Jana loves compiling and sharing lists about the natural world, science, and history.
1. The Buckinghamshire Mass Graves
Construction crews often find graves by accident. But one of 2020’s first digger-meets-dead situations was certainly not normal. This was not your average forgotten cemetery. When excavators stuck a spade into Buckinghamshire soil, the idea was to build homes for UK retirees. Instead, they found a retired batch of the wrong sort.
Somebody had buried over 42 people in shallow graves - but not before tying their hands behind their backs. The authorities could only say that the skeletons “were prisoners of some sort” and that they hailed from Anglo-Saxon times or the Civil War.
2. Villagers Who Lived Inside The Tower Of London
The famous English landmark is known for housing the crown jewels and the graves of executed queens and traitors alike. A lesser-known fact is that, during Medieval and Tudor times, the fortress bustled with its own village. Hundreds of workers lived inside while shops, chapels, and pubs served their daily needs.
In 2019, two of the former residents were found by accident. Workers excavated a centuries-old chapel when they came across a woman and a 7-year-old girl buried in the floor of an unknown, older chapel. Both skeletons dated to the Medieval-Tudor overlap around 500 years ago and showed signs of illness. The woman also had chronic back problems. They did not die violently but neither did they have comfortable lives. The latter, however, was pretty normal for the time.
Although their names are lost and their graves were forgotten for centuries, the pair received a decent burial and church service shortly after researchers completed their examination of the skeletons.
3. Grave Circles Under A Football Field
For years, players and fans enjoyed a football pitch in Flanders. Nobody knew, however, that underneath their feet was something as old as the pyramids. In 2020, something must have given the game away because archaeologists descended upon the field and found grave circles underneath the grass. The two rings contained cremated human remains and urns from as far back as 3,000 years ago.
The graveyard is by no means unique but one of the circles is the biggest in Flanders, with a diameter of around 55 meters (180 feet). The site was likely used as a graveyard by different settlements from the Bronze Age. People from this era cremated their dead to deter predators from digging up their loved ones.
4. The Basement Soldiers
In 2019, a family tried to add a concrete floor to their basement - only to discovered that they have been living with three skeletons for years. The history of the house suggested they were soldiers. The home stood in Ridgefield, Connecticut. Thirteen years before it was built in 1790, a battle took place between the British and the Americans. Known as the Battle of Ridgefield, both sides lost and buried men in the area. In war, records often fail to name the resting places of each soldier. Indeed, by the time the house was erected over the shallow grave, nobody knew they were there.
The Revolutionary War is unusual in the sense that thousands of soldiers died but few have ever been found. The men in the basement could be among the first, should researchers manage to identify them as soldiers. But due to their lack of wounds and degraded clothing, that answer could be years away.
5. Slavery Brought Hepatitis To The Americas
Three men lived between 1436 and 1626 in western or southern Africa. Then the Spanish sailed by and grabbed them for the transatlantic slave trade. When their bones were discovered, the subsequent harshness of their lives became apparent. They died in their 20s in Mexico, where they suffered hard labour, malnutrition, and bone fractures.
The three men were also contagious. They carried strains of yaws and hepatitis B that are still found in West Africa today but were unknown to the Americas that enslaved them.
This was the smoking gun for another study. Years before, researchers found an individual who died in Mexico and was infected with yaws (the condition causes painful infection of the skin, joints, and bones). The team knew the disease was not local to Mexico and theorized that the Spanish, with their habit of abducting people from Africa during the 1500s, had infected the region. Indeed, he died a century after the men but he carried the same strain.
6. A Kneeling Sacrifice
During the Shang dynasty in China (1600 B.C. to 1046 B.C.), somebody had a bad day. He or she literally lost their head. Afterwards, the decapitated body was placed inside a pit. The upright, kneeling skeleton was later discovered at an archaeological site called Chaizhuang and shared with the world in 2020.
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Human sacrifice was commonplace during this dynasty. One bloody stretch lasted two centuries and 13,000 people died in the city of Yinxu alone. So the fact that the headless person was executed was not surprising. What made it so unusual was the body’s posture.
Most sacrificial skeletons from ancient China are stretched out in their graves. But apart from kneeling, the odd duck also faced north with their hands crossed in front of the chest. Gruesomely, the person might even have died inside the pit. A relic, previously found at the site, described how humans and animals were placed upright inside pits during the preparation phase of their sacrifice.
7. Mongolian Women Fought On Horses
A recently-opened tomb in Mongolia contained nine bodies. Some things were immediately obvious. The individuals were high-status and lived during the Xianbei period (147 to 552 AD). The group also consisted of six men and three women. But when the skeletons were examined more closely, they revealed something interesting.
