7 Creepy Archaeological Discoveries

Archaeologists make incredible discoveries every day. Sometimes these discoveries can be scary.

Apr 7, 2023By Santana Harmon, MLIS, BA History w/ Anthropology Minor

aztec skull mask shackled skeletons phaliron athens


Archaeologists piece history together with the sites and artifacts that they uncover. Even a simple artifact like a stone tool can provide enough information on how early people lived. Sometimes, however, archaeologists make gruesome discoveries that force us to face death and the evils of humanity. Here are 7 of the creepiest archaeological discoveries.


1. Screaming Mummy

Screaming Mummy known as Man “E”, 1886, via the University of Chicago Libraries


A mummy known as Man “E” was unwrapped in 1886 by the head of the Egyptian Antiquities Service, Gaston Maspero. Man E was found inside a plain coffin wrapped in sheepskin. Maspero was shocked to find the mummy’s hands and feet bound. The most shocking part was that the face was frozen in a way that made it look like the mummy was screaming.


Due to the way the face and body were contracted, the scientists believed that Man E might have been poisoned or buried alive. Whatever the cause, the man was definitely in pain when he died. Also he was not mummified in the traditional way and still had all of his internal organs. Maspero brought forth the theory that the mummy might be Prince Pentewere, the son of Ramesses III. Pentewere, along with his mother Tiy, was involved in a conspiracy to murder his father. The conspirators were caught and likely killed. Whomever this mummy may be, his creepy facial expression continues to fascinate people all over the world.


2. Bog Bodies

Tollund Man Bog Body, via Museum Silkeborg


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Bog bodies are cadavers that have been preserved in the peat bogs of Europe. They are noteworthy because of how well the peat preserves the body. Many of the bog bodies discovered still look quite lifelike as the unique conditions of the peat bogs help preserve their skin, hair, and internal organs. Many are fascinating and a little creepy, thanks to how well their faces are preserved. The oldest bog body, the Koelbjerg Man, was found in Denmark and dated back to around 8000 BCE.


One of the most famous and interesting bog bodies is the Tollund Man. He was discovered in 1950, lying on his side with a rope around his neck. Judging by the injuries to his neck, scientists believe that he was hanged. It is also possible that he was sacrificed rather than murdered because he was placed in the bog with great care. Tollund Man’s face looks very peaceful, almost like he is sleeping.


The Grauballe Man, via Wikimedia Commons


However, the Grauballe Man, who passed somewhere between 400-200 BCE, does not look so peaceful. His leg was broken, and his throat slit before he was placed into the bog. His expression is strained, and his body is twisted. Although it is believed that he was also sacrificed like the others, it remains unknown why these men were possibly chosen as sacrificial victims.


3. Otzi the Iceman

Otzi the Iceman’s refrigerated cell, via The South Tyrell Museum of Archaeology


Otzi the Iceman was discovered accidentally by German hikers in 1991 when the ice surrounding his body began to melt. His body had been preserved by ice and snow for about 5,300 years in the Otzal Alps along the Austro-Italian border. His weapons and clothing were discovered near his body. It is the good condition in which the body, clothing, and weapons were preserved that make Otzi an archaeological marvel.


However, there are a few disturbing details, like the position in which the body froze, with the left stiff arm folded across the body. It is believed that Otzi the Iceman was a murder victim. At first, archaeologists thought that he had died in an accident or from exposure to the cold. After an X-ray scan in 2001, it was discovered that Otzi had an arrowhead in his left shoulder, and an entry wound was found on his back. Those studying Otzi believe that this wound would have killed him quickly. They also found a severe head wound. A wound on his hand indicated that he had been in a fight the days before his death. There appears to be no doubt that Otzi was murdered, but the reasons for his death remain a mystery.


It is also believed there was an Otzi “curse” that affected a number of people who were involved in the discovery of his body.


4. Poland Vampire Burials

Skeleton found in Poland buried with a sickle over the neck, via Smithsonian Magazine


Over the last decade, archaeologists in various Slavic countries have found multiple examples of “vampire” burials, i.e., individuals suspected of being vampires and buried in ways that would prevent them from returning to life.


