child sacrifice curious, but not morally deplorable. It was, by all appearances, simply an unusual manifestation of religious fervor.


Where Do We Get This Stuff? Here are our sources:

Severed Hands Discovered in Ancient Egyptian Palace. Owen Jarus. Live Science. August 10, 2012.

‘Vampire’ Burials Have Been Uncovered in Poland. Rossella Lorenzi. Seeker. October 12, 2016.

Aztec Culture and Human Sacrifice. History on the Net. November 2000.

Were the Mysterious Bog People Human Sacrifices? Jacob Mikanowski. The Atlantic. March 11, 2016.

Ashkelon’s Dead Babies. Mark Rose. Archaeology. March/April 1997.

The Sacrificial Ceremony. Lisa Clark. PBS. November 24, 1998.

Franklin’s Doomed Arctic Exhibition Ended in Gruesome Cannibalism. Helen Thompson. Smithsonian. July 27, 2015.

Grisly Evidence of Neanderthal Cannibalism Uncovered in a Belgian Cave. Sarah Kaplan. Washington Post. July 8, 2016.

Buried Soldiers May Be Victim of Ancient Chemical Weapon. Stephanie Pappas. Live Science. March 8, 2011.

Tophet of Carthage. Children and Youth of History. n.d.