What’s the best thing you’ve ever found? It’s a common question asked of archaeologists and one that more often than not leaves disappointment dashed across the face of the asker. The Lost Gold of Eldorado? The Tomb of Ozymandias? Richard the Fourth? The Fifth? Maybe even… the Sixth?
Replace expectations of all the above with charcoal, carved stones and, well, a load of old rubbish, and you’re coming somewhere closer to archaeologists day-today reality. So we’ve compiled five discoveries you can borrow in these times of need to add a bit of pizazz to your discoveries CV. But to be honest, we’re actually quite glad we didn’t dig up this lot.
A dig like any other. Checking there’s nothing too important hiding underground in Dorset before all is destroyed by a new road. Oh wait what’s that, a skeleton? Still not too exciting. Try 51 skeletons, but you’ve probably still heard better. How about 51 decapitated Viking skeletons with their heads thrown into a careless heap a few metres away? Now we’ve got your attention. Most likely a captured raiding party, cut marks show the falling axe was far from accurate. The skeletons were hacked all around the neck and jaw; one man’s hand wounds suggest he tried in vain to avert the course of the blade. Whatever you do we don’t recommend taking a stroll along this road on a dark night. The headless horseman sounds bad enough; we really have no desire to bump into the headless band of Viking raiders.
So you find a mysterious Mesolithic stone structure, which had been built on the bottom of a shallow lake. On closer inspection you find it contains the skulls of eleven individuals ranging from children to the elderly. Two of these skulls have stakes still embedded all the way from their base to their top. Another one of these skulls has had the broken skull bone from a different individual placed inside it like a macabre sort of Russian doll. Do you a.) go running for the hills screaming about curses b.) make excuses about needing to clean your trowel and escape site ASAP or c.) take careful samples for testing. You guessed it… The skulls were dated to 6212–5717 BC though the reasons for such a complex depositional process remain unsolved.
Just in case you haven’t had enough of mass burials we’ve got one more to give, and trust us it only gets worse. How can we make the mass burial of 100 individuals in a sewer under a late Roman-early Byzantine bathhouse as creepy as it possibly can be? Oh did we mention they are all babies? It’s the first time ever we’re hoping some awful epidemic or famine wiped out new born babies but no, of course the truth is much worse. The same age at death, a few days old, and the absence of signs of disease or skeletal malformation point to one thing, infanticide. The grim suggestion that takes the forefront is that this may have been no ordinary ‘bath house’; it perhaps had the odd ‘massage’ on offer too. This has been suggested to explain the higher frequency of male skeletons as well, with some females allowed to live to keep on the family prostitution business.
In 1933 archaeologist Robert du Mesnil du Buisson was digging in the area of Dura-Europos, where the ancient Persians sieged the Romans, when he found a series of tunnels. Nothing too out of the ordinary there. What was unusual was the pile of 19 Roman soldiers who had dropped to their deaths at one end of a tunnel seemingly due to the powerful supernatural powers of the one Persian who confronted them at the other end (the exertion of which killed him too). Yes, OK, we’re getting a bit carried away with the interpretation here, but the truth is in fact even more unbelievable. This has been interpreted as the earliest attempt at chemical warfare, recognised by the traces of sulphur and bitumen on the walls. The suggestion is that bitumen and sulphur crystals were ignited to create poisonous gas, which was then funnelled through the tunnel with the use of underground chimneys and bellows. Unfortunately for the Persian, who seems to be clawing frantically at his own body, someone needed to release the gas. He definitely drew the short straw on that one.
We know what you’re thinking, you’re going to throw in the trowel and apply for a job in the cosy confines of the archaeology section of a library. And we don’t blame you, if the last four finds haven’t been enough to put you off archaeology for life this one will be. Meet the screaming mummies. Although these may be our creepiest to discover, they are actually the result of a natural and pretty un-creepy process. The jaw of humans naturally falls open during the process of decay if it not strapped closed. Most burial practices account for this, but poor you if you excavate one that doesn’t. As they say on Crime Watch – Good Night, and don’t have nightmares!
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