Tempted by trauma

The History Blog, run off the BlogSpot servers, is a good source of current archaeological news and some amusing writing. I rarely cross-post things, but this excerpt is worth the effort.

The original plan for the Leicester parking lot dig that was so astonishingly successful was to excavate two trenches over the course of two weeks which would be filled in and reverted to a parking lot at the end. That was based on everyone’s modest expectations of what they might find. Then the deities of archaeological good fortune laid giant sloppy kisses all over them so they were able to locate the Greyfriars church and abbey and, most importantly, human remains of a male with scoliosis, sharp force trauma to the skull and an arrowhead embedded in his back.

That line about “deities of archaeological good fortune” and “giant sloppy kisses” is fantastic. The find itself is almost as good as its hype. From my perspective, It’s fascinating to find a skeleton with trauma where you may have some clue as to the place and circumstances where it occurred. One recurring problem in the archaeology of violence is that the physical evidence (the skeletal trauma) is divorced from context. The potential here is that we have an individual who we know was in combat and was, in all accounts, well armed and more than capable of defending himself vigorously. Those are factors rarely known with certainty even in unambiguously martial burials. All reliable accounts of Richard’s end involve a cavalry charge and a fairly prompt death in close combat.1

The selection of trauma described: some sharp force trauma and a penetrating fracture to the skull as well as a projectile point in the upper back are very suggestive. Without having the details I probably shouldn’t do what I decry and suggest a scenario but I’m going to go and do it anyway.2 I think, and with some evidence for the claim, some fractures we see in skeletal trauma would otherwise appear as sharp force trauma if not for the intervention of armour.3 Hit a helmeted head hard enough with a sword or axe edge and you could produce a depression fracture or some other blunt-force trauma under all that armour. Hit an armoured head once and you get a fracture. Pull off the helmet and hit him again and you have sharp-force trauma from the same weapon and the same attacker. The trick for interpretation is whether the fracture lines from the first blunt injury under-lay the fractures from the sharp-force trauma. If that appears then I may have a real case for an injury through armour.

Anyway, I watch for this stuff carefully (the use of skeletal trauma in the history of violence and warfare) and will, in the very near future, contribute a book chapter on the conceptual problems and potential for archaeology and the study of violence.

Lets hope that the details appear in the nearness of future for all the serious history nerds out there.

NOTES

1- It’s worth mentioning that, considering how uniformly unsympathetic the period and post-period accounts are of Richard, none of them take the easy road and describe him as a coward or give him an undignified death. That, apparently, would not fly even with the most ardent opponents. It’s also interesting to note that the scoliosis found in the Leicester parking lot skeleton was not very severe. A slight imbalance of the shoulders would have been all one noticed. Naturally, the best capsule biography of Richard  is the one by Rosemary Horrox, ‘Richard III (1452–1485)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/23500, accessed 20 Oct 2012]. I’m not sure anyone at PBS will be able to read this entry, being a subscription database and all, but at least I’m being diligent in the citations.

2- I won’t cite the recent paper I gave (diligent types can find it listed on the internets without much trouble, I’m hiding in plain site really) but I will point to the worst example of this error of forensic fantasy: A. Keith Knowles, “Acute Traumatic Lesions.” In Disease in Ancient Man: An International Symposium, edited by G. D. Hart, 61–83. (Toronto: Clarke Irwin, 1983). Don’t get me started on Knowles again.

3- There is a fascinating collection of gladiatorial burials that arguably preserve healed trauma from fractures caused despite armour. Many of the injuries occur in places you would expect and correspond with the contact points inside a helmet where the force would travel down into the skull and causing injury (zygomatic arch, frontal bones above the ocular orbits). I need to look at this one again, but it’s certainly relevant to later periods as well. Fabian Kanz, and Karl Grossschmidt. “Head Injuries of Roman Gladiators.” Forensic Science International, no. 160 (2006): 207–216.

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