Just like Creepy Archaeological Discoveries I, only with different creepy archaeological discoveries.
Three decades before it was officially excavated in the mid-’90s, fishermen on Western Australia’s Beacon Island inadvertently uncovered human bones while digging a drain for a makeshift outhouse.
Local historians quickly determined that they were left over from a particularly nightmarish maritime disaster that occurred more than three centuries before, and later excavations revealed that though some of the dead had apparently perished “naturally” due to drowning, exposure and dehydration, others met decidedly unnatural ends.
Some of the skeletons had limbs that had been hacked off, and at least one was missing the top of its skull, thanks to a powerful sword blow administered while the living person was kneeling before his executioner.
All were buried haphazardly in mass graves, but what happened immediately after the shipwreck is even more disturbing than the remains themselves.
At 150-feet (46 m) long, the Dutch East India Company ship Batavia was state-of-the-art for the day.
Bristling with dozens of cast-iron cannons and loaded to the gills with a heavy cargo of coins, weapons and building materials, the vessel was making its maiden voyage between the Netherlands and Java in 1629.
All told the ship carried more than 300 people including soldiers, crewmen, company officers, and scores of colonists bound for new lives in the tropics.
The journey would probably take between six and nine months, but conditions on board were exceptionally harsh.
Quarters were cramped, the food and water were barely palatable, and the sanitation was abysmal.
In fact, things had gotten so bad that tiny seeds of discontent that had been sown just months into the voyage had grown so rapidly that they threatened to derail the whole affair.
In fact, one particularly conniving and disgruntled company official named Jeronimus Cornelisz, along with another senior crewmen, had been planning to wrest control of the ship from Commander Francisco Pelsaert for some time.
That said, their plans took on a new urgency when Batavia struck Morning Reef in late June.
Though most made it safely to Beacon Island, they were only able to salvage a little flour that hadn’t been inundated with seawater.
The dire situation called for immediate action, and Pelsaert and a small detachment set off in one of the ship’s longboats to find fresh water, or barring that, to make the nearly 1,600-mile (2,600 km) journey to Jakarta for help.
No water was found, and after an epic 33-day sea voyage they finally reached their destination, little more than leathery skin and protruding bones.
While Pelsaert was away Cornelisz had taken charge, hoarded the meager supplies, and ordered his henchmen to carry out dozens of killings.
Though some were committed out of sheer rage, others were intended to stifle dissent, and shockingly, the victims included women and children too.
But for the survivors, death may have been preferable, because their existence had been reduced to equal parts exposure, malnourishment and abject terror, all while surrounded by shallow graves containing the remains of murdered loved ones.
Thankfully, much of the misery came to an end when a number of men, capitalizing on their superior numbers, overpowered and restrained Cornelisz and his co-conspirators.
When Pelsaert returned in a rescue ship nearly three months after departing, he was confronted with a horror of epic proportions.
All told, between 115 and 125 survivors had been murdered.
Cornelisz and some of the worst offenders had their hands hacked off before being hanged, while others were left on the island to fend for themselves after the last survivors departed.
But though shocking and tragic, the Beacon Island discovery offered researchers the rare chance to compare what they found with a first-hound account – written by Pelsaert himself – after the event.
Surprisingly, there’s no evidence or mention of cannibalism, but thanks to DNA extracted from some of the bones, researchers learned much about the lives and ethnicities of those unfortunate souls who perished in unimaginable circumstances.
They found that most had been relatively healthy in the years before setting sail, and that they came from all over Europe and Scandinavia.
At the time of the voyage Europe was mired in the Thirty Years’ War, and the Netherlands had been fighting for independence from Spain for more than six decades.
As dangerous and uncertain as the endeavor was, many war weary families viewed distant colonies like the Dutch East Indies as alluring opportunities, from which they stood to make small fortunes, though it rarely worked out that way.
For good reason, Beacon Island is often referred to as Batavia’s Graveyard, though some locals prefer an even more macabre moniker – Murder Island.
Tlalpan Spiral Skeletons
Ancient mass graves containing dozens or hundreds of bodies are both unsettling and oddly intriguing, but there’s something particularly eerie about ones containing the remains of murdered children with mutilated teeth, cracked craniums and eerily intertwined skeletons, like those uncovered at a 2,400+ year-old grave recently unearthed in suburban Mexico City.
The Tlalpan site dates back to the Mayan Preclassic Period that began before 1,000 BC and lasted to around 250 AD.
The area around Mexico City may have been inhabited for more than 500 years before the ten Tlalpan children were sacrificed and buried, and though it wasn’t the first grave discovered in the area, it is the only one in which so many deceased were buried together.
Of the ten remains found, eight are young adults or teenagers, one was a child probably between three and five, and the other was an infant just a month or two old.
