Monday, June 29, 2009

Stirling Castle Skeleton Reveals Violent Life Of A Medieval Knight

Archaeologists believe that bones discovered at Stirling Castle may have belonged to a young knight killed in battle or during a siege.

Even though the warrior was probably only in his mid-20s he appears to have suffered several serious wounds in earlier fights. Indeed, he may have been living for some time with a large arrowhead in his chest. Bone re-growth around a dent in the front of the skull suggest he had recovered from a severe blow, possibly from an axe. The fatal wound, however, occurred when something, possibly a sword, sliced through his nose and jaw.

The unknown warrior, who lived in or around the early 1400s, was laid to rest under the floor of a chapel near the castle’s royal apartments. Peter Yeoman, Historic Scotland head of cultural resources, said: “We know little about this burial area but the evidence suggests it was sometimes used during extreme circumstances, for example to bury the dead during a siege. However, by using modern analysis techniques we have started to discover quite remarkable information about this man. It appears he died in his mid-20s after a short and violent life. His legs were formed in a way that was consistent with spending a lot of time on horseback, and the upper body points to someone who was well-muscled, perhaps due to extensive training with medieval weapons. This evidence, and the fact that he was buried at the heart of a royal castle, suggests he was a person of prestige, possibly a knight.”

The skeleton was excavated in 1997 when archaeologists were working in an area of the castle which turned out to be the site of a lost medieval royal chapel. Some research was carried out at the time, and though the information gleaned was limited it was recognised that the remains were of interest and merited future study.

Advances in technology and analytical techniques led to a recent re-examination of the skeleton for which the results are now available. This has included minute recording by laser scanning carried out by Colin Muir of Historic Scotland’s Technical Conservation Group.

In addition to the three serious wounds, it seems the man had also lost a number of teeth – perhaps from a blow, or a fall from a horse. A large, tanged arrowhead was found in skeleton and appears to have struck through the back or under the arm. Crystalised matter attached to the arrowhead may have been from flies or other insect larvae and could have been from clothing the arrow forced into the wound.

Gordon Ewart, of Kirkdale Archaeology, who carried out the excavation and some of the research for Historic Scotland, said: “This is a remarkable and important set of discoveries. There were a series of wounds, including a dent in the skull from a sword or axe, where bone had re-grown, showing that he had recovered. At first we had thought the arrow wound had been fatal but it now seems he had survived it and may have had his chest bound up.”

Little is known about who the man was or where he came from – he need not even have been a Scot. Further study is planned on tooth enamel and bone samples which may shed light on his origins. The man appeared to have been buried in the same grave as a small boy of one to three years old.

Archaeologists cannot be certain that the two were linked but radiocarbon dating suggests both date from the early 15th century, and there was no evidence of one grave having been cut through the other. They were part of a group of 12 skeletons, some highly fragmentary, which were discovered. Among them was a female, probably buried some time in the 13th century, who had two neat, square holes through her skull which were consistent with blows from a war hammer.

The area of the castle where the bones were discovered is now known as the Governor’s Kitchen. There was strong evidence that this was built around a medieval structure. There are known to have been several chapels at the castle, one dedicated to St Michael.

The excavation which revealed the skeletons was part of the long-term Historic Scotland project to discover more about the castle’s past and to inform its work to further enhance its appeal as a world-class visitor attraction. A central part of this work is the £12 million Stirling Castle Palace Project, which aims to return the castle’s royal palace to how it may have appeared in the mid-16th century.

The palace is currently closed to the public and is due to reopen in 2011.