The men and two of the women were likely archers who fought while on horseback. The Xianbei period was violent and training women as fighters would have boosted the Mongolian ranks. The physical evidence was in favour of this and showed, in both genders, bones altered by constant horse riding, injuries from falling from the saddle, arrow wounds to the head, and the distinct upper-body signs of frequently using a bow.
Interestingly, documents were written around 900 AD that also mention Mongolian women who fought in wars, acted as diplomats, and held political power.
8. A Warrior From The Rosetta Stone Battle
History fans know all about the Rosetta Stone. Carved in 196 BC, it tells the story of a revolt in three languages. The Greek section was the key that cracked Egyptian hieroglyphics for the first time (one of the other two languages).
Around 2,200 years ago, the uprising pitted local Egyptians against King Ptolemy V, a pharaoh from a Greek dynasty. Multiple battles followed but evidence of the conflict today is non-existent. Then in 2011, a skeleton was found at Thmouis. This ancient city stood in the Nile Delta where some of the fighting happened.
The man was a seasoned warrior if his collection of healed injuries stood for anything. But it was the damaged bones that never mended, his location, and discarded body that suggested he perished in the revolt. He was also surrounded by the era’s coins, arrowheads and catapult stones. Overall, when the study concluded in 2019, he became a rare reminder of the brutal violence faced by those in the heat of things, only described on the Rosetta Stone as a victory for the pharaoh.
9. A Disfigured Murder Victim
In 2020, researchers released their findings of a remarkable skeleton. Found in the watery depths of Mexico’s Chan Hol cave, what made this lady so special was her age. Alright, when she died she was 30, which is still young. But her skeleton was nearly 10,000 years old. This placed her among the earliest inhabitants of the region. Her end was violent.
When researchers looked at the skull, they realized that she was horribly disfigured, most likely due to a syphilis-like disease. Three of the injuries, however, had nothing to do with nature. She had been struck with a hard object and the blows broke her skull. The bones did not heal, meaning that the assault either killed the woman outright or caused her death shortly afterwards.
The reason for the murder will never be known. Perhaps her looks made her an outcast. If so, she could have been killed by her people because of the illness or even during a random attack because she lacked the protection of a community. The exact nature of the sickness is also unclear. But if she did suffer from a syphilis strain, it will be the oldest case in the Americas.
10. A Famous Neanderthal Was Not Alone
During the 1950s and 1960s, the fragments of 10 skeletons were discovered in Shanidar Cave. Located in Iraqi Kurdistan, the cave became famous for two reasons. The bones belonged to Neanderthals and one appeared to have been deliberately buried. Curled up in the foetus position and strewn with pollen, the man became known as the Flower Burial.
He is the best evidence that Neanderthals had a complex society that included funerals. However, to prove anything in life, several cases must show the same thing. This is a problem with Neanderthals. Their fossils are scarce and over the years, nothing like the Flower Burial turned up.
In 2019, archaeologists dusted Shanidar for more fragments of the original skeletons. They did not expect to find the top half of a person near the Flower Burial, but there it was. Incredibly, the two Neanderthals were so close their graves almost overlapped.
The stunning skeleton did more than hide in plain sight for decades. Two things pointed at a deliberate burial. First, there was a stone near the man’s skull which could have served as a grave marker. He also rested in a peaceful manner with his arm folded and tucked under his head. One can argue that his body was arranged with care.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Jana Louise Smit
Jana Louise Smit (author) from South Africa on May 12, 2021:
Hi MG. Thanks for taking the time to read the whole thing! It's amazing how often old graves and skeletons reveal important facts about human history. :)
MG Singh emge from Singapore on May 12, 2021:
This looks like a fascinating page from history. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this wonderful article along with the photos.
Jana Louise Smit (author) from South Africa on May 11, 2021:
Hi Linda, sorry for the gruesomeness! :) I'm always fascinated with the hidden stories that only tombs and their artefacts can tell. These tend to reveal amazing lost tidbits of our past.
Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on May 11, 2021:
You’ve described some very interesting discoveries. Some of them are a bit gruesome, but they’re all fascinating!
Jana Louise Smit (author) from South Africa on May 11, 2021:
Hi Peggy. So true. They were a remarkable branch of the human family. I think they deserve more recognition than just "cavemen" haha. :)
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on May 11, 2021:
These are all interesting discoveries. The last one showing that Neanderthals had a complex society was most interesting.