History is filled with nauseatingly horrendous deaths that would bring tears to the eyes of most present-day revelers. But of all the cruel and unusual ways to reach the fateful end, few are more grueling than the one documented in a recently discovered skeleton.
As reported in the Journal of Archaeological Science, archaeologists from the University of Milan have unearthed the Medieval skeleton of a man who appears to have died after a notoriously painful torture method and a botched beheading.
The man died at a relatively young age, between 17 and 20 years of age, at some point during the 13th century and was buried near a cathedral in Milan, northern Italy.
First impressions of his skeleton showed that he was suffering from wounds symmetrically positioned across his arms and legs, which hints at some kind of intentional injury. Based on historical records, the researchers hypothesized that the man had been tortured using “the wheel,” aka the "breaking wheel" or the "Catharine wheel".
For those blissfully unaware of the wheel, it was a torture device used for public execution throughout much of European history until the start of the early modern era (c. 1500). Accounts of how this device was used differ depending on time and place, but it generally involved the methodical smashing and snapping of limbs, followed by afflicting further wheel-based trauma.
In some accounts, torturers start by dropping the heavy wooden wheel onto people’s limbs, starting on the shin bones and working their way up. Once their body is sufficient battered, the broken limbs would be weaved in and out of the wheel spokes or tightly fastened to it using a rope. Injuries were then further afflicted – using either blades, blunt objects, fire, whips, or red-hot pincers – after which the wheel was mounted on a pole and proudly hung like a flag. The near-dead victim would hang here for some time, perhaps days or weeks, until they eventually perished or were put out of their misery with an execution.
The grueling torture technique was most often used against those accused of heinous crimes, but in northern Italy, where this body was found, this kind of torture was usually reserved for persons suspected of being plague spreaders.
“The victim of the wheel could have been considered as different by his contemporaries, and possibly this discrimination may have been the cause of his final conviction, as he could have been sacrificed, being a “freak”, by an angry crowd, as a plague spreader,” the researchers write.
As if this wasn’t enough, forensic analysis of his skeleton discovered also revealed unusual linear fractures at the cranial base of his skull. This was most likely, the researchers say, the result of a sharp force trauma from a heavy weapon during a “clumsy decapitation."
If this hypothesis of wheel torture is on the money, the researchers will have documented the first archaeological evidence a human being tortured by the wheel, certainly in medieval northern Italy, if not the world.
One thing is more certain: this unfortunate soul did not have an enjoyable final few days on Earth.