Sunday 30 May 2010

Stirling Castle Skeletons - who are they?

The skeletons of a man and
a horse in a museum

Six hundred years on .. could a skeleton be identified? The body was found under the recently restored kitchen area of Stirling Castle .. this is what makes the person worth investigating – he was buried within the castle walls: probably making him of noble descent.

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.

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.

Jousting helmet, late 15th C:
illustration by Albrecht Durer
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 ‘finds’ and stored. A few artefacts were also found including one particular arrow head providing another clue.

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  and the one there over at Biking and Architecture – so felt I had to continue the story and let you know.

Plate Armour
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;

A knight in gothic plate armour,
from a German book illustration,
published 1483
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.

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).

Modern Replicas of various
medieval European arrowheads
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.

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!);

Renaissance Fair - jousting
in Livermore, California: 2006
** 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.

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: that I didn't do I see now in 2014!

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

The reconstructed face of Sir John de Strychley
as made by Dr Xanthe Mallet of Dundee University
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.

Joy Division
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 ..
Stirling Castle Blog for more information

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.

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories


J.D. Meier said...

It's amazing how many clues are found in our bodies ... especially figuring out muscle mass from bone remains.

I'm not sure I would have been a good jouster ... maybe more of an archer.

A barbed broad-arrow head sounds pretty nasty.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi JD .. I was so interested following their process and seeing all the places they visited - i.e. to confirm their thoughts/ views .. and then being able to put all the pieces together. Then being able to refer to records that were six hundred years old - seems amazing .. & not just one set of info, but the actual referral.

Certainly he was one well built very powerful chap .. very different muscle tone to ours of today - for a great many of us. An archer - letting the arrow fly .. - a lot of work there too .. & yes - the barbed arrow head was not something I expected to see.

Thanks for these thoughts - enjoy Memorial Day .. Hilary

Paul Maurice Martin said...

When I saw medieval armor at the Philadelphia Art Museum, I couldn't believe how small most of those guys were. So for me the ultimate knightly question remains: how did they ever mount their horses??

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Paul .. good question & I have no idea - perhaps someone else will let us know .. ?!

Yes - we were smaller then .. but then so were the horses I expect .. the German book illustration above does make the horse look pretty bowed ..

The horses must have been well built too - armour weighed a ton ..

However: here is the answer ...:

Walking in armor wasn’t an easy task, particularly once armor went from chain mail to plate mail, at which point knights and their horses were covered in huge chunks of metal all over their bodies.

A knight’s plate mail armor weighed upwards of 50 pounds for the full suit and got as heavy as 100 pounds, depending on the model.

You can imagine that if he toppled over or slipped on a serf, he’d loll around on his back like an upturned beetle. This is no exaggeration.

Each battling knight had a squire to help him maintain uprightwardness. His squire assisted him in donning his armor and mounting his horse.

When a knight was knocked off his steed, his squire would be at his side to help him get back on his feet again (quite literally).

Knights also had a difficult time seeing; the helmet was so awkward, a page might have to inform his knight what was in front of him, or at the very least aim him in the right direction before the onset of battle.


Probably explains why jousting fields were very long straights - they couldn't go in any other direction.

Well that's added to the post - thanks Paul .. for raising the question & thank you to "Big Site of Amazing Facts" .. and there's more on this sort of topic .. like how did the knights see? etc ..

Very interesting .. and good to know .. have a good Memorial Day .. Hilary

Paul C said...

Great piece of detective work and CSI. Some things never change like perpetrators trying to conceal foul deeds. Some are caught later rather than sooner.

T. Powell Coltrin said...

Hilary, What a wonderful post. My thoughts: The injuries that the people in those times suffered but didn't die from had to be hard to bear every day without the resources today. Another thought: Years ago, here in MO there were three females that vanished on the graduation night of the two younger females. The mom and her daughter and her daughter's friend were at the mom's home. They disappear. No struggle marks. Their purses left behind and nothing stolen. Every June I think of them and the heartbreak of their families - not knowing. I know that someday their bones will be found and analyzed. They will know how they died and where, but too late for the grieving families to know.

Great post.

Grampa Ken said...

I visited a replica of Anne Hathaway's Cottage in Victoria, British Columbia a few years ago and was amazed at the small size of the rooms, furniture, doorways etc - they really were very small back then. Of course the change continues, note the size of today's teenagers!

Nice article again; I reviewed Positive Letters at StumleUpon and hope a few more will tune in.
Best wishes, Ken

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Paul .. thanks - I just enjoyed the way they unravelled the case and made Sir John come to light at the end .. not much can be hidden from us now-a-days .. if the will is there. So much improvement in the detection methods in less than 15 years .. seems pretty incredible.

