The strangest archaeological finds of 2021 — during yet another strange year for humanity — cast their spells on the world this past twelve months.
From a “curse jar” found in Athens containing the bones of a dismembered chicken to a marble skull created by a genius sculptor, 2021 certainly had its odd and unsettling archaeological moments as researchers returned to the field after a year of pandemic-related interruptions.
Archaeologists believe that a 2,300-year-old jar from ancient Greece containing the bones of a dismembered chicken was likely used as part of a curse to paralyze and kill 55 people in Athens. The recent discovery brings new evidence to light regarding the use of magic in Ancient Greece.
Strangest archeological finds include witchs’ curse, skulls, writing from humanity’s most distant past
“Curse tablets” or thin sheets of lead inscribed with curses against a certain person, are well known in Greece. They are commonly found underneath the ground after being buried there many centuries ago by the person who wanted someone to be cursed.
But in a twist on this type of witchery, in June of this year archaeologists discovered the pottery jar filled with chicken bones, along with a coin, underneath the floor of the Athens Agora’s Classical Commercial Building, which millennia ago was the site of craftsmen who plied their trades there.
Jessica Lamont, a professor of Classics at Yale University, wrote in an article published in the American School of Classical Studies in Athens’ journal Hesperia “The pot contained the dismembered head and lower limbs of a young chicken.”
Lamont noted “All exterior surfaces of the (jar) were originally covered with text; it once carried over 55 inscribed names, dozens of which now survive only as scattered, floating letters or faint stylus strokes.”
The professor then added the Greek writing uses words that may mean “we bind.”
The more commonly seen lead sheets containing curses often feature perforations made with nails; likewise, the person who cast his particular curse also thrust a large iron nail through the pottery jar containing the bones.
In another of the strangest archaeological finds of 2021, a skull that had been on the desk of Pope Alexander VII for years as a “Memento Mori,” or a reminder of our mortality, was found to be a sculpture created by the Baroque master sculptor Bernini. After being displayed for almost 200 years — with no attribution — in the Dresden State Art Collection’s archaeology department, a researcher finally took a closer look at the skull this year.
Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister stated of the work that it was “[S]o realistically sculpted that it could almost be mistaken for a genuine human skull.”
3,500-year-old Babylonian Tablet
Archaeologists uncovered a 3,500-year-old Babylonian tablet in October which might show the earliest-ever human depiction of a ghost.
Irving Finkel, the British Museum curator who first saw the image this year, told the Observer in October that when seen from above under a light — like that of a torch, which may have been used to illuminate the image — “those figures leap out at you across time in the most startling way.”
Incredibly, the tablet also contains a written how-to on exorcising ghosts, leading Finkel to theorize that the ghost is “a male spirit being led back to the afterlife,” Smithsonian Magazine reports.
Roman-era statue heads, glass jar found in Buckinghamshire, England
Excavators working at a site that will be part of the UK’s HS2 high-speed train system in Stoke Mandeville, Buckinghamshire made the discovery of their lives recently on their very last day of work, uncovering lifelike Roman statues that had once been part of a mausoleum there.
At the site, on which a Norman-era church was constructed, the statues of a man, woman and child lay buried for almost 2,000 years; they would have been lost forever if it hadn’t been for the excavations carried out as part of the controversial high-speed rail system.
Perhaps most amazing of all was the uncovering of a jug made of green glass, which was in several pieces. Roman-era glass is rarely excavated in Britain because of its incredible fragility, making the find all that more intriguing.
The site of St. Mary’s Church, built around the year 1080 and torn down in the middle of the twentieth century, earlier had been the site of a Roman-era mausoleum.
Mass graves of Crusaders from the thirteenth century found in Lebanon
South of Turkey, in Sidon, Lebanon, along the Mediterranean coast, excavations revealed two mass graves of 13th-century crusaders earlier in 2021. The remains there were of 25 young men and teenage boys whose bones bore marks indicating brutal hand-to-handfighting, including stabbing, slicing and blunt force trauma, Smithsonian reports.
“So many thousands of people died on all sides during the Crusades, but it is incredibly rare for archaeologists to find the soldiers killed in these famous battles,” explains biological anthropologist Piers Mitchell.
Perhaps most disturbing of all, the archaeologists say, is that most of the injuries were to the fighters’ backs, implying they may have been killed while retreating, by mounted fighters.
200,000-year-old footprints left in sand were mankind’s first “parietal” artwork
Eerie reminders of a much more distant human past were discovered this past year in yet more of some of the strangest archaeological finds of 2021. Sets of 200,000-year-old handprints and footprints that had been left in a cave by children in what is now Tibet spoke to us over the millennia, binding us to our distant history.
Noting that the prints were “carefully placed,” archaeologist Sally Reynolds, a specialist in hominid paleoecology, argues that this is the very first piece of art ever to have been deliberately produced by human beings.
Created during the Pleistocene era, Reynolds says they are “the only examples (of art from) an extinct group known as the Denisovans, who coexisted with the Neanderthals in Europe… it’s a beautiful panel with hand and footprints which have been carefully placed so they fill a certain space. We argue that this fulfills the definition of “parietal art” (for example, art made in the caves of western Europe and elsewhere).
120,000-year-old writing in Israel
Six enigmatic lines incised into an aurochs bone 120,000 years ago were another echo from the past that spoke to us this past year.
Clearly made deliberately, the lines may be symbols having to do with some kind of spirituality. The site where researchers uncovered the bone was most likely a meeting place for Paleolithic hunters who gathered there to slaughter animals, according to Israeli and French archaeologists who worked the site.
Scholars from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Haifa University and Le Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique unearthed the bone at the Middle Paleolithic site of Nesher Ramla in Israel.
The team published its spectacular findings earlier in 2021 in the journal Quaternary International. “It is fair to say that we have discovered one of the oldest symbolic engravings ever found on Earth, and certainly the oldest in the Levant,” states co-author Yossi Zaidner of Hebrew University in a statement.
“This discovery has very important implications for understanding of how symbolic expression developed in humans.”
The bone was most likely from an auroch, a large bovine animal which is the ancestor of cows and oxen.