Though the children were buried with bowls, pots and cookware to aid them in their journey through the afterlife, it must have been a small consolation, because their bones showed signs of severe trauma associated with ritualistic sacrifice by knife.
The discovery was made by experts from Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology on the grounds of a prominent local university just 5 feet (1.5 m) below the floor of a well-sued lecture hall.
The grave is also unique in that the children’s bones were situated in a spiral pattern that has archaeologists and historians scratching their heads.
In addition, their bodies were linked, so forearm bones were placed under the spines of those buried on either side of them.
Although Mayan culture is shrouded in myth, lore and unanswered questions, it’s well-known that they were terrified of death, and believed that it was caused by souls being stolen by evil spirits that resided in an infernal underworld.
They also believed that the body and soul were bound at birth, and that only death could separate them permanently.
Mayans may have spent large portions of each day worshipping, and they apparently saw child sacrifice as a way to appease the fickle gods who lorded over everything from the weather and human fertility, to war and crops.
As they saw it, without these sacrifices, nothing stood between them and total destruction in a harsh world that they struggled to understand, and over which they had little control.
Researchers are confident that finds like Tlalpan will eventually shed more light on the complex and misunderstood culture, in which ghoulish death rituals – like those portrayed in Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto – were relatively common.
Chavín de Huántar
Located approximately 160 miles (250 km) north of Lima in Peru’s Andean highlands, Chavín de Huántar may have been the birthplace of an ancient culture that dominated the region for as many as seven centuries before declining somewhere between 500 and 300 BC.
But though some claim that the civilization sprang from Chavín exclusively, it’s now considered likely that it was a collection of multiple regional cultures that came together for protection, stability, and prosperity.
At more than 10,000 feet (3,100 m) above sea level, the 36-acre (14.8 ha) archaeological wonder is a somewhat lesser known UNESCO World Heritage Site, but at its height was a sight to behold.
Thanks to its location at the confluence of multiple rivers and overland trade routes between the interior jungle and coast, Chavín drew traders, craftsmen and artisans from far and wide, and their wares included everything from textiles and ceramics, to gold jewelry and hunting implements fashioned from wood and animal bone.
Characterized by a number of stepped, multi-story buildings built from rough-hewn stones stacked like bricks, the site’s true center, both literally and metaphorically, was its interior open-air plaza where most of the ceremonies were held.
And though relatively mundane offerings like crops and fish were probably regularly presented to the gods, human beings were as well, and the ghastly and bizarre rituals may have included herbal intoxicants, primitive sound amplification devices and even light shows.
If you’re having trouble envisioning this scenario, think of it as a Peter Frampton concert with a sacrificial murder at the end.
The main temple and surrounding buildings were crisscrossed with a maze of interior rooms and tunnels called galleries, that were capable of transmitting and amplifying both sound and light, and researchers theorize that during sacrifices and other ceremonies, the priests may have lit fires and spoke or chanted from inside.
But though they were hidden from gawking spectators, their bright lights and thundering voices may have radiated outward with immense brightness and volume, making it appear as though deities resided inside.
The god or gods to whom the temple was constructed are represented on the granite Lanzón or “Great Spear,” a towering sandstone slab depicting a stylized face with large gazing eyes, menacing fangs and talons for fingers.
Of its two hands, one points upward toward the heavens, while the other is lowered to the earth, representing the innate connection between the two.
The deity is a hodgepodge of human and animal features, as represented in its likeness to revered indigenous animals like jaguars, caiman, snakes and jungle birds.
Perhaps most tellingly however, the carving also has a channel running through its head, which may have been a pathway or receptacle for what archaeologists refer to as “liquid offerings,” or more clearly put – blood – which would have come from the bodies of the recently sacrificed.
Lothagam North Pillar Site
Barely protruding from the ground amidst volcanic rock ridges near Lake Turkana in northwest Kenya, the Lothagam North Pillar Site is a nearly unnoticeable burial mound constructed approximately 5,000 years ago.
Lothagam is the region’s largest and oldest monumental cemetery, but though it’s not particularly impressive compared to other more well-known burial sites around the world, it was built by a society that most historians had previously thought were little more than nomadic hunter-gatherers.
Long overlooked by archaeologists uninterested in sub-Saharan African antiquities, Lothagam offers a unique look into the rise and fall of an East African culture that was far more advanced than previously thought.
During the African Humid Period when the mound was constructed, the region around Lake Turkana was much different that it is today.
Rain and freshwater were plentiful, the lake may have been nearly three times larger, and the locals subsisted on fishing, hunting and gathering.
Comparatively speaking it was a time of plenty, but as it got hotter and dryer the lake shrank, and what had been a relatively stable existence changed in just a few generations.
Now families needed to wander farther than ever before to find what they needed to survive, which translated into more danger and uncertainty, less centralization, and ultimately less interaction with one another.
