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Oblique cuts in the bottom third of the legs of a medieval skeleton found in Portugal.
Oblique cuts in the bottom third of the legs of a medieval skeleton found in Portugal.
T. Fernandes, M. Liberato, C. Marques, E. Cunha

Archaeologists Make Rare, Gruesome Find in Portugal

Oblique cuts in the bottom third of the legs of a medieval skeleton found in Portugal.
Oblique cuts in the bottom third of the legs of a medieval skeleton found in Portugal.
T. Fernandes, M. Liberato, C. Marques, E. Cunha

In the small city of Estremoz, near Portugal’s border with Spain, archaeologists recently excavated three graves located at the edge of a medieval cemetery. They were intrigued by the graves' isolated location and odd burial style. Within, they found something shocking: All three people had amputated hands and feet.

Between the 13th and 15th centuries, Estremoz was an important village located between the kingdoms of Portugal and Castile. In the mid-13th century, Christians colonized the area, driving out the Moors. The famous castle of Estremoz, parts of which still stand, was built to house the royal court. The nearby cemetery of Rossio Marquês de Pombal dates to this period. It's on the edge of this cemetery that the archaeologists found the burials.

Writing in the International Journal of Paleopathology, researchers from the Universities of Évora and Coimbra describe the young to middle-aged men found in the graves with cut marks to their forearms and ankles. The cuts are clean through the bones but not quite at right angles, and appear to have happened just before or just after death. Even more interesting, the bones from the severed hands and feet were also found in the graves—but not in the right places.


Field drawing of the skeletons. The arrow points to one of the men's right hand lying below his left elbow.
T. Fernandes, M. Liberato, C. Marques, E. Cunha

In the case of a late-teenage male, both of his feet and his left hand were buried under his left hip, while his right hand was under his left elbow.

In another grave, they found evidence that one amputation took more than one try to complete. The man's right leg had a second set of cuts, likely inflicted after a failed first attempt to cut off his foot. The researchers think that a sharp implement such as a machete, sword, cleaver, hatchet, or axe was used to deliver the blows swiftly and with high force.

The archaeologists believe the cuts were made while the men were still alive—or very near death—and almost certainly restrained. Lead author Teresa Fernandes tells Mental Floss that “due to the absence of any artifact, we cannot state for sure that the feet were bound; yet considering the historical evidence, prisoners were normally bound with the legs straight while hung."

Why had the men been treated like this?

Generally, amputations occur throughout history as the result of a medical therapy, accident, ritual, intentional violence, or punishment. While there is evidence from the same cemetery for foot disease, these particular men had no other indications of problems with their bodies, meaning medical treatment can be ruled out. So too can ritualistic post-mortem amputation, since there are no historical or archaeological accounts of amputation of hands and feet after death. And their injuries were clearly not the result of an accident.

The researchers think these amputations were a punishment.

Historical records of amputations related to criminal cases are relatively rare. But medieval kings in the Iberian peninsula had the discretion to mete out capital punishment—including hanging, drowning, and even boiling someone alive—as they saw fit. They could also use mutilation as punishment. The researchers found one mention specifically of the amputation of both hands and feet of traitors during a civil war in 14th-century Portugal.

“These skeletons may represent the testimony of vigorous application of justice as an act of royal sovereignty in a peripheral but militarily strategic region,” Fernandes' team writes.

Other researchers agree with this interpretation. Piers Mitchell, a palaeopathologist at the University of Cambridge, tells Mental Floss that because "the amputations are all at similar locations, and are symmetrically placed on the limbs, deliberate amputation as a punishment seems the most plausible interpretation."

Lost to the ages, however, is what these men may have done to merit this extreme punishment. Execution "could be enforced in the event of treason, theft, making false currency, or myriad sexual crimes," Fernandes says. “But the form of execution isn’t stipulated by law."

Archaeological evidence of judicial amputation is extremely rare, according to Jo Buckberry, a bioarchaeologist at the University of Bradford who has done similar studies on ancient British skeletons. "The evidence of cut marks and the inclusion of severed hands and feet make this Portuguese case especially compelling,” she tells Mental Floss. Mitchell explains that often, "the extremities are absent in the graves of those who underwent amputation," which makes it noteworthy that these graves contained the spare body parts.

The fact that amputees were all young men also intrigues scholars. "This pattern has been seen in execution cemeteries in Anglo-Saxon England,” Buckberry says, “leaving us wondering if young men are more likely to commit crimes, or to be caught doing them, or if punishments are especially harsh for this demographic group."

These three unfortunate men may never tell us exactly what they did or who they are. But their bones show the most severe case of amputation as judicial punishment to date, revealing just one of the extreme penalties for committing a crime in medieval Portugal.

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Oblique cuts in the bottom third of the legs of a medieval skeleton found in Portugal.
Photograph by Sofía Samper Carro. "Fishing in life and death: Pleistocene fish-hooks from a burial context on Alor Island, Indonesia," Antiquity, Sue O’Connor, Mahirta, Sofía C. Samper Carro, Stuart Hawkin, Shimona Kealy, Julien Louys and Rachel Wood.
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
These 12,000-Year-Old Fish Hooks Are the Oldest to Ever Be Discovered in a Grave
Photograph by Sofía Samper Carro. "Fishing in life and death: Pleistocene fish-hooks from a burial context on Alor Island, Indonesia," Antiquity, Sue O’Connor, Mahirta, Sofía C. Samper Carro, Stuart Hawkin, Shimona Kealy, Julien Louys and Rachel Wood.
Photograph by Sofía Samper Carro. "Fishing in life and death: Pleistocene fish-hooks from a burial context on Alor Island, Indonesia," Antiquity, Sue O’Connor, Mahirta, Sofía C. Samper Carro, Stuart Hawkin, Shimona Kealy, Julien Louys and Rachel Wood.

