By its very nature, digging up the remains of the long dead is a macabre business.
From mass medieval graves containing scores of bodies ravaged by the plague, to opulent burial chambers hidden deep within colossal Egyptian pyramids, unearthing graves reveals glimpses into ages long past that many of us find fascinating, enlightening and downright eerie.
That said, some archaeological excavations turn up things that make others pale by comparison.
Let’s take a look at a few of them.
When he was discovered in a Danish bog in 1952, the Grauballe Man was one of the most well-preserved bodies in the world.
Found near the village of Grauballe in Jutland, the bizarre corpse was unearthed by a peat digger whose shovel hit something surprisingly rigid, and further digging revealed a leathery grimacing head protruding from the ground.
Overnight the find became a sensation, and the site was subsequently trampled by curious onlookers, many of whom actually touched and stepped on the corpse.
Thankfully as word spread the following day, a local professor secured the site and arranged for the body to be moved – ensconced in a block of peat – to a nearby museum for further examination.
To his and his colleagues’ surprise, even the man’s internal organs were largely intact.
Radiocarbon dating of the liver revealed that he was about 30-years-old and that he’d lived in the late 3rd century BC during the Germanic Iron Age, or more than 4,000 years ago.
Even more shockingly however, they determined that he’d died from having his throat slit, which severed both his oesophagus and trachea.
The corpse’s skull also showed signs of severe trauma, initially thought to have resulted from a blow to the head either immediately before or after the cut was made, though a CT scan later determined that it had been caused by bog pressure after his death.
As horrific as the finding was, the Grauballe Man was just one of a number of bodies found in the bogs of Jutland over the years, and many had suffered similar fates.
It’s widely believed that human sacrifices were relatively common then thanks largely to Paganism, though it’s not clear how it was determined who’d be killed to appease the gods.
The Grauballe Man’s hands were smooth and uncalloused indicating that he wasn’t a laborer or farmer, but studies of his teeth showed that during childhood he’d suffered prolonged periods of starvation, as evidenced by a calcium deficiency and deformed spine, the latter of which was partially due to his age which was well past middle age for the time.
Over the years the skin hardened, the body shrunk, and the surviving hair and bones absorbed the redness of the peat giving the corpse a devilish color.
No other artifacts or clothes were found at the site, which means they’d deteriorated or that he’d been buried naked.
Though most previously discovered bog bodies were reburied after examination, the team of local scientists decided to preserve Grauballe Man and keep him on permanent display for the public to enjoy.
However shortly after exhumation, confirming scientists fears, a pervasive mold began to appear on the body which eventually would have destroyed it lest a suitable method of preservation was found.
Though a number of options were considered, the team ultimately settled on a less than contemporary means of protecting the rare and historic find.
First they tanned the skin in a process similar to making leather, after which they filled the body cavity with oak bark and enclosed it in an airtight case.
In 1955 Grauballe Man was permanently moved to the Moesgaard Museum near Aarhus where it can still be seen today.
Roman Infant Bones
Described as heartrending, ghastly and utterly chilling, for millennia a pile of infant bones lay hidden in a well near a Roman-era villa in rural England.
By the time the relatively complete and intact skeletons were discovered in 1912 the remains were already nearly 2,000 years old.
Located near the village of Hambleden, excavations unearthed nearly 100 deceased infants, nearly all of which died from unnatural causes, or put more bluntly, infanticide.
While still in their mother’s wombs, children’s bones grow rapidly and predictably, and it’s therefore possible to determine age to within just a few weeks by examining the sizes of leg and arm bones, and of the remains found in the well nearly had all gestated for between 38 and 40 weeks, which is when most children are born.
But it appears as though the infants weren’t killed first, but thrown down the well while still alive, and just a day or two old.
The well also contained other common household refuse like pottery shards clearly showing that it was little more than a trash heap, which goes a long way toward explaining how newborns were viewed then.
In Roman times infants weren’t typically viewed as fully human until they were nearly 6-months- old, which as shocking as it is to us now means that throwing them into a well may not have had any more significance than taking out the garbage.
At the time of their discovery the remains didn’t warrant more than casual examination, because in the early 20th century historians and archaeologists were more interested in reconstructing the history of Britain in general, and more specifically, the waves of immigrants and invaders who’d eventually go on to make up large portions of the country’s collective DNA.
So shortly after their discovery, the tiny bones were unceremoniously packed away in cigarette boxes where they spent more than 100 years in obscurity in a dusty museum archive room.
The most prominent theory as to why they were killed is that they’d resulted from sex in a brothel, where in the absence of birth control it was the prostitutes’ and owner’s responsbility to dispose of unwanted babies.
By comparison, infants properly buried in other medieval cemeteries around Great Britain show a much wider range of ages, indicating natural deaths from a variety of causes including injury, starvation and disease.
The villa or large country estate near where the remains were found was largely isolated, but it lay at a popular crossroads often visited by travelers, probably due largely to its proximity to the River Thames.
In addition, pots found near the site featured erotic designs which support the brothel theory.
Another position purports that the babies were killed by poverty stricken parents who couldn’t feed them, but by the standards of the day the site was relatively wealthy and prosperous, so it’s likely that they could have been kept alive.
Some historians suggest that back then infanticide was a routine method of “culling” children born into families of modest means, and that it was a surprisingly widespread phenomenon.
Until recently, and even in some societies now, infanticide is not only tolerated, but accepted as a way to limit family size.