But despite this great dispersal, evidence suggests that these small migratory groups regularly returned to Lothagam to bury their dead, for as many as five centuries after it was built.
Due to bureaucracy, cultural considerations and the painstaking nature of the work, only a small portion of the nearly 8,000 square foot site has been excavated.
To date three dozen individual remains have been discovered, but based on burial density and the length of time the site was used, there may be nearly 600 more interred within the shallow mound.
Hewn about three feet into the porous local bedrock, the builders originally cleared an area about half the size of an American football field, and sandstone slabs were hauled from near the lake to shore up the walls.
Though small, it indicates that from the very beginning the site was planned to be a cemetery.
This is interesting, because in much of the ancient world cemeteries tended to evolve as one person was buried in an open plot, then another, and another, until the site officially became a cemetery.
Lothagam was a designated burial site from the outset however – a sort of communal and ancestral monument that served as a place where relatives could regularly return to strengthen old bonds.
Lothagam is also unique in that its individual pits contain the remains of men and women and boys and girls of all ages, all of whom were buried together, which indicates that it was a relatively non-hierarchical society.
But though the corpses were all buried together, some were adorned with particularly ornate items like bracelets and necklaces made with everything from stone beads and emerald green amazonite, to ivory and hippo tusks.
If none of this sounds particularly creepy, there was one particularly eerie discovery – an ornate headdress studded with more than 400 gerbil teeth – which probably belonged to someone of wealth or stature.
On a sad sidenote, approximately 100 gerbils gave their lives to make the headdress.
Though they’re not sure why, archaeologists think that multiple unused burial pits were filled with dirt about 4,000 years ago, after which the exterior mound was created with rubble and rocks.
In the end, this could mean that the site had lost its cultural significance, or perhaps that the climate had become so harsh and inhospitable, that making the return trek every time someone passed away was no longer worth the effort.
Stretching nearly 75 miles (118 km) across England between the North and Irish seas, Hadrian’s Wall was built in the early second century AD to protect the more subdued south from northern Brits who weren’t thrilled about having a foreign army ensconced on their beloved island.
Studded with barracks, forts and imposing parapets, and occupied by Roman legionnaires, the wall and the area immediately around it were hotbeds of conflict during much of the era, in what was then Roman Britannia.
Multiple 20th and 21st century excavations have revealed a number of interesting finds, one of which is a small bronze votive hand discovered near the fort at Vindolanda.
Cast from nearly 5.5 pounds (2.5 kg) of almost solid bronze, the amazingly lifelike child-size hand may have been an offering made by a military commander before commencing a large operation, but that’s not necessarily the case.
Votive hands and other body part-shaped offerings were commonly found in temples, as well as in places where sickness, injuries and death were common, like hospitals and frontier forts.
Votive figures were long standing Greco-Roman traditions, by which offerings were made to the gods of healing and medicine, so that they might bless or repair damaged and infirmed body parts like hands, feet, arms and legs.
Researchers have dated the hand to some time early in the third century, which coincides with a particularly chaotic and dangerous time that was characterized by conflict, rebellion, and all around strife, during which grizzly wounds would have been common.
In addition to its size, it’s interesting that the hand was apparently casually discarded in a ditch, and that it probably once resided in a nearby temple devoted to Jupiter Dolichenus – a prominent god in a Roman mystery cult of eastern origin.
The Jupiter Dolichenus cult was relatively secretive and only open to those who’d taken an oath and undergone a rite of initiation.
This means that little is known about its core beliefs and practices, though at the time its members were spread across the near and Far East, and much of Europe as well.
Unfortunately the cult either died out or went underground before the empire’s official adoption of Christianity, which some historians now believe was done not out of spiritual conviction, but to appease unruly subjects in the Middle East who’d become proverbial thorns in Rome’s side.
Measuring just four inches from wrist to fingertips, the open hand originally had an attachment fitted to the palm, but though missing, it was probably a lightning bolt symbolizing virility, power, well-being and protection.
As to why it was discarded in a ditch, nobody’s quite sure, but it may have been tossed aside after the fort was overrun by invaders.
If the Romans had fled or retreated during battle, the victors would have made off with the most practical items like weapons and food, and they may have viewed the weird bronze hand as little more than a curiosity that wasn’t worth carting off.
Whatever the case, the Vindolanda hand offers an interesting glimpse into the complex world of Roman religion and mythology, especially as it relates to the military men who often spent years away from their homes and families, during which time they experienced untold hardships, loneliness and brutal combat.
It’s clear that some of them believed that their reward for service would come in the afterlife in a place called Elysium, where the dead were blessed by the gods and treated to eternal peace, rest, and happiness.
But the practical men that they were, while still among the living they obviously wanted the gods to help them keep all their limbs and appendages in good working order.