Top Ten Creepy Archaeological Discoveries This Year

1. The Black Sarcophagus

The discovery of a massive, 2000-year-old sealed black granite sarcophagus in Alexandria, Egypt in July 2018 prompted speculation that opening it would unleash a world-ending curse. When opened, the sarcophagus was found to contain only the remains of three Egyptian army officers and a reddish-brown sewage liquid, spawning the #sarcophagusjuice meme.

2. The Knife-Armed Man

While excavating a 1200- to 1400-year-old necropolis in northern Italy, archaeologists found the remains of a man with a knife blade prosthetic arm. Analysis of the man’s bones revealed that his arm had been removed through blunt-force trauma below the elbow, and that he lived for some time afterward with the knife blade prosthesis in place of a hand.

3. The Elder Cheese

While the world was still mourning over not being allowed to drink the sarcophagus juice, archaeologists in Saqqara, Egypt uncovered another ancient (and equally inedible) find: the world’s oldest known solid cheese. Protein analysis showed that the 3,300-year-old powdery white substance was likely a mixture of cow and either goat or sheep milk, made into a cheese, which was left in the tomb of an official who served the pharaoh. Scientists warned that the cheese might actually be “cursed” with live bacteria that could sicken anyone who dared to taste it.


4. Ancient Sites Appearing in the Back Yard

Drought and a massive heatwave across the UK revealed the presence of hundreds–if not thousands–of previously unknown archaeological sites, ranging from neolithic hamlets to massive henges and WWII landscape modifications. These are no crop circles: because disturbed sections of the landscape hold more water than undisturbed soil, the differential drying patterns have revealed the exact locations of buried structures.


5. Spiral Shaped Mass Burial

Archaeologists working at Tlalpan, just south of Mexico City, uncovered the remains of ten individuals arranged in a spiral shape in a mass grave. The burial, which dates to the Preclassic period, includes adults, juveniles, and an infant, who were all buried in a single event and left with many grave goods. 


6. A Creepy Tiny Hand

At the Roman fort of Vindolanda near Hadrian’s Wall in England, archaeologists found a creepy, lifelike, miniature bronze hand. The hand may be associated with the worship of Jupiter Dolichenus, a mystery cult whose practices were shrouded in secrecy, which was very popular in the Roman army of the early 3rd century CE. The hand was likely left as an offering after a major invasion of Scotland in which a huge number of people may have been killed.


7. The Lucky Few Deceased

Another mass grave was uncovered in late 2017 on Murder Island off the western coast of Australia. This grave contained the remains of five individuals, survivors of the wreck of a merchant ship called the Batavia, which sank nearby in 1629. Although these five individuals are believed to have died of dehydration shortly after the shipwreck, more than 100 survivors were brutally murdered by mutineers in the following months.


8. The Most Unlucky Man

At Pompeii, the site of Mt. Vesuvius’ disastrous eruption that killed the entire town in 79 CE, a man was found who was thought to have been crushed to death by a massive falling stone. Although archaeologists later found that the man’s head and upper torso were intact, they initially hypothesized that the rock had landed on him as he attempted to flee, hindered by an infection in his leg.


9. The Underground Labyrinth of Death

Using tiny remote-operated robots, archaeologists working at Chavin de Huantar in Peru have discovered a network of 35 interlocking underground tunnels, which contained the remains of at least three individuals that may have been sacrificed in “rituals [involving] drugs, noise and light manipulation.”


10. Pits Full of Heads

Archaeologists working along the Great Wall of China published new findings that describe a previously largely unknown early stratified society, the Shimao polity. Along with thousands of jade items, researchers discovered that human sacrifice was an important feature of this society. At least six pits filled with the decapitated heads of young women were excavated at the site.



  • The Lothagam North Pillar Site in Kenya was found to be the oldest and largest cemetery site in eastern Africa, with more than 580 individuals interred over the course of 450 to 900 years.  This awesome site isn’t really creepy… with the exception of a burial headdress made of more than 400 gerbil teeth.
  • Record-setting drought and low water levels along the Elbe river in Europe revealed many “hunger stones” along the river banks–rocks carved with laments and warnings from prior periods of drought and famine with carved dates as early as 1417. One stone reads, “if you see me, weep.”

Texas Archeology Month Fair 2018


We are NOT cancelling this event due to rain! Instead, we are moving the event inside to the Commons Learning Center (the purple building on the map below).

It’s that time again! TARL is planning our annual Texas Archeology Month Fair! This year’s Fair will take place on International Archeology Day, October 20, 2018.

Join us in the Commons Learning Center at the J.J. Pickle Research Campus in north Austin from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. for free, hands-on fun for all!

