Archaeologists excavating remains have the job of forensic detectives to identify how and why an individual exhumed could have died.
Here is an example of some of the most gruesome deaths identified using archaeological techniques.
Lindow Man is the preserved bog body of a man that was discovered in a peat bog at Lindow Moss in Cheshire England. The discovery was made on 1st August 1984 by commercial peat-cutters. Lindow Man was discovered close to where another bog body, named Lindow Woman was also unearthed just 820 feet (250 m) south-west the year before.
At the time of death, Lindow Man would have been a male in his mid-20s. A study of the body indicates that the individual would have been some one of high status, due to little evidence on the body of heavy manual work. The nature of his death is still debated, but it appears to have been embroiled in violence, possible ritualistic.
Lindow Man was strangled, struck on the head and had his throat slit. He was deposited face down around the 2BC and 119AD during either the Iron Age or Romano-British Period. Radiocarbon dating has suggested 300BC, but dating is problematic as the surrounding peat has produced dates spanning a 900 year period.
Hi injuries included a V-shaped 1.4 in cut on the top of the head with a possible laceration at the back of the head. Ligature marks on the neck where a sinew cord was found, possibly by a garrote or necklace; a wound on the side of the neck and a possible stab wound in the upper right chest. His neck was broken and one of the ribs was also fractured. Xeroradiography revealed a blow to the skull by a blunt object or axe which drove fragments into the brain.
Robert Connolly, a lecturer in physical anthropology, suggests that the sinew may have been ornamental and that ligature marks may have been caused by the body swelling when submerged. Lindow Man is now on display at the British Museum in London.
Ridgeway Hill Viking burial pit
Ridgeway Hill Viking burial pit is a site at Ridgeway Hill in Dorset England discovered by Oxford Archaeology. The site contains 54 skeletons and 51 heads of Scandinavians that were executed around AD 910 and 1030.
The grave is believed to contain Vikings that were executed and then dismembered by Anglo-Saxons who arranged the skulls, rib cages and leg bones in separate piles.
Later studies confirmed their Viking lineage by forensic analysis on the teeth of ten skeletons by the NERC Isotope Geosciences Laboratory.
The killings occurred during a time of conflict between the native Anglo-Saxons and on-going Viking invasions. The 54 skeletons were all male, ranging from their late teens to around 25 years old and a handful of older individuals. All the exhumed bodies had been killed with a sharp weapon and had multiple blows to the vertebrae, jawbones and skulls.
Judging from the lack of any grave goods, clothing or possessions, they would probably have been naked when thrown into the pit with some of the heads taken as trophies to place on stakes or as souvenirs.
Ramesses III – the second Pharaoh of the 20th dynasty – is believed to have reigned from 1186 to 1155 BC. The discovery of papyrus trial documents show that in 1155 BC members of his harem made an attempt on his life as part of a palace coup.
The fate of Ramesses III has therefore long been the subject of debate among Egyptologists. So a team of researchers, led by Dr Albert Zink from the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman of the European Academy of Bolzano/Bozen in Italy, undertook detailed anthropological and forensic analyses on the mummies of Ramesses III and unknown man E, the suspected son of the king.
CT scans of Ramesses III revealed a wide and deep wound in the throat of the mummy, probably caused by a sharp blade – and which could have caused immediate death. A Horus eye amulet was also found inside the wound, most probably inserted by the ancient Egyptian embalmers during the mummification process to promote healing.
The neck was covered by a collar of thick linen layers. Analysis of unknown man E revealed an age of 18-20 years, while an inflated thorax and compressed skinfolds around the neck of the mummy suggests violent actions that led to death, such as strangulation. Furthermore, the body was not mummified in the usual way – and was covered with a “ritually impure” goatskin.
Momia Juanita, also known as the Inca Ice Maiden and Lady of Ampato is the preserved frozen body of an Inca Girl (aged between 11-15 yards old) discovered on Mount Ampato in Southern Peru in 1995. She was killed as a sacrificial offering to the Inca Gods around 1450 and 1480AD.
She was discovered inside a small crater in a bundle close to an Inca site that was on the summit of Mount Ampato. Adjacent to where her body was found, was a collection of offerings to the Inca gods strewn across the mountain slope that included statues and food items as offerings.
Juanita was wrapped in a brightly colored burial tapestry (or “aksu”). Her head was adorned with a cap made from the feathers of a red macaw, and she wore a colorful woolen alpaca shawl fastened with a silver clasp. She was fully clothed in garments resembling the finest textiles from the Inca capital city of Cuzco. Found with her in the burial tapestry was a collection of grave goods: bowls, pins, and figurines made of gold, silver, and shell.
Radiologist Elliot Fishman concluded that she was killed by blunt trauma to the head. He observed that her cracked right eye socket and the two-inch fracture in her skull are injuries “typical of someone who has been hit by a baseball bat.” The blow caused a massive hemorrhage, filling her skull with blood and pushing her brain to one side.
