Mass Grave Of Christian Crusaders Shows Bloody Reality Of Medieval War

Excavations at Sidon Castle, Lebanon revealed two mass grave deposits containing partially articulated and disarticulated human skeletal remains. Image Credit: Claude Doumet-Serhal

A mass grave found near a castle in Lebanon bears the war-wounded bodies of European soldiers who perished in the Crusades – the medieval religious wars that hoped (and ultimately failed) to recover Jerusalem and “the Holy Land” from Islamic rule.

Much of what we know about the Crusades comes from historical texts and human remains found in Europe and the Middle East from the period. However, conflict-related mass grave sites such as this are hard to come by, so the researchers hope it could be used to uncover more about the tumultuous period of history. 

As reported in the journal PLoS ONE, archeologists from Bournemouth University in the UK discovered the skeletal remains of at least 25 young men and teenage males not far from the ruins of Saint Louis Castle in Sidon, Lebanon. 

The Crusades were a series of religious wars between Christians and Muslims started (ostensibly, at least) to secure control of holy sites considered sacred by both groups. Between 1096 and 1291 CE, the campaign dragged on through eight separate church-sanctioned expeditions, but the attempts of the Christian warriors' to “liberate” the Holy Land ultimately failed. While there's good evidence that some Crusaders ended up settling Near East and had relationships with the local people, it was a notoriously bloody few centuries along the Eastern Mediterranean coast, as these newly excavated bodies show. 

DNA and isotope analyses of their teeth further confirmed that some of the men were born in Europe, indicating they were Christian Crusaders. Paired with this, the grave also contained a coin and belt buckles of clear European origin. 

Crusaders
13th century manuscript showing medieval knights fighting in armor, with wounds similar to those in the mass graves. Image Credit: The Morgan Library & Museum. MS M.638, fol. 23v. Purchased by J.P. Morgan (1867-1943) in 1916.

Radiocarbon dating of the bones suggests these soldiers died sometime during the 13th century CE. This was a time when Sidon was possessed by the European Crusaders after first being captured in 1110 CE after the First Crusade. Based on historical records and the dating of the bones, the researchers believe the soldiers died when the city of Sidon was destroyed by Mamluk troops in 1253 CE.

“All the bodies were of teenage or adult males, indicating that they were combatants who fought in the battle when Sidon was attacked. When we found so many weapon injuries on the bones as we excavated them, I knew we had made a special discovery,” Dr Richard Mikulski, an archeologist at Bournemouth University who excavated and analyzed the skeletal at the Sidon site, said in a statement.

The team also managed to piece together the individuals’ bodies, revealing some of their horrific injuries and clearly showcasing the harsh realities of medieval warfare. Physical evidence on the bones suggests many died from weapon-related trauma following an attack on the city before their partially decomposed corpses were systematically cleared into a mass grave. Charring on some bones suggests there was some attempt to burn the bodies too. 

The dating of the mass grave has also caught the interest of historians as it hints that maybe, just maybe, a very famous figure might have been associated with these bones.

“Crusader records tell us that King Louis IX of France was on crusade in the Holy Land at the time of the attack on Sidon in 1253,” explains Dr Piers Mitchell of the University of Cambridge, who was the crusader expert on the project. “He went to the city after the battle and personally helped to bury the rotting corpses in mass graves such as these. Wouldn’t it be amazing if King Louis himself had helped to bury these bodies?”

 
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