In 2013, graves were discovered during the construction of a new road near the town of Gliwice, Poland. The deceased had been decapitated and buried with their heads between their feet. Decapitation was believed to keep the dead from rising from their graves.


Other later discovered graves showcased other methods for keeping the dead from coming back. For example, the skeleton of a woman was buried with a sickle over her pelvis. Other skeletons were found buried with sickles over their throats so that they would be decapitated if they rose from the dead. Other methods of burial found include burying the body upside down or with a brick in the mouth. Seeing the violent way these individuals were buried invokes an uneasy feeling.


5. Shackled Skeletons

Shackled skeletons found in a mass grave in Palaio Faliro, 2016, via Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters


In 2016, at least 80 shackled skeletons were discovered in Palaio Faliro, a suburb of Athens, Greece. The skeletons are a disturbing sight. Their hands are shackled, and many lie with open mouths as if they were screaming when they died. The skeletons belong to young men who were apparently in good health.


Archaeologists believe that these men may have been followers of Cylon, the nobleman and Olympic champion, who attempted to take over Athens around the 7th century BCE. This infamous event was known as the Cylon Affair. After Cylon’s coup failed, his followers took refuge in Athena’s temple on the Acropolis. According to Thucydides, the followers were killed right after leaving the temple. Pottery found at the site helped archaeologists date the burials to the period when the coup took place. However, it is also possible that the skeletons belonged to slaves or criminals. Still, experts argue that the respectful way in which they were buried suggests otherwise. Whoever these people might have been, they were obviously victims of a violent mass execution.


6. Neanderthal Cannibalism

Reconstruction of an elderly Neanderthal man, via Pressebilder Neanderthal Museum, Mettmann


A cave in Goyet, Belgium, has provided evidence that Neanderthals practiced cannibalism. Bones found in the cave showed signs of being butchered, having marrow extracted, and being shaped into tools. There is also evidence of cannibalism at Neanderthal sites from other countries. However, since such evidence is not found on every site, it is unclear why some Neanderthal groups might have turned to eating each other.


In the Goyet cave, the retrieved human bones belonged to four adults and one child. Other bones found belonged to butchered animals and were cut in the same way. Experts continue to question what caused some Neanderthal groups to turn to cannibalism. Malnutrition could have been the cause, but there is no proof at the Goyet site that this was the case. It has also been theorized that this practice may have had a religious aspect. In any case, it is almost impossible to know for sure, but what is clear is the disturbing fact that our early ancestors ate each other on occasion.


7. Aztec Skull Rack and Towers

Skull Towers discovered at Tenochtitlan site in Mexico City, 2015 via Science.org


Since the Aztec practice of human sacrifice is well-known, it is not surprising that multiple human skulls have been discovered in Aztec temples. An enormous tzompantli, or skull rack, stood outside the Templo Mayor in the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan. The skulls were not merely decoration but were meant to be spiritual symbols. In 2015, archaeologists discovered two towers flanking the skull wall. The towers were also made up entirely of human skulls. Archaeologists at the National Institute of Anthropology and History estimated that the rack and walls must contain thousands of skulls, revealing the massive scale of human sacrifice taking place.


Aztec Skull Mask found at Tenochtitlan, via Mostardi Photography/Science.org


These skulls likely belonged to sacrificial victims and enemy warriors. Archaeologists theorize that once the skulls began to deteriorate on the rack, they would be moved to the towers. The Spanish wrote about the tzompantli when they arrived in the city and were horrified. One can only imagine how terrifying the skull rack and towers must have been when looking up at the giant temple.

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By Santana HarmonMLIS, BA History w/ Anthropology MinorSantana holds a BA in History with a minor in Anthropology and a master’s degree in Library Science from the University of Alabama. Her primary interests are Mesoamerican and European history. In her free time, she enjoys playing video games and spending time with her dog, Marcy.