The Texas Archeology Month Fair brings together dozens of professional and avocational archeologists from across Texas, who lead a wide variety of hands-on educational activities and demonstrations on many different archaeological topics. The event is open to all visitors and there’s something fun for everyone!

The Pickle Research Campus is located in north Austin near the Domain shopping center, just west of MoPac at the corner of Burnet Road and Braker Lane.

This year’s activities and demonstrations will include:

  • Pottery-making
  • Sandal weaving
  • Fire drilling
  • Flintknapping
  • Atlatl and rabbit sticks (prehistoric hunting techniques)
  • Painted pebbles
  • Rock art
  • Historic button-making
  • Face painting
  • And many more!

Thank you so much to our partners and sponsors, who are helping to make this event possible!

This year’s donors include:

Louis Shanks of Austin

TARL’s event partners include:

  • UT’s Anthropological Society
  • UT’s Anthropology department
  • UT’s Classics department
  • UT’s Mesoamerican Center
  • The Texas Archeological Society
  • The Texas State History Museum
  • Great Promise for American Indians
  • TxDOT
  • The Travis County Archeological Society
  • The Llano Uplift Archeologial Society
  • The American Institute for Archaeology, Central Texas chapter
  • Texas State University’s Forensic Anthropology program
  • The Sophienburg Museum
  • The Gault School of Archaeological Research
  • The Shumla Archaeological Research and Education Center
  • Texas Military Forces
  • The Council of Texas Archeologists
  • The Texas Historical Commission
  • The Lower Colorado River Authority
  • Texas Parks and Wildlife
  • Many individual volunteers

TARL is looking for general volunteers to assist presenters and help with set-up and clean-up. To volunteer, please email

Texas State’s Forensic Anthropology team shows these young researchers how to document their finds at the 2017 Texas Archeology Month Fair.


The Bioarchaeology of Care in the Lower Pecos Region by Pamela Hanson, Central Texas A&M

Pamela Hanson is a student at Central Texas A&M. This article is part of the September 2018 TARL Newsletter. 

My name is Pamela Hanson and I’m working with Dr. Christine Jones at Texas A&M University-Central Texas Department of Social Sciences. Our current research project invites one to imagine caregiving and receiving among the hunter-gatherers of the past. Like us today, they would likely have experienced disease and disability, love and community. How might they have sought healing and comfort? What clues did they leave for us? It is really exciting to examine artifacts from the ancient peoples of the Lower Pecos region of Texas at TARL and explore these questions.

Please stop by and visit our poster “Healing pathways: Exploring the Bioarchaeology of Care in the Lower Pecos” at the upcoming TAS meetings.

Pamela Hanson and Dr. Christine Jones.

TARL Symposium at TAS and Other Upcoming Conferences

A number of TARL staff members, former student interns, and researchers will be presenting their research at the Texas Archeological Society’s Annual Meeting in San Antonio October 26 – 27, 2018. We will have approximately 12 presentations on a variety of topics: painted pebbles, experimental flintknapping, public outreach, collections rehabilitation, independent student research, and more. We are excited to present this research, and to hear feedback on our work from the community!

Beyond the upcoming symposium, we are busy keeping abreast of all things curatorial going on around the nation. In addition to attending local society meetings like those of the Travis County Archeological Society (TCAS) and TAS, TARL staff members will be attending several conferences in spring 2019. In January 2019, TARL Head of Collections Marybeth Tomka will be part of a round table discussion on standards of cataloguing for repositories at the Society for Historical Archaeology’s Annual Meeting in Saint Charles, Missouri. Marybeth serves as a member of the Curation and Collections Committee.

Marybeth and TARL Curatorial Associate Lauren Bussiere also plan to present a poster at the Society for American Archaeology meetings in Albuquerque, New Mexico in April 2019. The committee on Collections, Museums and Curation is sponsoring the poster session, the goal of which is to encourage and facilitate collections-based research by building relationships and sharing knowledge. Marybeth is a former member of this committee and still keeps up with their activities and sits in on their meetings when possible. An offshoot of the committee is the formation of the Curation Interest Group that Marybeth co-chairs.

Additional papers will be presented at the 2019 SAA meeting by Lauren (on the topic of pseudoarchaeology), TARL Curatorial Technician Annie Riegert (bioarchaeology in Belize), and TARL Affiliated Researcher Nadya Prociuk (shell ornaments and tools from south Texas). We welcome all colleagues and interested parties to check out our presentations, give us feedback, and share their research with us!

