Mass Graves of 13th-Century Crusaders Reveal Brutality of Medieval Warfare

Found in Lebanon, the 25 soldiers’ remains bear unhealed wounds from stabbing, slicing and blunt force trauma

Bones in Crusader mass grave
Researchers say it's "highly likely" that the men died in battle in either 1253 or 1260. Claude Doumet-Serhal

Archaeologists in Lebanon have unearthed two mass graves containing the remains of 25 Crusaders killed in the 13th century. The team found the skeletons of the young men and teenage boys in Sidon, on the Mediterranean coast, reports Ben Turner for Live Science.

All of the bones bear unhealed wounds from stabbing, slicing or blunt force trauma. Most of the injuries were to the fighters’ backs, suggesting they may have been killed while fleeing—possibly by adversaries on horseback, based on where the blows fell on their bodies. The archaeologists published their findings in the journal PLOS One.

“When we found so many weapon injuries on the bones as we excavated them, I knew we had made a special discovery,” says lead author Richard Mikulski, an archaeologist at Bournemouth University in England, in a statement.

Analysis of tooth isotopes and DNA showed that some of the deceased were born in Europe, while others were the offspring of European Crusaders who had children with locals in the Middle East, the Daily Mail’s Stacy Liberatore reports. The researchers also found European-style belt buckles and a Crusader coin, along with artifacts like fragments of Persian pottery and iron nails.

The wounds that covered their bodies allow us to start to understand the horrific reality of medieval warfare.

European forces captured Sidon—an important port city—in 1110 C.E., after the First Crusade, and held it for more than a century. But in 1253, Mamluk forces attacked and destroyed the fortress that the Crusaders were using to defend the city. The next year, Louis IX of France had the structure rebuilt as the Castle of St. Louis, but it fell again, this time to the Mongols, in 1260. The mass graves are located near the castle, and the researchers say it is “highly likely” that the Crusaders died in one of these two battles.

“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,” says study co-author Piers Mitchell, a biological anthropologist at the University of Cambridge, in the statement. “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?”

Based on the positioning of body parts, the researchers say the remains were probably left to decompose on the surface for some time before being dropped into a pit. Some of the bones show signs of charring, suggesting a number of the bodies were burned.

Castle of St. Louis
The mass graves are located close to the Castle of St. Louis, which was attacked in 1253 and 1260. BlingBling10 via Wikimedia Commons under CC SA 3.0

“To distinguish so many mixed up bodies and body parts took a huge amount of work, but we were finally able to separate them out and look at the pattern of wounds they had sustained,” says study co-author Martin Smith, a biological anthropologist at Bournemouth University, in the statement.

The attacks on Sidon came during the gradual fall of the Crusader states. The last major Crusades set out from France in 1270 and England in 1271 but met with little success, per In 1291, Acre, one of the final remaining Crusader cities, fell to the Mamluks, marking what many historians see as the Crusades’ end.

“So many thousands of people died on all sides during the Crusades, but it is incredibly rare for archaeologists to find the soldiers killed in these famous battles,” says Mitchell in the statement. “The wounds that covered their bodies allow us to start to understand the horrific reality of medieval warfare.”

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