Me­dieval ar­moured skull

Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal ex­ca­va­tions in the early 20th cen­tury re­vealed the full hor­rors of a pre­vi­ously for­got­ten Scan­di­na­vian bat­tle

History of War - - CONTENTS -

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

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