McKinney Falls Artifacts for Interpretive Site Visits, by Marni Francell, Texas Parks and Wildlife

Marni Francell is an archaeologist with Texas Parks and Wildlife. This article is part of the September 2018 TARL Newsletter.

McKinney Falls State Park is a hidden gem just 20-minutes from downtown Austin. The sparkling waters of Onion Creek provide relief to park visitors from the hot Texas sun and offer recreational opportunities such as swimming and fishing. Prehistorically, people depended upon the creek and its many resources to survive. Evidence of their occupation can be seen through artifacts left behind at the Smith Rockshelter (41TV42). Excavated by Dee Ann (Suhm) Story in the 1950s, the Smith Rockshelter at McKinney Falls State Park gives park visitors a glimpse of how early inhabitants of Central Texas lived. In an effort to provide a hands-on learning experience, Park Interpreter Kristen Williams and TPWD Regional Archeologist Luis Alvarado plan to have replicas of several diagnostic artifacts cast. These artifact replicas will be used for outreach activities related to the shelter and Central Texas Archeology in general. Kristen and Luis, along with TPWD Archeologist Marni Francell and AmeriCorps member Jamie Gillis, visited TARL to see the Smith Rockshelter collection and to discuss loan options for replication.

Kristen Williams and Luis Alvarado from Texas Parks and Wildlife examine artifacts from the 41TV42 collection at TARL.

Most archeological collections from Texas State Parks are curated at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) Archeology Lab, a state certified curatorial facility. However, the 1950s Smith Rockshelter collection is housed at the Texas Archeological Research Lab because the shelter, at the time, was on private property. McKinney Falls was not acquired by the State of Texas until the early 1970s. It was opened to the public on April 15, 1976.

Upcoming programs at McKinney Falls can be found here. While
it may be some time before the replicas are ready, park staff look forward to providing the public with the opportunity to hold history in their hands.

A group of students visits Smith Rockshelter in McKinney Falls State Park in Austin to learn about prehistoric life in the area.
A Pedernales point from the 41TV42 collection at TARL, one of the artifacts that may be replicated so park employees can use it as they give tours and educate park visitors.

LiDAR Data Processing for Planet Texas 2050 by Aaron Groth

Aaron Groth is a graduate student in UT’s geography department and a part-time contractor for TARL. This article is part of the September 2018 TARL Newsletter. 

Planet Texas 2050 brings together a multi-disciplinary team of UT researchers to examine issues of sustainability in the state of Texas. Research centers upon urbanization, water, energy, and ecosystem services (e.g., pollination, shade, water filtration, natural carbon sequestration) in the context of a changing climate and increasingly severe weather (e.g., hurricanes and droughts). Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and remote sensing technology can help researchers assess issues of sustainability – looking at past landscapes and human modification to model the future.

An important emerging technology is Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR), a surveying method that measures distance to a target by illuminating the target with a pulsed laser light and measuring the reflected pulses with a sensor (mounted on aircraft). Differences in laser return times and wave-lengths can then be used to make digital 3-D representation, or “point cloud,” of the target (e.g., vegetation, buildings, and infrastructure, etc.).This data also serves to make 2-D digital elevation models (DEMs) showing detailed topography. DEMs derived from LiDAR available in Texas are at a 50x50cm to 1.5×1.5m spatial resolution. This is far superior to NASA/METI’s
DEMs, which provide a spatial resolution of only 30x30m. LiDAR is an important tool in archaeological research – for example, it has revealed ancient Maya cities and human landscape modifications under the forest canopy of Central America. Furthermore, when there are multiple, time-series LiDAR datasets for an area, it constitutes an important tool for earth and ecosystem sciences – revealing changes in the biophysical environment (loss of glacier mass, changing streambanks, loss of leaves, etc.).

Figure 1. Statewide LiDAR coverage available through TARL’s Planet Texas 2050 partnership.

At TARL, we are building a database of Texas’ available LiDAR data to further archaeological, earth science, and ecology research. Specifically, this database will give Planet Texas 2050 researchers the data they need to answer research questions surrounding the sustainability of population growth and urbanization, water and energy resources, and ecosystem services in the context of a changing climate.

Figure 2. The Austin area as seen through a LiDAR DEM at 140×140 cm spatial resolution. Major buildings, roads, rivers and streams are visible at this resolution.
Figure 3. A zoomed-out view of the Austin area as seen through a NASA/ METI DEM, at a resolution of 30×30 m. Major landscape features such as rivers and hills are visible but manmade landscape modifications are nearly impossible to see at this

Ancestral Caddo Ceramic Vessels from Titus Phase Sites in East Texas by Timothy K. Perttula

Timothy K. Perttula is a visiting researcher at TARL. This article is part of the September 2018 TARL Newsletter. 

