War-Torn Skull Shows The Horrific Injuries Caused By Medieval Arrows

Scene 57 of the Bayeux Tapestry: the death of King Harold at the Battle of Hastings. Titled: HIC HAROLD REX INTERFECTUS EST (Here King Harold is slain). Myrabella/Wikimedia Commons

King Harold, the last crowned Anglo-Saxon king of England, was said to have been killed on the battlefield by an arrow to the eye while fighting the Norman invaders in 1066 CE. 

In case it wasn’t already clear enough, a recent archeological discovery has highlighted that this would have been a deeply unpleasant way to die. Reported in Antiquaries Journal this week, a collection of battered bones unearthed at Medieval burial ground in the UK has revealed the grisly reality of warfare in the Middle Ages.

Among the treasure trove of bones, archeologists at the University of Exeter have analyzed a skull dating to the 15th century CE that appears to have been struck with a Medieval arrow through its right eye. Remarkably, the injuries are similar to today’s gunshot wounds, complete with a small entry wound and large messy exit wound.

Exist wounds seen on the cranium. Oliver Creighton/University of Exeter.

The skeletal remains were found during the construction of a shopping mall in Exeter city center in the UK. The site is thought to be a burial ground at a Medieval friary where knights and other prominent members of the society were buried. Here, archaeologists discovered at least three teeth and 22 human bone fragments, including near-complete parts of the skull, leg bones, and upper arm. All of these bones showed evidence of fractures that occurred at or shortly before the time of death, which the researchers argue were caused by arrows fired from a longbow, the weapon of choice in Medieval England.

“These results have profound implications for our understanding of the power of the medieval longbow; for how we recognize arrow trauma in the archaeological record; and for where battle casualties were buried,” Professor Oliver Creighton, lead study author from the University of Exeter, said in an emailed statement. 

A square-shaped wound seen just over the right eye on the cranium. Oliver Creighton/University of Exeter.

“In the medieval world, death caused by an arrow in the eye or the face could have special significance. Clerical writers sometimes saw the injury as a divinely ordained punishment, with the ‘arrow in the eye’ that may or may not have been sustained by King Harold II on the battlefield of Hastings in 1066 the most famous case in point,” he added.

“Our study brings into focus the horrific reality of such an injury.”

Based on the square-shaped entry wound on the skull, along with historical knowledge of the time, it’s thought the deaths were caused by a “bodkin point” military arrowhead, specifically designed to pierce armor. The shape of the wound also suggests this arrow spun clockwise as it pierced through the victim's head. While arrows are often fletched with feathers to provide stabilization as it flies through the air, the researchers believe this spinning penetration was perhaps a conscious effort achieved through arrow design and fletching. The aim of this, it seems, was to inflict as much damage onto the victim as possible. 

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