5 Bizarre Warnings and Grisly Boasts from Ancient Civilizations
When you think about ancient civilizations, the vibe that comes to mind isn’t usually “chill.” There was a little less cold brew and a lot more brutal murder and war. When your life is dominated by death and danger, your attitudes toward certain things get a little desensitized, while your levels of fear are notably higher. I have generalized anxiety and I don’t do shit, so I can only imagine the levels of stress caused by sharing a border with a warlord.
What this turned into was people highly respected for the sort of feats that would most commonly be found on a Netflix true-crime documentary these days, and a healthy interest in portents of doom. Making a human scarecrow might not be pretty, but if it means less invaders attacking your home, it might be a necessary, squelchy bit of arts and crafts. In the same way, when stakes are generally higher, it takes a little more serious of a warning to get somebody to fuck off.
Here are five grisly brags, boasts and warnings from ancient civilizations…
One hundred and fifteen ancient settlers suddenly vanishing, never to be seen again, sounds like the cold open from an X-Files episode, but it’s also the real story of the colony of Roanoke. English settlers went to establish a colony there, when their governor, John White, had to return to Europe for a re-up on supplies. Given that a war broke out while he was gone, it took him a little longer than expected to make it back with laden packs.
When he finally did return to the colony, he was greeted by absolutely no one. Not only had his wife, daughter and granddaughter disappeared, but so had everyone else. In fact, the entire settlement had vanished, with no signs of life outside of a single word found carved on a post: “CROATOAN.” Spooky, sure, but a little less so when you realize that CROATOAN isn’t just some strange word from nowhere, but the name of a nearby tribe, the Croatoans, who lived on what is now Hatteras Island. As for the settlers, their fate has never been definitively proven, but most people think, assuming White had gone out for the proverbial pack of cigarettes, they joined up with friendly tribes in the area for their survival.
Qin Shi Huang’s Mercury Rivers
If you’re an archaeologist, grave robber or just a massive creep, you might encounter the chance or urge to enter a tomb sometime in your life. Given the presence of grave robbers in the past, that path is heavily frowned upon by the occupant and their peers. So much so that most important ancient tombs are decorated with warnings of curses and misfortune to befall any besmirchers of that final resting place.
A lot of these threats turned out to be empty, at least assuming they didn’t know that those tombs would later fill with deadly fungi. So, when records were found from a historian claiming that the tomb of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, was thoroughly booby-trapped, including being surrounded with “rivers of mercury,” they probably waved it off as more empty threats. That is, until they tested the dirt around the tomb and found that it was absolutely humming with mercury. To this day, the tomb remains unopened, out of concern not only for the preservation of the contents, but also the excavators.
Assyrian Torture Art
Some civilizations attempt to whitewash their history, and cloak their atrocities. For example, ours. To hear accurate tales of the horrific things done while in the thralls of war, you’d likely have to import a history book from somewhere with a less forgiving editor. Nobody’s walking around the United States bragging about how much napalm they dumped on Vietnamese civilians, or how efficient the Japanese internment camps were.
The ancient Assyrians, apparently, had no such qualms about recording their atrocities. Often accused of horrific brutality, that’s all confirmed by the most primary of sources: themselves. Assyrian art displays exactly the sort of thoroughly unsportsmanlike rules of engagement they followed, with intense scenes of torture and cruelty. Subtlety wasn’t their strong suit, either. You don’t need a degree in anthropology to figure out what their depictions of enemies having their tongues torn out and skin flayed off mean. Effective, though, I’m sure: “Oh, you want to go to war with us? Let me show you my favorite mural first.”
Let’s say you just bested a rival chief in battle. What a relief! Now that you’ve ensured the safety of your tribe, it’s time to clean yourself up, kick back and enjoy the feeling of not being chopped in half. You might also want to display evidence of this victory, both as a form of boasting and as a deterrent to the next group who might be eyeing your home sweet home. The Maori tribes of New Zealand utilized skills of both amateur autopsy and taxidermy to achieve this.
High-ranking members of Maori tribes could be identified by their moko, or facial tattoos. When those big shots died, their head, and their signature decoration, would be removed and preserved as mokomakai. Sometimes, this was just done by their own family and fellow tribesmen as a form of honor. When that head landed in the hands of an enemy, however, that same mokomakai would be mockingly displayed and flaunted as a sign of victory and a warning.
FDR’s Arm Bone Letter Opener
Looking back on these bits of ick is grimly interesting, for sure. It’s also a way to remind ourselves how far civilization has come, to which the answer is: not as far as you think. For the final entry, let’s go the opposite way, to prove these sorts of thing aren’t always so ancient. Case in point — only decades ago in World War II, trophies made of dead Japanese soldiers were made and collected by supposedly modern American men. One particularly unpleasant example was a letter opener made from the forearm bone of a Japanese man, that was gifted to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It was only returned to Japan after (very deserved) outrage.