For several months this year, I have been focused on the study of ancestral Caddo ceramic vessels in the Texas Archeological Research Laboratory, The University of Texas at Austin whole vessel collections from 20 different Titus phase sites, dating generally from ca. A.D. 1430-1680, in Camp, Franklin, Harrison, Marion, Morris, Titus, and Upshur counties in East Texas (Figure 1). The purpose of this vessel documentation has been to obtain new but comparable vessel attribute data for use in the East Texas and larger Caddo area vessel databases, since the vessels of interest had not been examined and documented in full detail before the vessel documentation I am completing. Furthermore, the vessel metadata and figures are to be included in a Caddo vessel gallery website currently under construction by Dr. Robert Z. Selden, Jr. (Center for Regional Heritage Research, Stephen F. Austin State University).

Figure 1. Location of selected Titus phase components with ceramic vessel assemblages in the Big Cypress Creek and Sulphur River basins in East Texas. Figure prepared by Brian Wootan.

The ca. 900 ceramic vessels are from different Titus phase sites in the Big Cypress Creek and Sulphur River drainage basins in East Texas. Almost all of the sites were investigated by archaeologists from the University of Texas (UT) in the early 1930s, led by A. T. Jackson, Field Foreman. At that time, UT archaeologists were interested in amassing a material culture record of the aboriginal peoples that lived in the region before Anglo-Americans began to settle in East Texas in the early 19th century, and their particular focus was on the sites and cemeteries established by ancestral Caddo peoples, and their associated artifacts and features. This led to the investigation of a number of Caddo cemeteries and the recovery of numerous funerary offerings, most notably ceramic vessels of many types and forms. Titus phase cemeteries are especially common in the Big Cypress Creek basin, and UT archaeologists investigated a number of them in the 1930s.

Figure 2a. Compound vessel from Titus phase: Taylor Engraved, Vessel 65, Joe Justiss site (41MX2).

The ceramic vessel assemblages from Titus phase sites in East Texas have been the subject of considerable scrutiny by Texas archaeologists since the 1950s, beginning with the development of the typology of Caddo ceramics by Dee Ann Suhm, Alex D. Krieger, and Edward B. Jelks, Robert L. Turner’s ground-breaking studies of the cemetery at the Tuck Carpenter site (41CP5), and then the recognition of the many varieties of Ripley Engraved, the most common Titus phase fine ware, by J. Peter Thurmond. This has been followed in recent years by detailed documentation studies of assemblages and collections from disparate parts of the Titus phase area, to a myriad of other research studies today that are concerned with stylistic, functional, iconographic, mortuary, and social network issues and themes. In my work, the principal concern is the detailed documentation of Titus phase vessels, including several of very distinctive form and decoration (Figure 2a-b) from less well-known mortuary assemblages held in the TARL collections. The hope is that the detailed analyses of these Titus phase ceramic vessel assemblages in East Texas will be of use in continued studies of the social and political organization of Titus phase settlements and communities in East Texas.

Figure 2b. Compound vessel from Titus phase: Hodges Engraved, Vessel 218, J. M. Riley site (41UR2).


At the end of the summer, TARL brought students and volunteers on a field trip to visit the Osteological Research and Processing Laboratory (ORPL) at Texas State University’s Forensic Anthropology Research Facility. ORPL is the main laboratory where students and staff process human remains from both their regular donation program and their Operation ID program. Operation ID (also known as OpID) is a collaborative effort between the forensic anthropologists at Texas State, the Border Patrol and other law enforcement, landowners in south Texas, various NGOs, and other state, federal, and international agencies who work together to find, identify, and repatriate the remains of individuals who have died attempting to cross the border from Mexico into the United States. ORPL also processes the remains of people who have chosen to donate their bodies after death, which are used for many purposes from longitudinal studies of decomposition to law enforcement training.

By visiting ORPL, TARL’s students and volunteers were able to learn about these amazing projects and gain some first-hand insights into the work and training of forensic anthropologists and bioarchaeologists. While this work is often difficult both physically and emotionally, it is also extremely meaningful and important. Through the work of the ORPL team, many families have been able to learn the fates of their missing loved ones–although these stories are tragic, families can finally lay their loved ones to rest. The OpID project also demonstrates the capacity for meaningful and productive collaboration between these various agencies, and what they can accomplish working together toward a shared goal.

Thank you very much to the Texas State Forensic Anthropology team and especially to Courtney Siegert and Chloe McDaneld for hosting us and sharing their extensive knowledge.

TARL Staff, students, and volunteers in front of the ORPL Facility at Texas State’s Freeman Ranch.