Forensically could we follow this person back to the times he lived? An interesting thought and one I was fascinated with ... the unearthing of clues on his body parts together with the highly qualified and technical skills of a forensic team of today.
The skeletons of a man and a horse place in a display in a museum
In an early medieval chapel our man and his ten compatriots were laid to rest. As Stirling became the principal royal centre new buildings were added to the site, with a Great Hall, completed in 1503, being erected over the remains of the chapel.
The historically correct restoration of the Great Hall, its under kitchens, its hammer beam roof, the great wall hangings were finally finished late last century – when the excavation of the burial site was undertaken.
So the archaeologists are digging around and up pop eleven skeletons, which must have been a huge surprise .. as you can imagine in 1997 when they were found these long forgotten bones were painstakingly removed as archaeological ‘fines’ and stored. A few artefacts were also found including one particular arrow head providing another clue.
Jousting helmet, late 15th C: illustration by Albrecht Durer.
The BBC have made four programmes on a series of historical cold cases – this one happened to be about Stirling Castle .. just after I’d written the two posts .. one here & one there over at Biking and Architecture – so felt I had to continue the story and let you know.
Dundee University in Scotland has one of the best forensic departments in the UK and wondered if they could pit their skills against the passing of time on these bones discovered deep within the castle. Forensic techniques have advanced a long way since the bodies’ discovery in 1997.
This unsolved death had lain undiscovered for over six centuries – what could be revealed? The team concentrated on one particular set of bones indicating a heavy set man who had died in the prime of his life, while considering the probable period of his death .. about six hundred years ago.
Carbon dating of his bones confirmed that he had lived between 1290 – 1400 during the height of the Scottish Wars of Independence .. England held Scotland eight times during this period.
Professor Sue Black heads up Dundee University’s Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification, where her highly respected team established various facts:
1) that the skull had a horrendous gash to its forehead, which didn’t pierce the second part of the skull, and therefore didn’t kill him, had healed over time;
2) His face had been ‘bashed’ as his mouth and teeth, which had abscesses, showed damage;
3) His lower back had an abscess;
4) One ankle was badly injured;
The damages were not life threatening as there were no fractures, but must have made life very uncomfortable ... hardy chap this man – how many doctors would we have seen by now?!
His bones, apart from their actual natural development, showing that he was a well-built man in his prime, between 25 and 40 years old, also reflected the extensive amount of muscle mass he had in various parts of his body ... his upper body was very heavy, particularly both scapula (shoulder blades), his lower limbs not quite so, but still well developed.
A knight in gothic plate armour, from a German book illustration published 1483
So what else could be determined ... samples from his teeth and bones were sent away for mineral analysis .. the isotopic testing of his bones was unexpected in its return ... Stirling is nowhere near the sea – yet our man had a diet of 30% marine life, with the other 70% coming from terrestrial life ... he was not a meat eating carnivore, as might have been expected.
Was he Scottish? No – the isotope of his teeth (establishing the first 15 years of his life) confirmed he came from the south coast of England (my neck of the woods); he could have been French supporting the Scots – but this could be disregarded as the Records listed every French soldier and the routes they took .. those routes were southerly from their mustering point at Leith Castle (just north of Edinburgh).
What else could they look at? The armouries to establish the various weapons in use at that time (in particular that arrowhead), how life was lived .. it was the time of knights, heavy armour, jousting (the gardens at Stirling had been built over a medieval jousting arena), and the reconstruction of his face and body to show us how he would look today.
Modern Replicas of various medieval European arrowheads
This gathering of clues is so interesting ... as from them Professor Black’s team was able to establish our man as
** a nobleman, because he was buried within the castle walls;
** a jouster: to become a knight and nobleman, you needed to earn your place on the battlefield;
** a fish eater: in medieval times a food staple was wind dried cod, with a sweet-sour sauce (the Romans had similar) – this preservation method made it eminently suitable to provision the armies; while interestingly the piscivore would have been a religious Christian knight .. as it was believed that eating fish avoided carnality (thought you’d like this!);
** a southern survivor: we know this from the isotopic results and anyone who had survived the early skull crack, the smash in the face from the lance, the well muscled upper body from carrying the lance, and the shield, the heavy set neck providing a core for the armour and the helmet [just as an aside .. Henry VIII’s armour weighed in at nine stone (57 kilos)], the abscessed back probably from a jousting fall (or over use), the fall could have resulted in the ankle injury as stirrups were pretty basic back then, or again just over practising.
Renaissance Fair jousting in Livermore, California, 2006
So how did he die – this they could establish ... but who was he? Can we find out? He died from a barbed broad-head arrow strike to the back of his head – a particularly nasty implement of war.
The snippet of information that did interest me - as I’d often wondered why archers were so important in medieval warfare – was this rather nasty invention of the barbed arrow – it could not be withdrawn. This is why archers were a turning point for warring armies .. those with the know-how and numbers against those without.
The team went off to the National Archives in London and first thought he might be a Norman knight .. but this man did not die in Scotland ... more in a post on Petitions to follow shortly!
The next set of records that was uncovered was an account of Stirling Castle when it was held by the English in 1340/41, which listed everyone at the Castle – starting with the knights and going down through the household – the family, archers, peasants etc
Our man was almost certainly the senior member of the Castle: Sir John de Strychley .. as the records state “Obit 10 Oct 1341”; this would have supported him being buried within the walls, his injuries confirm his nobility and the fact he was English ... the history matches, the documentation reflects it .. and the reconstruction gives him life .. and we can see Sir John as he might have been .. a heavily built battle wounded knight, with a well developed scarred face.
Why he was buried with the other ten skeletons we will never know – perhaps they were massacred, perhaps they were killed before the Scots retook the castle in 1342 – we shall never know ... the woman also died from a particularly nasty puncture wound to her skull .. it is likely that they died fighting for their cause.
God Rest Sir John de Strychley and his household buried for so long in the Chapel, beneath the kitchen built on top, below the Great Hall at Stirling .. we now know who you are and finally give you provenance in the 21st century.
One last snippet – which I thought was interesting and relates .. Peter Hook a bass player with Joy Division (left), later reformed as New Order, confirmed that he has injured his neck over the years playing his bass guitar round his ankles ... when he was trying to be different from other bass players. Hook also worked as a producer for bands such as Inspiral Carpets and The Stone Roses.
Do you think the cold case team would have worked out his injuries to his upper back and neck .. as a cause, because of his constant stretching down to play his guitar for all those years .. I suspect so – especially as they can talk to him!?
BBC's Cold Case .. or google for more information, as there may be a block on viewing for overseas viewers ..
Dear Mr Postman .. my mother would have enjoyed this, as too would my uncle .. however my mother was awake enough to sort of watch the State Opening of Parliament this week – how much she took in, I cannot tell ... but we plod on ... the weather sort of thinks summer is coming ... there’s still snow in the north of Scotland.
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