Medieval armoured skull
Archaeological excavations in the early 20th century revealed the full horrors of a previously forgotten Scandinavian battle
A casualty from the Battle of Visby
All warfare is brutal, but medieval battles could be uniquely intense. Although bows, spears and siege weapons provided some distance, the majority of fighting was hand to hand. The Middle Ages saw centuries of intimate bloodletting, and when battlefield archaeology reveals its secrets the results can be shocking.
In July 1361 Valdemar IV, the king of Denmark, invaded Gotland, which was then a strategically important island with a diverse population of Swedes and Danes. Swedish peasants attempted to repel the invaders in battle near the city of Visby, but they were slaughtered by Danish warriors. Gotland became part of Denmark until Sweden reclaimed it in the early 15th century.
The Battle of Visby remained forgotten for centuries, until the early 20th century, when almost 1,200 individuals were discovered in several mass graves on Gotland. The bodies were dated to 1361, and they remain the largest battlefield skeletal collection in Europe.
The excavation was unique, not just for the amount of skeletons but for the dark light they shone on the brutality of Medieval warfare.
The soldiers mostly lay in random positions that indicated a haphazard and hasty burial. There was ample evidence of wounds from swords, axes and arrows, while other individuals displayed signs of crushing injuries from bludgeoning weapons.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of the graves was that many of the skulls were still wearing their chain mail coifs. These linked hoods did provide some protection, but many of the blows had cut through the mail into the bone. The coifs are a rare survival because the majority of medieval battlefield casualties were stripped of anything valuable, including armour.
ABOVE: The Battle of Visby was fought within 300 metres (330 yards) of the city’s fortifications. After the battle, Valdemar IV tore part of the wall down, before declaring himself ‘king of Gotland’“THE BATTLE OF VISBY REMAINED FORGOTTEN FOR CENTURIES, UNTIL THE EARLY 20TH CENTURY, WHEN ALMOST 1,200 INDIVIDUALS WERE DISCOVERED IN SEVERAL MASS GRAVES ON GOTLAND” BELOW: A casualty of the Battle of Visby. It’s thought the dead were interred still wearing their armour because the hot July weather required them to be hastily buried