Saturday, September 19, 2015

Mass Grave Reveals Ottoman Soldiers Fought To The Death In 16th Century Romania

On November 13, 1594, Michael the Brave summoned his subjects in the client state of Wallachia to rise up against the Ottoman Empire. As part of a series of land wars between the OttomanEmpire and various powers in Europe, Michael led his troops to conquer several castles along theDanube River and forts deep within Ottoman territory, turning back just miles from the Ottoman capital at Constantinople. But while Michael was away fighting, the men who lent him money to fund his bid to be prince were killed in the Wallachian capital of Bucharest (Romania).  Archaeologists believe they may have found these historic figures in a mass grave discovered in Bucharest’s University Square, and their bones reveal a very violent death.

During an excavation of the Saint Sava church cemetery, 688 graves dating to the 16th-19th centuries were uncovered.  Not far from the consecrated ground, though, archaeologists found three skeletons of people who had been tossed unceremoniously into the bottom of a circular pit. Animal bones, bricks, pottery fragments, and other debris had then been heaped on top of them to fill the pit. The inclusion of all this trash was fortuitous for the archaeologists, though, because the artifacts along with carbon dating of the bones allowed them to date the mass grave to the end of the 16th or early 17th century.

Mihai Constantinescu and colleagues carefully disentangled the jumbled remains and pored over the bones looking for clues about who they were and how they died.  Writing in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, they note that all three skeletons were male, and young to middle-age adults.  The men all had poor dental health as well as early evidence of osteoarthritis throughout their bodies. Based on muscle attachment sites on bone, they were also engaging in similar repetitive activities: lifting, throwing, moving heavy objects, walking long distances, and sitting in a crouched position.  It is highly likely these men shared an occupation that required them to perform the same activities over and over again.

But the injuries the archaeologists found—both those that had healed and those inflicted at death—are shockingly numerous and gruesome.  At some point in his life, Skeleton 1 fractured his collarbone, ribs, left wrist, kneecap, hip, lumbar spine, nose, and right middle toes.  Skeleton 2 appears to have taken an arrow to the back, with a penetrating fracture in his left shoulder blade, and had injured both knees.  Surprisingly, Skeleton 3 was unscathed, but possibly because he was a bit younger than the other two men.

Two dozen more injuries were found on the three bodies, but these were inflicted around the time of death. While Skeletons 1 and 3 had just a few injuries, Skeleton 2 suffered 18 wounds before he died. Most of the wounds were inflicted on these men’s heads by an attack from the front, and most injuries were caused by sharp objects like swords and arrows.

There was a musket ball lodged in the neck vertebrae of Skeleton 2, in addition to an arrowhead still stuck in a rib, a hacking wound that shattered the facial skeleton, and indication on the vertebrae that someone attempted to behead him.

Skeleton 3 also showed evidence of beheading with a blade wound—possibly from a broadsword—through a neck vertebra. Skeleton 1 suffered a massive cranial fracture, likely caused by a mace. Since soldiers at that time could only physically carry and use a musket, a bow, or a mace, and not a combination of those, this means that at least three different individuals set upon this group of men.

The exact names of these men are unknown, but Constantinescu and colleagues think they were either military commanders or janissaries (elite Ottoman infantry soldiers), quite possibly the very ones who had lent Michael the Brave money so that he could rule Wallachia.  If they were Romanians, “they would have been buried in a cemetery by the locals,” they write.  Based on the time period, the injuries inflicted, and the location of the burial, they conclude that “the tensions caused by the creditors on the princely court of Michael the Brave might have contributed to the excessive violence and to the lack of interest for their remains.”

Did Michael the Brave’s subjects violently attack the Ottomans in their midst while he was out fighting the Long Turkish War? It is impossible to answer this question definitively, but Constantinescu and colleagues’ work on this mystery grave demonstrates how putting together historical records, military paraphernalia, and human bones can lead us closer to a solution.

Killgrove, Kristina. 2015. “Mass Grave Reveals Ottoman Soldiers Fought To The Death In 16th Century Romania”. Forbes. Posted: July 5, 2015. Available online:

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