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Forensic examination determines weapons used on 9th-14th century remains, Turin, Italy

Forensic examination determines weapons used on 9th-14th century remains, Turin, Italy

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In this paper, Weapon-related Cranial Lesions from Medieval and Renaissance Turin, Italy, remains recovered from the Cathedral of S. Giovanni in Turin were examined to determine if they had died due to violent injuries (combat), and to attempt to identify the weapons used to perpetrate these injuries.  A total of 113 sets of remains were recovered, including 17 children below the ages of 14.  Of the adults, 69 were male, 22 were female and 5 were unidentifiable.

Anthropological examination of the remains allowed the researchers to specifically identify those exhibited extensive bone trauma to the skull and skeleton.  Two sets were from the early Medieval period (9th century) and the rest from the Renaissance period (14-15th century).   Except for two injuries, all traumas were identified as taking place perimortem (before death)

As the researchers note:

The aim of this study was to investigate these traumas from an osteological perspective, in order to better understand the patterns of interpersonal violence in medieval and Renaissance periods in Italy.


Defining weapons and the types of damage they inflict

The authors started by defining the types of damage they expected to see, and the nature of the weapons which would cause such injuries.

Sharp force traumas are caused by bladed instruments, such as swords, daggers, axes and poleaxes, which produce linear lesions with clean well-defined edges and flat and smooth cut surfaces; blunt force fractures are produced by blunt instruments, including war hammers, maces and top spikes of poleaxes, which leave concentric or radiating fractures with an internal bevel; and projectile force traumas are inflicted by projectile weapons, such as arrows and crossbow bolts.

For sharp force trauma, direction of the cut was determined by the effects of the trauma:  if entering at right angles, damage would be equal on both sides of the cut.  If entering at an angle, the entry side cut would appear smooth, the stop-point would fracture/flake.  Whether a fracture was caused by blunt weapon impact or a projectile weapon was determined by what side of the skull exhibited “beveling” fractures (internal bevels indicating a blunt weapon, external bevels indicating a “through-and-impact” projectile strike on the victim’s skull.


The nature of the remains

The authors note that the two early Medieval remains were found in individual graves of a type reserved for the upper social classes of the time.  The Renaissance remains were all found in the same large grave, suggesting they had all perished in the same combat.


Examination of the remains

The researchers then go into the details of the remains, were they were located, and describe any traumas identified on both the main skeleton and cranium, but focusing specifically on the skull traumas.  This is because skeletal remains only allow for injuries reaching the bone to be identified;  forensic anthropologists would not, for example, be able to assign a cause of death to a fatal soft-tissue injury, such as the heart being struck or a major artery being cut (at least one other set of remains buried in the Renaissance grave showed well-healed traumas; it may well have been that this person died of soft tissue injuries).

The analysis of the cranial traumas is extremely detailed.  Interestingly, several of the remains show old, well-healed traumas, suggest many previous wounds in battle.   Traumas identified included (listed in order of remains being examined:

    1. (Early Medieval) 7 cm long sharp force cut, with fractures indicating the attacker pulled the blade out of the wound with force;  followed by a cut indicating it was delivered from above, with the victim reclining.
    2. (Early Medieval) 5cm long sharp force cut, shaving away the surface of the skull.  A second, apparently glancing blow would have likely have caused severe injury to the victim’s face.
    3. (Renaissance) A massive trauma to the front of the skull indicates a blade impacting and removed with force.  A second, healed trauma shows signs of medical intervention from a previous wound.
    4. (Renaissance) A diamond-shaped trauma on the right-rear of the cranium suggests a blunt force or projectile strike from behind.
    5. (Renaissance) A beveled impact on the top of cranium suggests the use of a blunt force weapon or a projectile strike.  A second, larger trauma is indicative of sharp force, penetrating and forcibly removed.
    6. (Renaissance) Multiple traumas, including sharp force blows and a projectile strike delivered with the victim both standing and on the ground.  The fatal blow is identified as a massive blunt force trauma.  Additionally, one long-healed blunt force trauma was noted.


Cranial remains with diamond-shaped trauma

Remains for #4 above, listed as Skeleton 74 in the paper


What weapons caused the injuries

The researchers go into a quite detailed discussion of types of weapons and the nature of the traumas they inflict, quoting many previous researchers to defend their analysis.  In the main, the results of the research resulted in the following table (click to enlarge):



Click to enlarge

Side distribution of the traumas

The report notes that where the trauma are located — whether on the right or left side — holds some indication of positioning or the types of fighting encountered.  For example, the majority of people being right-handed, in face-to-face combat most head wounds will be received on the left side of the victim’s cranium.  They examined the results of forensic examinations of battlefield graves to see how the results of their research compared, and were surprised to note a distinct difference from known battlefield injuries, as shown in the following table:

Side distribution table

Why are cranial trauma so frequently found?

The authors then discuss why cranial trauma is so frequently found on the remains of those who died in combat, as both their research and previous researchers have noted.  While this seems a simple question, the authors seek to prove what is commonly held beliefs in these reasons through scientific observation and fact.  Most simply put, they theorize that:  the head was a main target;  that men fighting on foot vs. those on horseback must receive more head trauma simply by nature of their respective platforms;  that body armour was so effective it made the head a primary target.

Examination of the Renaissance historical record and conclusion

At least for the Renaissance remains, there were a number of historical records  — dated to the same time as the grave — which suggests these warriors did not die in a major battle.  There was no recorded major conflict fought by Turin forces during this period.  There were, however, a number of city revolts and riots which took place.

Taking this fact into account, and the additional fact that the remains recovered included women and children, and that a number of the men showed previously healed traumas, the authors conclude:

Three sharp force lesions caused by bladed weapons were identified in two individuals from the early medieval period; in the Renaissance sample, the majority of the nine peri mortem injuries were sharp force wounds, followed by blunt force traumas caused by hand-held weapons. The lack of lesions caused by projectile force lesions and of post-cranial wounds at Piazza S. Giovanni was evidenced.

Despite the presence of weapon injuries, the results obtained from the study of the Renaissance sample are different from the findings of other contemporary battlefields. It is highly likely that the individuals of the Renaissance age were not young soldiers employed in war episodes and brought back to Turin for burial after battles that had taken place elsewhere. As attested by some old wound, they were probably mercenary soldiers, who had died in riots or in other violent episodes that had taken place in the city, as the historical records for the Renaissance age seem to confirm.





Weapon-related Cranial Lesions from Medieval and Renaissance Turin, Italy –  V. Giuffra; L. Pejrani Baricco; M. Subbrizo; G. Fornaciari. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology  (2013)

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