Though the practice doesn’t sit well in developed countries, in impoverished nations it’s seen as a practical way of ensuring that those children allowed to live have more of a fighting chance when conditions are harsh and resources are scarce.
The Screaming Mummies of Luxor
In the early 1880s a cache of royal corpses was discovered deep within a hidden chamber in the ancient Egyptian city of Luxor.
Full of fascinating artifacts and opulent adornments befitting its regal occupants, the cache’s most notable finds were the so-called Screaming Mummies, aptly named for the grizzly countenances frozen onto their tortured faces.
Recent CT scans and DNA analysis have determined that one belonged to Prince Pentawere, the son of King Ramses III, who was apparently forced to commit suicide by hanging as penance for his role in his father’s murder.
But as horrible as his exit from this world was, the unlucky prince’s journey through the afterlife wouldn’t be any better.
In fact, his mummification was quick and shoddy.
His internal organs weren’t removed as was the custom, and instead of being clad in clean white linen as his stature might have warranted, he was wrapped in sheepskin indicating that he was no longer royal, and was therefore unclean.
And he wasn’t the only mummy in the tomb sporting a horrid death mask.
There was also an older woman whose face showed similar signs of abject terror dubbed the “Screaming Woman Mummy”.
Though it’s not clear why she ended up like the prince, it’s evident that like him she did die a horrible death, but the post-death care with which she’d been treated was decidedly different.
To uncover the mystery, scientists from Cairo University looked at a number of linen scrolls found among the remains, one of which referred to the female as the Royal Daughter.
Unlike the young Prince however, she died in her 60s and received royal treatment prior to burial, which included having her organs removed and her body cavity filled with scented resins after which she was wrapped in pure linen.
Based on the contradictory evidence, questions arose as to the circumstances of her death.
Subsequent analysis revealed that she was infected with and probably died from a degenerative disease called atherosclerosis, which is characterized by the calcification and eventual blocking of blood vessels that typically leads to the cessation of blood flow and ultimately death.
Whereas other occupants of the tomb were laid out straight with their mouths closed by wrapping, her head was twisted, her mouth was agape, and her body had curled in on itself.
Some scientists believe a heart attack was to blame, but whatever the case she certainly died suddenly, violently, painfully, and of natural causes.
Over the years the cache’s dark arid conditions kept the bodies largely preserved, and at least in the case of the Royal Daughter, it’s likely that thanks to her convulsive state the embalmers weren’t strong enough to straighten her out.
And after all, once the tomb was sealed, who would ever know?
At least until thousands of years later when historians, scientists and archaeologists stumbled onto the tomb.
The Venetian Vampire
Remains unearthed in a mass grave near Venice, Italy in 2009 may have belonged to a woman who’d been accused of being a witch when she was alive.
Though she was buried in the mid-16th century amidst hundreds of other unfortunate souls who succumbed to the ravages of the plague, a brick was inserted in the Venetial Vampire’s jaw, which was a common method of exorcism at the time.
The alleged vampire was discovered by forensic archaeologists from the University of Florence on the Ventian island of Lazzaretto Nuovo, but it’s possible that the woman may only have been labeled a vampire after her death.
Belief in vampires was rampant in the Middle Ages, largely because the process of decomposition wasn’t understood.
It’s possible that as the woman’s internal organs rotted after her death, she emitted dark purge fluid that flowed freely and copiously from her mouth and nose.
It’s also probable that the burial site was visited frequently as more and more bodies were disposed of, and that the brick was placed in her mouth after death by superstitious laborers who may have confused the vile blood-like fluid with the blood of her supposed victims.
In addition, if she was interred in a burial shroud the caustic fluid may have eaten through it making it look like she’d attempted to chew her way to freedom after her death.
During an era in which diseases weren’t understood, blame was often laid at the feet of witches and vampires, and it was widely believed that inserting bricks and rocks into their mouths halted the spread of the disease and prevented them from preying on the living from the grave.
Bone analysis revealed that the Venetian Vampire had subsisted on a meager diet of vegetables and grains, suggesting she was poor and possibly homeless.
She was old too, probably between 60 and 70 at the time of her death based on the length of her canine teeth.
In the 16th century most Europeans didn’t live to such an advanced age, which may have made some wonder just how she’d manage to live so long, especially during such an epic pandemic.
However it’s unlikely that age alone would have resulted in such a nefarious accusation, because though the average life expectancy was just slightly more than 40 years, high infant mortality brought the rates down significantly, and living past 60 wasn’t unheard of.
But other occult and even misogynistic societal elements may have played into the old woman’s demise, namely that it was commonly assumed that old, poor, widowed women were more likely to be lured into making pacts with the devil after being promised everything from youth and wealth to prestige and even sex.
At their height, the great European witch purges lasted between 1550 and 1650 AD, during which time it’s estimated that as many as 100,000 women were accused of being witches and vampires, and more than half of them may have been executed as a result.
Though witch hunts were more common in other European countries like Germany, they happened in Italy as well, which isn’t particularly surprising since many historical texts blame them for everything from spreading disease and luring men away from their wives, to devouring children and casting spells on those they’d had disputes with when they were alive.
In the end, the “Vampire of Venice” was probably just a poor, elderly woman who may have died from the plague like her burial site counterparts.
Facial reconstruction based on the shape of her skull revealed that she looked pretty much what one would expect an old woman who suffered through a long hard life in the Middle Ages to look like, and to add insult to injury, she was probably the victim of a grave historical injustice which labeled her as a witch and vampire too.