Our history lies beneath our feet and hundreds of thousands of diggers are on its trail. It’s not all Indiana Jones for the average archaeologist though, most of the work is boring, repetitive, and muddy and doesn’t end up changing our understanding of history. But sometimes these tenacious academics do chance across something spectacular. An uninspiring Leicester car park turned out to be the final resting place of King Richard III of England – Shakespeare’s ‘my kingdom for a horse’ baddy – and the royal bones are now the subject of a legal dispute over where they should finally be laid to rest.
But we’re interested in the strange, the ghoulish and the disturbing – and human history hasn’t been short on any of those.
These 10 discoveries might have been better left undiscovered.
1 – The pointy-headed Mexican ‘aliens’
The residents of Onavas in the northern Mexican state of Sonora had a surprise in 1999 when they discovered a cemetery in their community. The burials were old and was the first pre-Hispanic burial ground discovered in the state. But eyebrows started to go up when 13 of the 25 bodies came out of the ground with very pointy heads and they were soon dubbed ‘aliens’.
They are nothing of the sort of course, but simply the result of a rather strange cultural practice. Forcing skulls to grow into strange shapes has been around since 45,000 BC. Catching kids when they’re young and the bones of the skull are soft means you can force them to grow into any shape you want, though pointy and flat seem the most popular. It’s often used to demonstrate privilege or social status – you know, ‘look at him, he’s one of the elite with that fabulous pointed head’ – and seems to have existed at some point in almost all parts of the globe. The people around Toulouse, in France, were still binding heads into the early 20th century.
The Mexican burials were overwhelmingly of young people and archaeologists believe that they may even have been killed by over-enthusiastic head binding.
2 – Dozens of dead babies in Israel
Archaeologists spend much of their time looking for bodies, but the close to 100 baby skeletons discovered in an Ashkelon sewer shocked the experts who excavated the site. The remains have been dated to the late Roman or early Byzantine period and the dead babies had apparently been chucked into a drain soon after they died. The state of the bodies’ teeth suggests they died soon after childbirth.
There is no evidence of some terrible disaster and the scientists have concluded that this burial probably represents an outbreak of child killing, the reasons for which they have yet to nail down. Initially they thought the babies were girls and victims of a male dominated society, but DNA testing proved the majority of the bodies belonged to boys. This led to a new theory, that the mothers had been prostitutes who discarded male babies keeping the girls to follow them into business, the bath house above the sewer may have been a brothel. But that theory has been shot down too, the value of slaves was such that babies could be sold rather than killed. For now, this terrible piece of history remains a mystery.
3 – The ancient atom bomb?
The ancient cities of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro in Pakistan were the centers of an ancient civilization which has got some people scratching their heads. Some have even suggested that the cities were destroyed in an ancient nuclear conflict.
Digs seem to tell the story of a city that developed a very advanced technology but then stopped progressing. The cities seem to have been destroyed in some sort of catastrophe and the presence of radioactivity at the sites, some crystallized bricks and apparently unburied body have led some to jump to the conclusion that they were wiped out by an ancient atom bomb. As well as the vitrified walls they also point to texts from the ancient Mahabharata which could certainly be read as the description of a nuclear explosions.
This is all very fringe stuff, you won’t find any mainstream archaeologists supporting the theory, but it has a widespread following online.
Sadly, the main threat to the two cities now is a lack of proper archaeological work and restoration.
4 – Portugal’s underwater pyramids
Out in the Azores lies a massive underwater pyramid, 60 meters in height and with an 8,000 meter square base. They were discovered by a sailor who was so freaked out by what his instruments had picked up that he kept it quiet and started doing some homework before he reported to the authorities.
The Azores have only been officially on the map since 1431. However, sailors may have been visiting the islands – and marking them on their charts – long before that and there may be a much older civilization associated with the islands. The legendary sunken Atlantic civilization of Atlantis has been intriguing people for centuries and that too has been linked with the Azores.
It’s still very early days in the story of these structures, which were only reported in September 2013. The Portuguese government says they can’t be man-made but the navy is investigating and archaeologists and less scientific investigations are sure to follow.
5 – The headless Vikings
When you’re digging up Vikings you might expect a certain amount of violence to be evident. But the 54 dead Vikings found in Dorset, UK. The Ridgeway Hill burial pit was discovered while archaeologists were digging in advance of a major road improvement project and contains 54 bodies but only 51 heads.
The bodies themselves had been dismembered and the body parts stacked by type. The men were discovered to have all been killed at the same time before being chucked, naked, into an existing Roman quarry. High tech archaeology and DNA testing means the men can be identified as Scandinavians and the killing dated to around 910 to 1030 AD. The victims had all been killed with a sword, but not cleanly, there was a fair amount of hacking around.
