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8 Grisly Archaeological Discoveries


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Disturbing digs

 

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In archeology, bone fragments and other haunting reminders of long-dead people are a given. But some discoveries paint particularly gruesome pictures of past lives and deaths. At LiveScience, we've collected a list of the top eight archeological discoveries that give us the creeps.

 


 

Neanderthal cannibals

 

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Archaeology is the study of human society — but for our purposes, Neanderthals are close enough (we did interbreed, after all). In 2010, researchers reported the discovery of the skeletons of a family of Neanderthals in a cave in Spain. What makes the find so chilling is that the bones showed signs of cannibalism.

 

The three adult females, three adult males, three teenagers, two kids and an infant may have become a meal for another group of Neanderthals (humans weren't around in Europe at this time, so they're off the hook). This family isn't the only evidence of Neanderthal cannibalism, archaeologists said. It seems that when times got tough, Neanderthals weren't shy about chowing down on each other.

 


 

Burned Alaskan child

 

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About 11,500 years ago, a 3-year-old child was burned and buried in a hearth in central Alaska. After the cremation, the home that housed the hearth was filled in and abandoned.

 

The lonely body — found as charred bone fragments still arranged as they were when the fire died — struck a nerve with its discoverers, University of Alaska archaeologist Ben Potter and dental anthropologist Joel Irish. Both researchers have children who are about the same age as the ancient Alaskan was when he or she died, Potter said.

 

"That was quite remarkable for both of us to be thinking, beyond the scientific aspect, that yes, this was a living, breathing human being that died," Potter said.

 


 

Tomb mystery

 

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Buried, exhumed, burned and re-buried: That's the post-mortem fate of Alexander the Great's half-brother and successor, Philip III Arrhidaios, according to historical texts. The question is, have archaeologists found what was left of the man after his people got done with him?

 

A royal tomb in Greece containing the burned bones of a man and a young woman could be the resting place of Philip III and his young warrior-queen wife Eurydice, who were respectively killed and forced to commit suicide by Philip III's stepmother, Olympias, the mother of Alexander the Great. But some researchers argue that the entombed man is actually Philip II, Alexander the Great's dad. That would make the woman in the tomb Cleopatra, Philip II's last wife. (A different Cleopatra than the famous Egyptian queen, this Cleopatra nonetheless met a tragic end. She was either killed or forced to commit suicide by Olympias, whose bad side you didn't want to be on.)

 

The debate still rages as to whether the tomb is the final resting place of Philip II or Philip III. The most recent volley of scientific debate hinged on whether the bones were burned dry or covered in flesh and viscera. 

 


 

 Ill-fated expedition

 

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The search for the legendary Northwest Passage claimed many lives, including those of 129 explorers who went searching for a sea route through the Arctic in 1845. Lead by British Rear-Admiral Sir John Franklin, the doomed crew headed into the icy unknown, where they would all perish of starvation, scurvy, hypothermia and exposure.

 

To make matters worse, many of the men's remains show evidence of lead poisoning, probably from the canned foods they were eating. High levels of lead in the body can cause vomiting, weakness and seizures.

 

 At first, the dead received proper — if shallow — burials. Later on in the expedition as more explorers died, researchers say, bodies were left unburied, and some may have been cannibalized. Few bodies have been identified, despite attempts at facial reconstruction, as seen above.

 


 

Ancient Chemical Warfare

 

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Ancient warfare was a messy matter, but a group of 20 or so Roman soldiers may have met a particularly nasty death nearly 2,000 years ago. During a siege of the Roman-held Syrian city of Dura, Persian soldiers dug tunnels under the city walls in an attempt to undermine them. The Romans retaliated by digging their own tunnels in an attempt to intercept the Persians. But the Persians heard them coming, and some archaeologists think they prepared a grisly trap: A cloud of noxious petrochemical smoke that would have turned the Romans' lungs to acid.

 

The tunnels were excavated in the 1920s and '30s, and have been reburied now. But some modern archaeologists think the placement of the skeletons and the presence of sulfur and bitumen crystals suggests chemical warfare. The choking gas would have been like "the fumes of hell," archaeologist Simon James of the University of Leicester told LiveScience.

 


 

The first leper

 

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Leprosy, now known as Hansen's disease, has long carried a stigma. The disease is not very contagious, but lepers have been banished and snubbed throughout history, owing in part to the disfiguring sores caused by the disease.

 

One archaeological find suggests that the stigma surrounding leprosy goes way back. A 4,000-year-old skeleton discovered in India is the oldest known archaeological evidence of leprosy. The fact that the skeleton survived suggests the person was an outcast: Hindu tradition calls for cremation, and only those deemed unfit were buried. The skeleton was buried in a stone enclosure filled with ash from burned cow dung, a substance then thought to be sacred and purifying.

 


 

Leper warrior

 

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Lepers haven't always been universally reviled. In medieval Italy, they may have even joined the ranks of soldiers and fought battles. A skeleton recently unearthed in a medieval Italian cemetery bears the telltale signs of leprosy as well as what appears to be a sword wound. The man, who may have died in battle, was buried with his comrades.

 

Other graves in the cemetery are similarly macabre. At least two contained the bodies of men who'd survived massive head trauma, including what looks like a battle-ax wound. One man, likely wounded by a mace, seems to have gotten the medieval version of brain surgery after the injury.

 


 

Acrobat sacrifice

 

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Evidence of human sacrifice is found the world over, but one discovery of a possible sacrifice site, reported in 2008 in the journal Antiquity, seems particularly bizarre. In an ancient building in what is now Syria, archaeologists uncovered a strange arrangement of human and animal bones. Three human skeletons lay side-by-side, headless. Judging by unusual skeletal injuries and overdeveloped attachment areas for ligaments and bones, the researchers identified one of the skeletons as a possible acrobat.

 

The building was filled with dirt and abandoned after the headless bodies were left there, leading the researchers to suspect that the animals and entertainers were sacrifices, perhaps left after a natural disaster of some sort. Celebrity in ancient Syria may have had its downsides. 

 


 

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