As you say some are caught later . & eventually thank goodness - we've had one or two here recently.

Thanks - Paul .. good to see you - Hilary

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Teresa .. thank you! The injuries I suppose were part and parcel of life then .. no doubt the herbalists were hard at work with poultices etc.

How extraordinary three women vanishing without a sight or sound since .. really sad. As you so rightly say .. this time of year must be awful for the families – like you I hope something will be recovered, so that some form of closure can be found for them and for their living families. Very very strange.

Glad you enjoyed the information .. but sorry to hear of the MO story – not nice at all, let alone perplexing to say the least .. thanks - Hilary

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Ken .. Thank you so much for StumbleUponing it!! Very grateful .. as I’m not very good at that sort of thing (yet!) .. I go posting happily! I’ll get there – but one thing at a time. But I’m very chuffed you feel it’s worthy of a stumble and a review.

People were definitely smaller then – Queen Victoria was tiny, though Edward Longshanks (Edward I) was very tall .. and every inch of extra height in the days of no mechanics must have been an encouragement to build small .. except for the castles, palaces, towers etc – with their lofty Grand Halls etc .. Next time I visit Vancouver Island .. I’ll pop down and have a look at Anne’s cottage – should be quite interesting ..

Today’s teenagers are a towering, gangly lot aren’t they? .. from someone who’s not very tall!

Great to see you here .. thanks for coming by – your article on “Does Commerce Govern Society?” is so relevant .. all the best Hilary

Chase March said...

The mysteries of the past can be read on our bones. Am I the only one who finds this a bit creepy? Nevertheless, that was an interesting post.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Chase .. I have to say I don't .. but then I was fascinated by the story. Despite this .. glad to hear you liked it ..

Have a good week .. Hilary

Mandy Allen said...

Hi Hilary, very interesting post. I believe the knights also had mounting blocks as I have seen these in historical buildings before.

In 1990 I was accepted at Southampton Uni to do a degree in archaeology so this post fascinated me. I love the subject with a passion but ended up going to Derby to do youth work instead as I couldn't imagine what job I would eventually have with an archaeology degree!

Enjoy the journey.


Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Mandy .. thank you .. yes I thought they must have had mounting blocks too - but glad you've confirmed it for us. How on earth they get on in full armour anyway I really don't know!

Gosh - I suddenly thought you were going to say you were an expert in archaeology .. well I'm sure you know a great deal more than I do .. I'm just interested in all things, I guess!

Well - you could have been in Dundee excavating bones! But I'm sure the Youth Work gave you much more satisfaction and a knowledge of the world a great many of us don't have ..

Glad to see you here .. have a good week - Hilary

Unknown said...

Dear Hilary,

It looks the lives of medieval knights were not easy. Thinking about the fact these were the people living in the castle, how awful the living or ordinary people at that time. Samurai in Japan had same kind of living or lives. Just finished a book about 13 years old Samurai family's son must kill his own real mother and her lover to survive his clam. Lucky we are not living then.

Very interesting post.

Thank you for your sharing.
Shaw Funami
Fill the Missing Link

BK said...

Interesting read although I find it a little creepy that the man was discovered within the castle's wall.

Anonymous said...

A most interesting post. I love these kind of shows on TV, recreating an era gone by and trying to undercover clues and piece together a mystery. That probably was his wife buried with him. Sad. It was a rough life back then.

Stephen Tremp

... Paige said...

Thanks so much for your kind visit.
I find it so interesting that they can figure out and recreate history so well.

Chris Edgar said...

I didn't realize so much information -- such as diet and soft tissue injuries -- could be discovered just by examining the skeleton -- sounds like another reason to eat right, so that the forensic analysis of my skeleton in 500 years doesn't reveal embarrassing indulgences! :)

Mark said...

It is amazing how much we now can learn from the skeletal remains. I love how rich in history Europe is. Thanks for sharing your find.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Shaw .. it sure does .. life must have been terrible compared to how we live today – but then was then and we live as we live. Yes – the ordinary people were probably drafted into the armies, or living out a very basic existence. I’m sure the Samurai had similar lives – your book sounds interesting & I’m sure those kind of decisions had to be made .. still do in places, I’m afraid to say. We are lucky and life is precious.

