Pages Navigation Menu

Swords, Cutting and Military History

Analysis of a 15th century Ottoman raid on the Croatian border

Analysis of a 15th century Ottoman raid on the Croatian border

Ottoman manuscript

Share Button

Trigger warning: This post reviews forensic research on the skeletal remains from a small town in what is now Croatia.  As part of this paper, the researchers present evidence of violence against women and children.  While in no way indulging in gratuitous or sordid imagery, the authors’ clinical descriptions of weapon marks on bone — and their estimations of the weapons which inflicted the injuries — leaves little to the imagination. 

Some readers may find these descriptions disturbing. This article appears in the peer-reviewed publication: the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.   

From the 13th through 16th centuries the Ottoman Empire was expanding its influence and borders into the area known today as Croatia through a series of military campaigns, ending with the incorporation of a large part of that region into the Empire.  History records large-scale invasions took place in 1391, 1396, 1400, 1422, 1423, 1441, 1450, 1494, 1501, and 1512.

Period Ottoman warriorsIn 1441, the Ottoman Empire’s invasion was in difficulty.  They had severe defeats and loss of territory in the regions of Serbia and Bulgaria.  In the Croatian region the mighty Drava River acted as a natural moat;  it had only one crossing of military usefulness, near the modern town of Osijek.  This was the only crossing not in the hands of powerful enemies.  If the Ottomans could gain control of Osijek, they would control this important crossing, which they needed in order to retake their lost territories.

With their main armies engaged or recovering; with the need to weaken the area around the city of Osijek in preparation for attack, and — say the authors — perhaps with a desire for revenge for their battlefield losses, the Ottoman Empire sent in their akinji troops; light horseback irregulars.

The name akinji, the authors say,  means “flood”, referring to their method of attack, which was to quickly move in, spread out and overwhelm everything before them.

This then is the backdrop of the paper:  The Harsh Life on the 15th Century Croatia-Ottoman Empire Military Border: Analyzing and Identifying the Reasons for the Massacre in Cepin, by Mario Slaus, Mario Novak, Vlasta Vyroubal, and Zeljka Bedic.

All information and opinion contained in this post is drawn from said article, which appeared in the Journal of American Anthropology in 2010.   While the paper itself is behind a paywall,the abstract can be seen here:

“Excavation of the historic period cemetery in Cepin, Croatia revealed the presence of a large number of perimortem injuries distributed among males, females, and subadults. Archaeological and historical data suggest these individuals were victims of a raid carried out by Turkish akinji light cavalry in 1441. Comparisons with the frequencies of perimortem trauma in 12 other, temporally congruent skeletal series from the Balkans (n = 2,123 skeletons) support this assumption. The role of the akinji in the Ottoman army was twofold: to supply war captives, and to terrorize and disperse local populations before the advance of regular troops. This article tests the hypothesis that the purpose of the 1441 raid was the latter. To accomplish this, perimortem trauma in the series were analyzed by sex, age, location, and depth of the injury. A total of 82 perimortem injuries were recorded in 12 males, 7 females, and 3 subadults. The demographic profile of the victims suggests that young adults were specifically targeted in the attack. Significant sex differences are noted in the number, distribution, and pattern of perimortem trauma. Females exhibit significantly more perimortem injuries per individual, and per bone affected, than males. The morphology and pattern of perimortem trauma in females is suggestive of gratuitous violence. Cumulatively, analysis of the osteological data suggest that the objective of the 1441 akinji raid was to spread terror and panic in the Cepin area, either as revenge for recent military setbacks, or as part of a long-term strategy intended to depopulate the area around Osijek.”

This paper contains a wealth of technical detail and information which will be summarized here.  Those seeking detail should seek out a copy.


Analyzing the remains

The former town of Cepin lays about 11 kilometers from Osijek.  A series of archeological digs at a cemetery there revealed 147 skeletons dated to the destruction of the town in 1441.  The paper’s authors analyzed  the remains with a view towards “… to investigate whether the perimortem injuries recorded in Cepin are likely to have resulted from the historically documented 1441 akinji raid, and if so, whether the injuries are consistent with a raid whose purpose was terrorizing and depopulating the area rather than the accumulation of captives.”

