Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Lewes Skeleton

The skull of Skeleton 180, with sword damage
The monks of Lewes Priory ran a Hospital of St. Nicholas in the Middle Ages, now long gone. In the early 1990s, during an excavation of the site, a number of skeletons were unearthed. One of them, "Skeleton 180," showed evidence of several sword blows to the skull. The proximity to the site of the Battle of Lewes, and the fact that hastily dug mass graves were a common after-effect of large battles,  led to the conclusion that he was killed in 1264 while either attacking or defending King Henry III.

The skull was sent to the University of Edinburgh for radiocarbon dating, and the results were surprising: it was much older than 1264. In fact, it dated to within a generation (before or after) of the Norman Conquest. The picture it suggests of the events around 1066—and this is the only skeletal remains we have even remotely connected to the fighting that was part of the Norman Conquest—adds a little more detail to our understanding of what happened when William of Normandy decided to assert his claim to the throne of England.
"There is no record of any skirmishes happening in Lewes or any other towns in Sussex at the Norman Conquest, but this suggests that the Normans didn't just turn up and say, 'We're in charge', and everyone said, 'OK, that's fine'. It begins to paint a picture of what might have happened in the aftermath." [source]
As we know, lifestyle leaves an imprint on the body that can be analyzed by forensic science.
Osteoarchaeologist Malin Holst from the University of York, who was commissioned by Sussex Archaeological Society to examine the skeleton, said: “The first injury was probably a cut to the right side of the ear and upper jaw. This was then followed by a series of sword cuts, all delivered from the left hand side behind the victim, in a downward and horizontal motion.” 
However she has discovered much more which helps build up a picture of the individual. Malin said: “He ate a diet particularly rich in marine fish, and was at least 45 years old but may have been older. He had some spinal abnormalities and suffered from chronic infection of the sinuses. He showed age-related wear and tear of the joints of his spine, shoulders and left wrist, which might have been uncomfortable. He had lost a few teeth during life, possibly as a result of receding gums. He had two small tumours on his skull.” [source]
Skeleton 180 provides a are glimpse into a life from the 11th century.

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