Glad you enjoyed it & thanks for the visit .. Hilary

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi BK .. good to see you .. I have to say it doesn’t phase me .. they were in a chapel, under a kitchen & under a Great Hall .. well hidden – til ‘we’ found them! It looks like they were reverently buried, albeit after probably being killed. I hope their souls rest now we know a little more about them. They were honoured to be buried within the walls .. and at least they were buried, and not left beyond the walls. I hope that gives you a little more peace .. go well - Hilary

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Stephen .. yes these mystery stories are up your street .. I loved this one – it was just so informative about that whole era. I agree .. it was probably his family and immediate entourage .. rough times – you’re so right. I’m quite glad they’ve been ‘found’ and given some sort of identity. Good to see you - Hilary

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Paige .. it was a pleasure coming over .. – and I’m glad you enjoyed this post .. it’s good to see you here .. I certainly learn so much from these programmes ..- have a good week - Hilary

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Chris .. good point .. actually the early days would be ok – I’d be worried about now though! I t would be interesting to come back in 500 years .. to see what the world is like .. or whether we have telepathic brains to ‘read’ each generation of humans – what they were doing etc .. No – Hilary not a good idea!!? What a thought .. – thanks for your fun idea ... who knows?! Hilary

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Mark .. thanks for that .. we certainly have lots of history here, but amazingly so much is documented and comes from the different civilisations through our times.

There must be so much American history .. but not that ‘we can read’ .. as we can read our different cultures through the records and over time – I love what we can see and learn about the past as its morphed into today's world: so yes we are lucky.

Glad you enjoyed the post and thanks for your comment .. Hilary

Davina said...

It is amazing what scientists can learn from studying our bones, tissues, etc. I'm fascinated even just watching the investigative television shows where forensic teams use their knowledge to solve crimes. That photo of the skeletons of a man and a horse at the beginning of this post catches my eye. It would be quite something to reassemble these.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Davina .. yes - it's amazing what can be learnt now-a-days from the situation, bones, (tissue when there is any) .. and the knowledge of the era. The archaeologists are having the time of their lives .. digging, before areas unfortunatley are covered over with modern building again.

Thanks .. the horse & man skeleton was a lucky find & I thought looked too good to omit. As you say they must be good 3D jig-saw puzzlers!

Nice to see you .. and thanks for the comment - Hilary

Patricia said...

Oh this is so interesting Hilary - a cold case solved by the usual means not just by the 60 minutes on the TV means! Thank you..and thank you again for the great post on Biking Architect, I have had several comments in person by several engineers in town...

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Patricia .. thought it would appeal to you! So very pleased to hear you enjoyed it .. a reading through cold case .. I just loved it & I like elaborating a little!

Glad the post for the Biking Architect has been appreciated .. and that engineers have noted it & commented on it.

Thanks for being here .. have a good weekend .. Hilary

Wilma Ham said...

There is a forensic scientist lost in you. xox Wilma

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Wilma .. always loved these kind of things and by putting it into a post .. I can remember it when ever I want to have a quick read. There's so much to read into the landscape as well as human remains.

Thanks Wilma for being here .. xo Hilary

Anonymous said...

Whoa! So at some point in the future, my skeleton could be the subject of a forensic investigation? Sounds like a strong argument for being cremated then! :P

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Tony .. well I wonder if they'd find your eyeballs attached to your keyboard, attached to your pc .. and what they'd make of the resultant mix, with the skeleton slumped in such an ungainly fashion .. I think you might be right ..

.. better hang on to them and the skeleton for the time being .. and make sure you can sign your name for later on!

Great seeing you .. thanks for all the comments - have a fun weekend .. Hilary


I cannot tell you how interesting and informative this blog of yours is. There is so much content one must come back often to take it all in. The Forensics of Knighthood! Great. I do not think, given the choice, I would like to have lived during those times on any level...not that we don't have our share of brutality and barbarism today My best.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Count Sneaky .. good to see you here .. and thank you so much for the compliment about the blog. It would be lovely to see you when you can visit and please enjoy your visits ..

Lovely phrase The Forensics of Knighthood - I agree .. I too don't think I'd have liked to have lived then. Now - well yes we do have our share of nasties .. and there's lot elsewhere in the world away from the western world.

thanks for coming by .. Have a good day later on .. Hilary

Susan Scheid said...

Thanks for the further clue--I had missed the connection to finding out about the fish-eating. Teeth and bones tell such a great deal, don't they? Fascinating post.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Susan .. thanks for coming 'back' to look at this post - I just found the whole thing so interesting .. and the fact they could find out so much - diet, where he came from, and eventually who he was - amazing.

As you say a fascinating post - that obviously I couldn't have written if I hadn't of watched the programme. Cheers Hilary

Jo said...

Reading this post I haven't read all the comments, but I understand that many knights were actually hoisted onto their horses with a crane designed for the purpose.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Jo - I think that's probably right the armour was so heavy ... whether it was a crane or trebuchet type crane - or just people pushing and pulling them on .. but they must have been so weighty once clothed up ..

Cheers and thanks for reading .. Hilary