|Skeletal Analysis Shows the Grim Face of
On a cold day in March 1461, between 22,000 and 28,000 men were speared,
axed, and crushed to death on the battlefield of Towton. This decisive
battle in the Wars of the Roses, the English civil war between the
Lancastrians and the Yorks, helped win the crown for Edward IV (a
What transpired at Towton on a snowy Palm Sunday, March 29th, 1461,
has ever since been something of a mystery, despite the battle being
one of the largest and bloodiest ever fought on English soil. Historically,
the battle marked a turning point in the Wars of the Roses that
confirmed the Yorkist Edward IV's accession to the throne of England.
During the battle and ensuing rout of the Lancastrians, an estimated
22,000 to 28,000 men lost their lives.
Now with a gruesome chance archaeological find in the back garden
of a Yorkshire country house this battle can start to be explored
on an individual level. In the summer of 1996, builders working
on an extension, uncovered 37 skeletons piled one on top of the
other. This was a war grave described as "one of the great
finds of the century" Its occupants had fallen in this battle
that some people describe as the bloodiest battle ever on British
The workmen disturbed a portion of a mass-burial pit during building
work at the location of the Towton battlefield (near Tadcaster,
North Yorkshire). At the request of North Yorkshire County Council
Heritage Unit, a team of osteoarchaeologists and archaeologists
from the Department of Archaeological Sciences and members of the
West Yorkshire Archaeology Service recovered the mostly complete
remains of 43 individuals from the interment which measured 6m x
2m and was only 50 cm in depth.
The application of forensic anthropological techniques for identifying
and recording injuries has allowed us to confirm that the individuals
from the pit were casualties of an extremely violent encounter.
Moreover, they provide a unique glimpse of the personal consequences
of battle for some who took part and some insight into the lives
that these people led.
Some of the corpses had been horribly mutilated with their ears
and noses sliced from their dead bodies and with puncture marks
in their skulls, over thirteen in one case. A group of British scientists
at Bradford University's Department of Archaeological Science unraveled
the bloody and fascinating story behind the massacre. They used
bio-mechanical analysis of the bodies, scans and computer reconstructions
of the victims.
It was "the bloodiest battle ever fought on British soil,"
according to Anthea Boylston, who headed the University of Bradford,
U.K., team that analyzed the mangled remains of the battle's victims.
One skeleton in particular - known as number 16 - is closely scrutinised
for clues. SHANNON NOVAK, a forensic archaeologist, whose work has
taken her to the war graves in Croatia, is part of the Bradford
University team which pieces together the evidence. Number 16's
injuries are brutal - his jaw had been sliced from his face; a sword-slash
had cut through the roots of a molar and, almost certainly severed
his tongue. He was about 50 when he died; probably a grizzled veteran
of continental wars whose body had been slung in the day after the
infamous battle. A facial reconstruction by forensic artist, RICHARD
NEAVE, revealed a gruesome-looking man.
Most of these individuals had sustained multiple perimortem (around
the time of death) injuries from a variety of projectiles and hand-held
weapons, many of which bear resemblance to those curated by the
National Armouries Museum, Leeds, and dating to the late Medieval
In order to document these injuries complete reconstruction of crania
was necessary such that the wounds could be sequenced (the process
of identifying the order in which blows were delivered and their
"The skulls [which were in pieces] took six months to reconstruct,"
said Shannon Novak, the forensic anthropologist from the University
of Utah who did the reconstruction and trauma analysis. "We
were looking for injury patterns and trying to determine the weapons
that made them. We also tried to determine the sequence of wounds."
Wound sequencing is done by interpreting the intersection of radiating
fractures that occur in the skull due to trauma. Novak offers the
analogy to throwing rocks at glass: "When you throw a rock,
in the place where it contacts the glass you get a depression surrounded
by concentric and radiating fractures where the glass fails. Throw
a second rock, and you get a depression and fractures, but the fractures
will follow the path of least resistance and gravitate toward fractures
created by the first rock. Studying where these intersections occur
allows you to identify which rock 'wound' hit first."
Many of the individuals suffered multiple injuries that are far
in excess of those necessary to cause disability and death. From
the distribution of cuts, chops, incisions, and punctures, it appears
that blows cluster in the craniofacial area, in some cases bisecting
the face and cranial vault of some individuals and detaching bone
in others. Series of cuts and incisions found in the vicinity of
the nasal and aural areas appear to have been directed toward removal
of the nose and ears. There are few infra-cranial (torso and limb)
injuries, which may suggest that these areas were not targeted,
that these individuals were wearing armour, or that they sustained
their injuries while in a position that did not allow them to defend
themselves. The pattern, distribution, and number of these insults
argues for perimortem mutilation. Many were left in a state that
would have made identification difficult, even more so as they had
been stripped of identifiable weapons and clothing prior to interment
(a normal practice in the Medieval period).
"The level of trauma was surprising," said Novak, who
has done forensic analysis on victims in Croatia and the United
States. "In Croatia, you would see primarily a single gunshot
wound to the head. Some of these men from Towton have [up to] 13
wounds to the head. There were also many different types of wounds
present on single individuals."
By sequencing the pattern of wounds, they found that in a couple
of cases, individuals received severe mutilating injuries after
being incapacitated. One man's face was bisected after he was felled
by a blow to the back of the head.
By comparing the wounds with historically documented weapons, the
team was able to detect and confirm the use of battle weapons such
as war hammers, swords, daggers, poleaxes, and maces.
"The skulls had some wounds with distinct shapes," said
Novak, "so we worked with weapon profiles [to determine which
weapons made which wounds]. Most were square wounds to the head,
which are from poleaxes. Because longbows were idealized for that
period, there was a tendency prior to analysis to interpret these
wounds as longbow wounds."
Novak spent hours in the Royal Armories and the Wallace Collection
in England, making silhouettes of the various weaponry known for
that time, and then compared them to the patterns found on the skulls.
The team was surprised to find no chest wounds. Although very few
people could afford armor to protect themselves, most would have
worn padded jackets. The head apparently was targeted. Nearly everyone
wore helmets, but they "might have easily been dislodged with
a hard blow," said Novak. The skulls of many individuals showed
healed head wounds from previous blows.
Armor was distributed according to one's status. Individuals such
as lords would have a cache of weapons to give out to the locals.
Poleaxes were a common weapon among foot soldiers. Not only were
they a deadly weapon, their metal-reinforced poles made them effective
in defense. Almost everyone would have carried a single-bladed knife,
which was used for eating and cooking as well as fighting, and most
would have possessed a broadsword.
In addition to the information gleaned about the men's battle scars,
the University of Bradford team also documented histories of injuries
on some individuals. Boylston said, "One man had a deeply piercing
wound to the mandible, which he somehow survived, and it showed
as a healed fracture. We also found trauma to the teeth, from the
battle itself, and also previous trauma which suggested [some of
the men] were using their teeth to string bows. Some of the men
were archers. One skeleton [of an apparent archer] had a lesion
on the elbow, such as you find in baseball players."
The battle was not fought exclusively by the youngest and healthiest
medieval warriors. There was "a wide age-range" from men
of 16 to some who were 50 years old. Though surprising to find elder
Englishmen wielding weaponry in the thick of battle, it was common
for older men to fight. Said Boylston, "It was part of medieval
warfare. Each lord had to bring a retinue of a certain amount of
individuals. People had to go and fight for the king as part of
their feudal duties."
The general size and robusticity of the individuals from Towton
is unusual when compared with other medieval populations. Many of
these individuals are more robust (stockier) than the medieval norm,
appearing similar to modern professional athletes.
The physical appearance of these individuals, then, may be related
to extended periods of strenuous exertion prior to physiological
maturity (i.e. in youth). Among these are numerous Schmorl's nodes
in the vertebral column (from pressure exerted on the intervertebral
discs in heavy lifting), os acromiale of the scapular spine, a condition
that is often accompanied by rotator cuff (muscles that stabilise
the shoulder) tears, and an avulsion fracture of the humeral medial
epicondyle, a condition that develops from throwing (e.g. in projectile
use) in more recent juvenile individuals.
One hypothesis to explain this pattern is that these individuals
were selected as participants in the battle because of previous
experience and training in armed combat from a young age. Some support
for this relationship comes from a number of healed injuries, testimony
to prior involvement in armed conflict.
Analysis of the Towton assemblage offers a complementary view of
medieval warfare to that offered by the chronicles of the Medieval
period. Through it, we will attempt to place the Towton individuals
within the context of late medieval society and address the effect
of late medieval social change on warfare. Far from the chivalrous
conflict so often associated with the Middle Ages, we may be seeing
early evidence of the brutality more often encountered in the civil
wars of the modern era.
The evidence defies all received wisdom about medieval chivalry
and battlefield conventions. Was there a religious motive behind
these gruesome mutilations? Is this shallow pit part of a larger
burial ground, containing, according to some estimates, around 1,000
University of Bradford, UK, courtesy of Anthea Boylston An example
of cranial trauma from the Battle of Towton. The left side of the
mandible has a healed blade injury which occurred in a previous
This picture shows a crushing blow has been made to the left had
side - possibly a pole axe wound.