Prehistoric people who lived on Indonesia’s rugged and remote Alor Island held fishing in such high importance that even the dead were supplied with equipment for snagging a fresh catch. While digging at an archaeological site on the island’s south coast in 2014, scientists found a group of ancient fish hooks, which were buried with an adult human around 12,000 years ago. They’re the oldest fishhooks to ever be discovered in a grave, according to a new report published in the journal Antiquity.

Archaeologists from Australian National University found the partial skeleton while excavating an early rock shelter on Alor’s west coast. The bones—which appeared to belong to a female—were interred with five circular one-piece fish hooks made from sea snail shell. Also found was a perforated bivalve shell, buried beneath the skeleton’s chin. It’s unclear what purpose this artifact served, but experts did note that it had been smoothed and polished, and appeared to have once been dyed red.

Ancient fish hooks discovered in Indonesia by archaeologists from Australian National University
Rotating fish hooks found with the burial

Photograph by Sofía Samper Carro. "Fishing in life and death: Pleistocene fish-hooks from a burial context on AlorIsland, Indonesia," Antiquity, Sue O’Connor, Mahirta, Sofía C. Samper Carro, Stuart Hawkin, Shimona Kealy, Julien Louys, and Rachel Wood.

Prehistoric fish hooks found in Indonesia by archaeologists from Australian National University.
Circular rotating fish hooks found with the burial

Photograph by Sofía Samper Carro. "Fishing in life and death: Pleistocene fish-hooks from a burial context on AlorIsland, Indonesia," Antiquity, Sue O’Connor, Mahirta, Sofía C. Samper Carro, Stuart Hawkin, Shimona Kealy, Julien Louys and Rachel Wood.

Researchers used radiocarbon dating to determine the age of charcoal samples found near the burial ground. From this, they determined that the fish hooks and human remains were buried during the Pleistocene Epoch.

Alor Island, the largest island in the volcanic Alor Archipelago, is rocky and lacks a variety of plant life and protein sources. For these reasons, fish was likely an important staple food for ancient residents, and the act of fishing may have also been considered cosmologically important, archaeologists say.

The burial on Alor Island "represents the earliest-known example of a culture for whom fishing was clearly an important activity among both the living and the dead,” the study's authors wrote. Additionally, if the skeleton indeed belonged to a woman (the bones themselves haven't yet been conclusively identified), the hooks might suggest that women in ancient Alor were tasked with hook-and-line fishing, just like those in ancient Australia.

Archaeologists have identified prehistoric fishing hooks at sites around the world. They range from 23,000-year-old hooks, discovered on Japan’s Okinawa Island (the world’s oldest-known fishing implements), to slate hooks from Siberia’s late Mesolithic period (the second-oldest hooks ever found in a gravesite).

The fishing hooks discovered on Alor are circular instead of J-shaped, and resemble other ancient hooks that were once used in countries like Japan, Australia, Mexico, and Chile. Some experts have suggested that these similarities in technology were the result of migration, cultural contact, or even from fish hooks left in migrating tuna. The researchers at Australian National University argue against this theory, hypothesizing that the similarly shaped hooks are instead evidence of “convergent cultural evolution in technology” around the globe.

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Oblique cuts in the bottom third of the legs of a medieval skeleton found in Portugal.
NOVA SCOTIA ARCHIVES AND RECORDS MANAGEMENT, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
A Mystery Shipwreck in Canada Might Be Tied to the 1917 Halifax Explosion
NOVA SCOTIA ARCHIVES AND RECORDS MANAGEMENT, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
NOVA SCOTIA ARCHIVES AND RECORDS MANAGEMENT, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

On December 6, 1917, a massive explosion boomed across Halifax Harbor, a key Nova Scotia port and a major center for naval ships in North America during World War I. A French cargo ship carrying high explosives, including TNT, collided with a Norwegian steamship, starting a fire that lit up the French vessel. The accident caused what would become the world’s biggest non-nuclear explosion. An entire neighborhood along the harbor was flattened to the ground.

Now, 100 years later, the spotlight is back on another potential victim of the explosion. As CBC News reports, a still-unidentified mystery shipwreck discovered in 2002 may be linked to the event, too.

Researchers don’t know much about the copper-clad, steam-powered schooner found at the bottom of Halifax Harbor during a geological survey of the sea floor. Its remains are half-buried under silt and marine life more than 90 feet below the surface of the water, around 330 feet away from the Halifax shipyard. The experts who have studied the ship since its initial discovery have yet to even identify its name.

There are no records of the ship’s sinking, leading researchers like marine geologist Gordon Fader, who helped find the wreck, to believe it sank during the explosion. Had it gone down after the event, there likely would have been some record of it in newspapers. And the ship was, by all accounts, a rather expensive vessel, possibly one that belonged to either the British navy or a very wealthy owner. It was made with high-quality copper and brass and built for speed, meaning its sinking would have cost someone a hefty chunk of money.

If the ship’s sinking did go unheralded in the aftermath of the massive Halifax explosion, researchers have two potential leads: There were two ships believed to be lost in the explosion that were never found, called the St. Bernard and the Lola R. But the descriptions of those ships don’t quite match up with what’s lying at the bottom of the harbor. A year and a half of research yielded no further information.

Since the last report came out in 2004, the search for its identity has slowed. We may never know the identity of the mystery ship. But as new technology becomes available for studying underwater remains, we can at least hope to glean some new clues.

[h/t CBC News]

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