Trauma to the pelvic bone of a femaleFirst several sets of remains were carbon dated to approximately 1441, and the rest of the graves examined for similarities in burial depth, orientation, grave goods, etc.  Their analysis showed these 147 graves all had identical characteristics, making it likely they were the remains of Cepin townspeople buried by the survivors.

Using forensic techniques, the researchers identified each set of remains as to sex and approximate age:  of the 147, 70 were male, 50 were female, and 27 were sub-adults (younger than 15 years of age).  No attempt was made to identify the sex of the sub-adults.

The remains were then inspected for injury or damage,  such injury being sorted into three distinct classes:

  • Antemortem: healed injuries, such as a healed fracture, indicating a long past injury
  • Perimortem: unhealed injuries, such as fractures with fresh, sharp edges, indicating they occured at-or-near the time of death
  • Postmortem: unhealed injuries, such as breakage of remains through the action of ground settling, frost, etc., which have a colour and chemical difference from those caused by a perimortem injury.

22 skeletons were found to have perimortem injuries.  The fact that all the remains were buried at approximately the same time suggests the others were killed in the same attack but died of soft tissue injuries, which leave no skeletal trace. Perimortem injury on the 22 sets of remains  were then classed as to type or cause:

  • Projectile injuries: caused by arrows or javalins
  • Blunt force injuries:  caused by clubs, maces or other blunt, heavy weapons
  • Sharp force injuries: caused by a cutting edge such as a sword or knife

Each of these injury types inflicts known types of damage to bone, and can be relatively easily identified by forensic experts.  It was determined that — aside from one injury — all damage was caused by sharp force trauma;  in other words, by edged weapons.  It should be noted that historical record tells us that the typical weapons of the a akinji warrior included: a saber, war knife or falchion, war hammer, mace, spear, and the reflex bow and arrows.

Once the type of injury was identified, the researchers then defined whether the blows had come from the left, right, above or below.


Who was targeted?

The researchers compared the percentage of Cepin remains displaying perimortem injuries with 12 other period cemeteries in the region.  They found the Cepin had more than twice the number of remains with perimortem damage than all the other cemeteries put together.  Cepin is the only cemetery which had more one set of female remains with such damage, and was the sole cemetery where sub-adults remains were found with these injuries.

The researchers compared the age-at-death of all remains to the other regional cemeteries;  the extremely high number of sub-adult remains at Cepin in comparison to the others suggested that sub-adults were specifically targeted.

When the researchers compared the actual injuries by location on the skeleton and by sex, they found that females exhibited more than twice the number of injuries than the males, as seen in the following table:


Click to enlarge


Additionally, while the highest number of injuries on a single male  is eight, the single set of female remains with the highest number of injuries is 22, with female remains displaying almost four times the number of injuries than the male.

Through a series of charts and tables, they analyze the location and direction of cuts for male and females.  The location and distribution of injuries are shown on the charts below, first for the males, followed by the chart for the women:


Chart of injury locations and distrubtion on the male sets of remains


The authors noted that the placement, frequency and distribution of time-of-death injuries for males generally matched the known pattern of injuries for face-to-face combat in this time period.  The result of analysis for females remains is visibly different.


Chart of injury location and distribution for female sets of remains


The authors note that the single “circle” on the pelvic illium bone was not made by an edged weapon, but likely by a strike from  a heavy beaked weapon such as a war hammer.    Also, that many of the female pelvic and upper leg injuries were made with an upward strike.    They attempt to demonstrate the level of perceived violence with pictures of one set of remains with multiple trauma, including the warhammer injury mentioned above:


Injury locations and photographs of injury marks on a single female skeleton

Click to enlarge



The nature, location, number and direction of injuries lead them to conclude that the majority of males of Cepin died in situations close combat, or at least attempting some form of self-defense if not actively fighting their attackers.  For the civilian women and sub-adults however, they conclude these were targeted with purposeful attacks.

These conclusions lead them to posit the akinji attack of 1441 was not a simple raid, but was likely made with a view towards frightening the inhabitants of the region in preparation for an attack on Osijek,  so as to capture the all important river  crossing.



The Harsh Life on the 15th Century Croatia-Ottoman Empire Military Border: Analyzing and Identifying the Reasons for the Massacre in Cepin: Mario Slaus, Mario Novak, Vlasta Vyroubal, and Zeljka Bedic; American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 141:358–372 (2010)




Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *