Skeletons at royal castle in Scotland killed in battle, experts say

Scotland, castle, castles, Stirling Castle
Stirling Castle in Scotland was the scene of several brutal sieges and battles in its violent history. Now a new exhibition looks at the castle’s past and the grim discovery of several skeletons in the Royal Chapel showing signs of violent death.

One man had 44 skull fractures from repeated blows with a blunt object, and up to 60 more over the rest of his body. The Middle Ages were a pitiless time, and despite what modern romance novels say there wasn’t much chivalry. The skeleton of a woman had 10 fractures to her skull, resulting from two heavy blows. Neat, square holes through the top of her skull suggest she may then have fallen and been killed with a weapon such as a war hammer. At least five skeletons in the chapel showed signs of violent death. Carbon dating shows they died in several incidents between the 13th century and c.1450.

ScotlandOne of the skulls can be seen in this photo courtesy of Historic Scotland. Holding it is Dr. Jo Buckberry of Bradford University, who carried out the research on the skeletons.

The chapel was excavated as part of Historic Scotland’s restoration of the castle’s 16th century palace. The fact that the people were buried here indicates they were important.

One has been tentatively identified as Sir John de Stricheley, who died in 1341. Sir De Stricheley and the lady’s skeleton were featured last year on BBC2′s History Cold Case series.

Stirling Castle was an important castle on the boundary between Scotland and England and was besieged numerous times during the Wars of Scottish Independence (1296-1328 and 1332-1357). Several battles occurred nearby.

The exhibition, including facial reconstructions of Sir De Stricheley and the lady, will open June 4.

[Castle photo courtesy Finlay McWalter]

Archaeology team tells Queen, “We want to dig up Henry VIII”

Henry VIII, archaeology, archeologyTwo American archaeologists have asked the Queen of England for permission to dig up Henry VIII and use the latest techniques to reconstruct his face. Bioarchaeologist Catrina Whitley and anthropologist Kyra Kramer popped the question because they’re interested in seeing how accurate the royal portraits of the famous king really are. They also want to perform DNA tests to see if he suffered from a rare illness that might have driven him insane.

Facial reconstruction on skulls is nothing new and has been steadily improving over the years. It’s used in archaeology to study ancient people and by CSI teams to identify murder victims.

Drs. Whitley and Kramer would like to open Henry VIII’s grave in St. George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle and measure his skull. They can then create an accurate image of what he looked like in real life.

While this is interesting and is sure to make lots of headlines, of more historic importance is their plan to analyze the king’s DNA to test for McLeod Syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that can lead to schizophrenia. Historians have long wondered why an intelligent, level-headed leader became an erratic tyrant in later life. His wives must have wondered too.

No word yet from Queen Elizabeth on whether she’ll allow her predecessor to be exhumed.

For more on how archaeologists go about reconstructing a face from a skull, check out this video of a similar project that reconstructed the face of an ancient Greek girl.

[Photo courtesy Vincent Steenberg]

Photo of the Day (10.31.10)

Happy Halloween! Er, should I make that Happy Day of the Dead? Believe it or not, America isn’t the only country that likes to celebrate spooky holidays. In Mexico and some parts of Latin America, November 2nd is the chosen day to remember and celebrate the lives of deceased ancestors. Though one might think a holiday about death would be a somber affair, it’s usually not. Much like Halloween, family and friends get together to laugh, eat some good food and pay tribute to those who have passed. The jolly skeletons captured here by Flickr user borderfilms (Doug) in Chiapas, Mexico are a common Day of the Dead decorating theme.

Taken any great photos during your travels? Why not add them to the Gadling group on Flickr? We might just pick one of yours as our Photo of the Day.

The triumph of Death: the mummified monks of Rome’s Capuchin Crypt


Vertebrae rosettes. A crown of thorns made from finger bones. An arch of skulls.

Three skeletons of children lean huddled in a group as if to comfort one another. Behind them hangs an hourglass made of pelvis bones. Above soars the skeleton of a youth bearing a scythe of clavicles and scales made of kneecaps. Dirt and gravestones cover the floor. Mummified bodies wearing the cowled robes of Capuchin friars lie, sit, or even stand in alcoves. The mummies each have a label bearing, I suppose, the name they used in life. All are illegible.

I am in the Capuchin Crypt, a few minute’s walk from the famous Spanish Steps where hundreds of tourists are laughing and eating McDonalds while enjoying a sweeping view over the sun-soaked city. I am not with them, but rather in a dank vault, crouching to stare into the eye sockets of an anonymous skull. The Sumerians called the eyes the windows of the soul, but now those windows are shattered, the glass ground up and blown away as dust.

I actually waited in line to do this. The Capuchin Crypt runs on limited hours, and when the doors finally open I and a small crowd file in past a stressed-out woman at the front desk who repeats, “No cameras, no cell phones, postcards five euros” in a harassed monotone. Beyond her are five vaults filled with bones and a sixth filled with tablets bearing inscriptions in Italian and Latin. I don’t try to puzzle them out; the message of this place is all too clear.
The bones are arranged in decorative patterns reminiscent of the Baroque interior of some 17th century stately home. Ornate chandeliers made from finger- and jawbones hang so low I almost knock my head on them. The passages are narrow, the vaults small, and the mortal remains of hundreds of Capuchin friars crowd in on me. The crypt was started in the 17th century and has been added to ever since. It now houses an estimated 4,000 friars.

So how does it make me feel? I want to be sick. I want to kiss every living girl in here. I want to tell the woman at the front counter to lock up early and take the rest of the day off. I want to hug my son knowing one day I won’t be able to. I want to know the life history, dreams, loves, and favorite jokes of every one of these poor bastards arranged so meticulously for our edification. I can’t. They are no longer individuals, simply part of the decor. All in all you’re just another skull in the wall.

Four vaults away I can still hear the attendant repeating the rules to newcomers. No photography, but you can buy an overpriced postcard. What arrogance to think they own the dead! Nobody has the least claim over the dead; it’s their one advantage over the living.

The crypt is getting crowded with the living. People linger. Many laugh to cover their discomfort. Everyone speaks in whispers, but why whisper? The dead can’t hear you, and if you’re doing it out of respect, a better way to show respect would be to learn the lesson of this place. The lesson is, of course, to think about death. Like everyone else I have a natural defense mechanism. I know I’ll die but that horrible fact doesn’t intrude on my day-to-day happiness. Well, it does today, and that’s the point. This place is also meant to make us good Catholics, to embrace an unproveable god and its improbable doctrine. That I cannot do, but I sure do think about death.

Odd thoughts come to me. I should send my son a second postcard. I need to get cracking on my next novel. I still haven’t replied to Ed’s email.

Through a row of open windows shines dim sunlight and the sounds of construction next door. The pounding of hammers and the shouts of workmen. An ambulance wails in the distance, getting closer.

A young American woman cries out, “Ewww, this is gross!”

I don’t say anything because I always try to be kind to strangers, but I say to myself, “Oh, you think they’re disgusting and you’re beautiful? Just. You. Wait.”

So don’t forget death, because it’s probably coming sooner than you think, and certainly sooner than you hope.

Life is short, my friends, live it well.

Don’t miss the rest of my Vacation with the Dead: Exploring Rome’s sinister side.

[Photo courtesy Magnus Manske]

Paris catacombs vandalized, closed for repair

Paris’ catacombs, underground passages full of neatly stacked human bones, have been temporarily closed to the public after being vandalized.

A spokeswoman for the Paris prosecutor’s office would not go into detail on the extent of the vandalism, which took place over the weekend, but said that the site would be closed because in its current state it was hazardous to visitors. According to the AP, a photo in a Paris newspaper showed “bones and skulls scattered along the walking paths”. There was no word on when the catacombs would reopen, but as they are a major tourist attraction visited by over 250,000 people each year, it seems that the city would do its best to clean the mess and repair any damage as soon as possible.

The catacombs open to the public are just one part of an 186-mile network underneath the city. The bones of over 6 million Parisians are contained here, having been moved to the site in the 18th and 19th centuries after the city’s cemeteries became overcrowded and contributed to the spread of disease.