Why the man were slaughtered remains a mystery. Vikings and Saxons were in pretty constant conflict in Britain and in 1002 King Ethelred the Unready ordered the killing of all Danes in his kingdom in what became known as the St Brice’s Day Massacre. The men may have been raiders who lost their final battle, or defectors caught by their own side. Whatever happened at this gruesome sight it seems at least a couple of the dead had their heads taken as trophies.
6 – The Venice vampire
A Venetian body with a brick forced into its mouth opens the door to a simpler time. The woman was found in a plague pit along with host of other bodies. The stone in the jaw was a traditional way of exorcising suspected vampires at the time of her death in the 16th century.
The skull was found in 2009 and is the first identified vampire ever excavated. Vampires and witches were commonly sought out in early modern Europe. Vampires were thought to be responsible for the spread of plague and the way bodies decompose meant that many corpses were posthumously condemned and had the tell-tale rock shoved in their jaws.
A fair amount of research into the body has revealed that the suspected vampire was probably from the poorer classes of the city but had reached the impressive age of at least 61 when she died. Her age – when most women died much younger – may have counted against her and led to accusations of witchcraft.
7 – Balls in Costa Rica
Spheres are pretty fundamental in human culture – we live on a globe after all – and they obviously meant a great deal to the Diquis peoples of Costa Rica who carved more than 300 perfect spheres and left them to mystify future generations.
Some of the balls are tiny, some are massive, the largest weighs around 15 tons, and they’re carved from all sorts of local stone. They could have been created any time from 200 AD to the arrival of the Spanish who wiped out the culture.
When they were discovered in the 1930s they weren’t treated with the reverence they deserved and some of the workers who found them started trying to blow them up to see if they contained hidden caches of gold.
Such strange objects have naturally attracted a fair amount of myth and legend. Were they evidence of an off-shore Atlantis? Were they natural? Did their creators have some magical potion that helped them to produce such perfect work? They’re reckoned to represent cannon balls used by the Diquis thunder god to fight the god of hurricanes.
8 – The Antikythera mechanism
The Antikythera mechanism is so complex and so advanced that it took a century from its discovery in a ship wreck for it to be properly understood. The machine has been described as an ‘analog computer’ dating from the 1st century BC and nothing similar was made until the 14th century.
This astronomical clock was made by Greeks, probably from Corinth, and was used as a highly complex predictive device. Its host vessel was wrecked while the mechanism was still pretty new. It may have been being transported by Romans along with other loot. Divers found the wreck of the Antikythera in 1900, but didn’t think enough of the lump or rusting metal that the mechanism had become to bring it to the surface. An archaeologist picked it up a couple of years later and after found what he thought was a gear in the metal. It wasn’t until the 1970s that x-rays and scans were able to reveal its complexity.
The study of the mechanism has become a field in its own right, with several scientists trying to make models of what they think was going on amongst all those gears and cogs. They’re still examining and extrapolating now on a machine that’s 2,000 years old but has taken at least a century to understand.
9 – The Baghdad Batteries
Another example of ancient scientists knowing more than we thought they could may be found in the so-called Baghdad Battery, which date from the first centuries after Christ and which may have been used to electroplate jewelry with gold more than 1,000 years before Volta invented the modern battery.
They don’t look like much: just pots with a copper cylinder around an iron rod inside. The dating is uncertain but it’s certainly true that everything is present to produce a very simple battery. The man who first promoted the battery theory – a German archaeologist called Konig – was inspired by a number of Iraqi silver finds that had been coated with gold in a manner similar to the more modern practice of electroplating.
Konig’s theories have now been subject to a great deal of criticism and many modern experts believe the jars were used to store scrolls, however, experiments have shown that the electroplating should have been possible using the battery’s set up.
10 – The Voynich manuscript
We all like a good mystery, but we generally want a solution at the end of the road. Sadly, the Voynich manuscript is still impossible to understand.
The book was produced between 1404 and 1438 and is named after a book dealer who owned it early in the 20th century. But what its 240 or so pages contain is still not known, despite the attentions of many of the world’s best code breakers.
Written in an alphabet largely composed of between 20 and 30 symbols, statistical analysis shows the book to be ‘language like’ in its construction, but so far no-one has been able to break the code. The book is illustrated with pictures of plants, leading some to believe it’s a herbal guide, but even these plants haven’t been identified definitively. There are also zodiacal signs, astronomical designs and something like maps. The fact that an emperor and the notorious Elizabethan magician Dr John Dee have owned – paying a small fortune – the manuscript make its secrets all the more tantalizing.
Some believe it is a hoax, others that it is in a made-up language or contains only a small amount of useful, secret information surrounded by thousands of ‘words’ of distracting nonsense. Novelists love it though and anything this mysterious is bound to fascinate us for years to come or until it can be deciphered.