Researchers reveal violent deaths of medieval dead at Stirling Castle
26 May 2011
New exhibition will bring visitors face to face with knight and lady excavated from lost royal chapel.
Scientific research has revealed that at least five of the medieval people whose skeletons were discovered at Stirling Castle suffered brutally violent deaths.
The discovery offers an extraordinarily rare insight into medieval warfare.
One man, aged 26-35, endured some 44 skull fractures from repeated blows with a blunt object, and up to 60 more across the rest of his body.
The skeletons were buried beneath a lost 12th-century royal chapel which was excavated as part of Historic Scotland’s project to refurbish the castle’s 16th century palace, which stands nearby.
Historic Scotland has created 3D facial reconstructions of two of the people – visitors to the grand opening of the palace will be able to see them for the first time on 4 and 5 June.
They will be on display as part of a new exhibition of the castle’s history in the Queen Anne Casemates overlooked by the palace block.
Radio carbon dates indicate that the people probably died in a series of incidents between the 13th century and around 1450.
Some, or all, may have been killed in sieges, skirmishes or battles round Stirling during the Wars of Independence,
Richard Strachan, Historic Scotland’s Senior Archaeologist, said: “The skeletons were a remarkable find and provided an incredibly rare opportunity to learn more about life and death in medieval Scotland.
“The new research has brought some quite incredible results.
“It was unusual for people to be buried under the floor of a royal chapel and we suspected that they must have been pretty important people who died during periods of emergency – perhaps during the many sieges which took place.
“The fact that five of the skeletons suffered broken bones, consistent with beatings or battle trauma, suggests this could be what happened.”
The research builds on the findings of earlier investigations into two of the skeletons, the results of which were featured last year on BBC2’s History Cold Case series.
These attracted worldwide headlines, with one of the skeletons being identified as a knight – perhaps Sir John de Stricheley who died in 1341 – and the other probably belonging to a high-born lady, whose skull had twice been pierced by a weapon.
Both of these skeletons were among the nine sent to the University of Bradford for further investigations.
The 3D models are of the knight and the lady’s faces.
The model of the lady was created by the Bradford University team and the one of the knight was made at the University of Dundee.
Bradford used a traditional clay modelling approach, while the one from Dundee was created using the latest digital scanning and replication techniques and painted by a medical artist.
Professor Caroline Wilkinson, at the Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification, University of Dundee, said: “This 3D facial model depicts a strong muscular man with a healed wound across his forehead and rugged features.
“This reconstruction was produced using anatomical standards and the latest digital 3D technology, and allows us to come face to face with this medieval knight.”
The Bradford experts say the lady had 10 fractures to the right side of 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.
Dr Jo Buckberry, biological anthropology lecturer and experimental officer at the University of Bradford’s Biological Anthropology Research Centre, said: “What we discovered from this research is enormously exciting and has far-reaching implications for our understanding of medieval warfare.
“At least five of these people had their bones broken with blunt and heavy objects, such as clubs, which is very different from soldiers that have been studied who died in open battle and were killed with swords or halberds.”
One set of remains, known as Skeleton 190, were from a young man of 16-20, showed signs of a stab wound in the chest.
Yet the major damage came when he was struck on the base of his skull, on the jaw, the collarbone and ribs.
The stabbing points to death by violence, rather than an accidental fall from the castle walls.
Stirling Castle changed hands several times in the Wars of Independence, sometimes being held by the Scots, sometimes by the English and their Scots allies.
It is not certain where the deceased were from, or who they were fighting for, though tests so far are consistent with at least some of them being from the Stirling or Edinburgh area.
To be buried beneath the floor of a royal chapel was very unusual and suggests that these were people of considerable importance.
Bodies would normally be buried in a kirkyard, which suggests that the people were killed at times when it was too dangerous to venture beyond the castle walls.
The new exhibition
- The facial reconstructions will be on display in the Queen Anne Casemates exhibition, which tells the story of the castle from the earliest times to the 19th century. One room in the exhibition will be devoted to the Stirling skeletons, and the facial reconstructions will be key exhibits.
- Other important exhibition themes will include the story of the castle under siege, the Renaissance royal palace of James V, and the castle’s later years as an army base. The exhibition will feature a series of interactive displays and has been designed to explore the castle’s past in a way that is engaging and family-friendly.
- The new-look exhibition is part of a wider £12 million project to offer an even better visitor experience. The centrepiece is the return of six apartments in the royal palace to how they may have looked in the mid-16th century.
Matthew Shelley 07786 704299
Ellen Drummond-Ferroni 07801 820757
Nicola McCrae 01786 431325
Lesley Brown 0131 6688603
Free to use pictures
A selection of free to use pictures are available showing Dr Buckberry with the skeletons, the skeletons being excavated and the new facial reconstructions. Log on using the details below then search using the word ‘Stirling’.
Notes for editors:
For all the latest on the palace project, and everything else that happening at Stirling Castle, visit our website at www.stirlingcastle.gov.uk and sign up for our free e-newsletter.
- Stirling Castle is at the top of Stirling Old Town off the M9 at junction 9 or 10. Call 01786 450000
- Historic Scotland has 345 historic properties and sites in its care. These include some of the leading tourism attractions in the country, including Edinburgh, Stirling, and Urquhart Castles, Fort George, Linlithgow Palace, the Border Abbeys, and Skara Brae. For further details visit: www.historic-scotland.gov.uk/places.
- Historic Scotland’s Mission is to safeguard Scotland’s historic environment and to promote its understanding and enjoyment.
- Historic Scotland around the web: www.twitter.com/welovehistory, www.facebook.com/visithistoricscotland, www.youtube.com/historicscotlandtv and www.flickr.com/groups/makeyourownhistory