Five… Real Life Archaeological Murder Mysteries

Attila the Hun

Now we all love a good murder mystery, who doesn’t? But we’ve dug up a few ancient cases that would put even Miss Marple to the test.

We’ve just got one question… who dunnit?

1. Old Croghan man

Old Croghan Man

Many of the bog bodies which have been uncovered, naturally preserved by their oxygen-lacking environments, appear to have come to unfortunate ends. Old Croghan man is no exception.  Examination showed he had been horrifically tortured before death with a stab wound in his chest and willows threaded through holes in his upper arms to restrain him. Stab wounds on his upper left arm suggests he may have been trying to protect himself, though was unsuccessful as his remains were found decapitated. Old Croghan man’s seemingly high status and wealth, suggested by a diet of meat and a leather arm ban and bronze amulet found on his body, has led to suggestions of ritual sacrifice as the motive.

2. Rameses III

Rameses II

Evidence of King Rameses III’s violent demise remained a secret for over 3000 years though not through the foresight of his murderers. Bandages covering the mummy’s throat which cannot be removed due to preservation risks hide a grisly secret. Ct scans revealed a slit across Rameses’ throat which could’ve proved fatal. However the mystery here is not who the perpetrators were but if the murder attempt was actually successful. Ancient documents including the Judicial Papyrus of Turin name a group of people who were found guilty of the murder including one of Rameses III’s wives Tiye and her son Pentawere (potential heir to the throne). But records do not agree as to whether the attack actually killed the pharaoh immediately or not.

3. Attila the Hun

Attila the Hun

Ruler of the Hunnic Empire from 440 to 453 AD this case remains open 1,500 years on. Contemporary source Priscus describes death by a severe nosebleed on the night of Attila’s latest (of many) weddings to Ildico, later suggested to have been a haemorrhage. Other sources suggest it was the wife Gudrun, in the bedroom, with the dagger. Where’s Poirot when you need him?!

4. Vindolanda girl

Vindolanda Girl

An archaeologists job is much like a murder detective’s in many ways. The skeleton of this 10 year old girl uncovered at Vindolanda Roman fort had its arms in a position that would suggest the hands had been tied and there were also injuries to the head. The last clue which confirmed suspicions of foul play was the location of the burial, in the corner of the barracks room. Human burials close to built-up areas were forbidden in Roman times, burials were always located on the outskirts of habitation. Thus this has led archaeo-detectives to conclude the girl was murdered and then buried in a rush to avoid suspicion. But who by and why will forever remain a mystery.

5. Tombs of Ur

Tombs of Ur

This seeming mass murder has baffled archaeologists for a long time and has been the cause for many debates. Named ‘The Great Death Pit’ this tomb contained a royal burial with no less than 74 attendants, 6 males and 68 women. Many of these were laid out in rows with cups or jars as if at a banquet. Some were laid next to the tools of their trade, guards next to spears and musicians next to lyres and a harp.

The question is whether this is a huge mass murder scene or whether the participants gave their lives willingly to serve their master after death, perhaps drinking poison from their cups. Either way it has to be one of the most fascinating and intriguing archaeological cold cases we’re ever likely to stumble upon, it’s just a shame it will probably never be solved.

Love archaeology?

DigVentures crowdfunds archaeological projects that everyone can be part of, in the UK and overseas. With help from people all over the world, we investigate the past and publish our discoveries online for free. Become a DigVentures Subscriber and be part of great archaeology - all year round!


Written by Aisling Serrant

An all round museum educator and enthusiast, Aisling's the Family Festival Coordinator at the Museum of London Docklands.

Read more from Aisling Serrant +

Get Dig Mail

Keep up with the latest fun, facts & features from the world of archaeology.

Easy opt-out at any time - Privacy Policy

Archaeology / In Your Hands

Courses for anyone who wants to learn more about archaeology, and have fun while they're doing it!

Archaeology Courses

Our fab archaeology merch: dig team tee-shirts, Tatty Devine jewellery range, tote bags, and more!

Archaeology Shop