Roman Brothel Babies
In a farmer’s field near Hambleden in Buckinghamshire England, a burial site was uncovered in 1921 by Alfred Heneage Cocks, a naturalist and archaeologist that contained close to 100 babies slaughtered by the Romans. The site was suspected of being an ancient brothel and the newborns could have been the unwanted babies discarded by prostitutes.
With little or no effective contraception at the time, infanticide was quite common and babies would simply be murdered as soon as they were born. Measurements of the bones showed that all the babies would have died around 40 weeks gestation, suggesting that their deaths occurred very soon after birth.
The bodies were uncovered underneath walls and a courtyard of a two-storey building, a few hundred yards from the river, with plenty of signs of wealth in the coins and pottery found in the grounds.
The Roman name for the site at Hambleden is lost to antiquity, but the inhabitants would have been a mix of native Britons and Roman settlers. Despite being a small settlement, it was close to the Thames, a busy waterway bringing trade from Londinium and by road at Verulamium making it a prime location for trade and a even a brothel.
Archaeologist Dr Jill Eyers said: ‘The only explanation you keep coming back to is that it’s got to be a brothel.’ Today, in the rolling countryside, there is nothing to suggest it was the scene of mass killings.
On the Venetian island of Nouvo Lazzaretto, a 16th century mass grave of plague victims contained a burial of a shrouded woman who’s mouth was forced open by a brick. This was an exorcism technique used on suspected vampires in Europe at this time.
Plague was running rampant in Venice in 1576, killing up to 50,000, nearly a third of the cities population. Gravediggers reopening mass graves for further burials would sometimes come across bodies where hair would appear to be still growing, blood seeping from their mouths and bloated by gas. The shrouds covering their faces would be decayed by bacteria in the mouth, revealing the corpses and thus identified as vampires or shroud eaters.
The discovery marked the first time that archaeological remains had been interpreted as those of an alleged vampire. DNA analysis of the burial revealed that the woman was European and aged between 61-71 at time of death.
Vampires were thought to be the cause of plagues, with superstition taking root that shroud-eating was a way of identifying vampire infected people. Inserting objects, such as bricks and stones into the mouths of alleged vampires was thought to halt the spread of disease.
While legends about blood-drinking ghouls date back thousands of years, the modern figure of the vampire was encapsulated in the Irish author Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel ‘Dracula,’ based on 18th century eastern European folktales.
Tollund Man is a naturally mummified corpse who lived in the 4th century BC and the Pre-Roman Iron Age. He was discovered in 1950 on the Jutland Peninsula of Denmark in a peat bog. Like Lindow Man, Tollund Man was a bog body where the acid and lack of oxygen underneath the surface had preserved the soft tissues of his body.
At the time of discovery, his body was laid naked in a fetal position and wore a pointed cap made of sheepskin and wool, fastened under his chin by a hide thong. He had a hide belt around his waist and had a noose of plaited animal hide drawn tightly around the neck that trailed down his back.
Under the body was a thin layer of moss that formed in peat bogs around the early Iron Age. Carbon 14 dating indicated that Tollund Man died around 375-210 BC at the age of 40 years old.
The initial autopsy in 1950 concluded that Tollund Man had died by hanging rather than strangulation. The noose left visible furrows in the skin beneath the chin and sides of the neck. Although the cervical vertebrae was undamaged (as they often are in hanging victims), radiography showed that the tongue was distended—an indication of death by hanging.
Mayan Mass Grave at Uxol
Researchers of the Department of Anthropology of the Americas at the University of Bonn discovered a mass grave in an artificial cave in the historical Maya city of Uxul (Mexico).
Marks on the bones indicate that the individuals buried in the cave were decapitated and dismembered around 1,400 years ago. The scientists assume that the victims were either prisoners of war or nobles from Uxul itself.
According to the conclusions reached by the scientists, the spatial pattern of the bones indicates that the corpses of the 24 people had been decapitated and dismembered. Signs of violent death could be proven for the majority. “The observed hatchet marks on the cervical vertebra are a clear indication of decapitation”, Seefeld reports. The forehead of another skull shows an unhealed skull fracture, probably caused by a blow from a cudgel. In addition, numerous skulls show signs of cutting with sharp objects, which might originate from stone hatchets.
Due to their being covered by clay, the bones are so well-preserved that it was possible to distinguish the age and sex of 15 of the 24 individuals. These include 13 men and two women who were aged from 18 to 42 at the time of their death. Analyses of teeth and bones showed that several of the deceased suffered from malnutrition and had lost several teeth to tooth decay.
Some of the dead had tooth inserts of jade. The scientists interpret this as a sign of high social status. However, the archaeologists of the University of Bonn don’t yet know whether they are prisoners of war from another Maya city that were sacrificed in Uxul or nobles from Uxul itself. Only with the help of isotope analysis will it be possible to clarify whether the dead were members of the local population or originate from another region of the lowlands.
Header Image : Ramesses III : Image Credit : WikiPedia