Wounded to the bone: an IJP article by A. Boucherie

This Spotlight of the Month presents the recent work of Alexandra Boucherie and her colleagues on evidences of past violence on human remains. They used digital microscopy combined with macroscopic analysis to observe patterns of traumas with accuracy. Their case study investigated 45 individuals from a Medieval mass grave in Sandbjerget, Denmark.


February spotlight 2018 fond transparent



The perks of such methods

Indeed, traumatic injuries - visible on human bones - can provide information regarding cause, manner of death, intensity, nature of armed conflicts as well as intentionality of blows, fighting techniques and equipment involved. Microscopic and digital images usually enables to identify more precise details for each injury than macroscopic evaluation alone. 


Case study

The very first aim of this study was to test the relative accuracy of macroscopic versus microscopic examination for characterizing certain features of trauma such as category, lesion type, weapon class, direction, and timing of injury.


The sample

The selected mass grave was composed of an unusual number of individuals killed during a single event and buried together in one burial in Sandbjerget (Denmark). Discovered in 1994, it contained at least 60 individuals, exclusively adult males. This demographic profile is consistent with a conflict episode. Based on state of preservation, a sample of 45 individuals were selected for the study. Radiocarbon dated this assemblage around AD 1300-1350. Nine other assemblages from (post)-Medieval Europe are considered as battle-related and reported in the literature. 



Every trauma was recorded macroscopically then microscopically from casts. Relevant comparisons and statistics were applied to the results in order to challenge them and identify significances regarding injuries’ distribution pattern and the prevalence of traumatic lesions.

Lesions were distinguished between antemortem, perimortem and postmortem. Features of sharp force trauma were characterized with linear cut marks, lesion types, deducable class of weapon and directions of force. No blunt force trauma was observed. 



The following limits have to be considered for this study: selection of a sample from the assemblage, methods applied, state of preservation and taphonomic processes (soil pressure, superposition of the bodies within the grave). It is possible that some lesions were missed. Thus, prevalence rate of injuries might be underestimated.



Age distribution of the assemblage is mostly middle-aged adults, i.e. 30 to 40 years old. 

Overall, 201 lesions were identified which correspond to 4.46 per individual, reflecting a high prevalence of violence-related injuries. Among them, 68 traumatic lesions were analysed by both macroscopic and microscopic methods. They were mostly perimortem except a few, that were antemortem. Injuries were mostly localized on the cranial region, predominantly right-sided on the parietal. Some posterior lesions were observed as well. As to the postcranial skeleton, injuries were particularly localized on joints. Lower limbs exhibit a higher frequency of trauma, compared to the upper limbs. All perimortem injuries were sharp force traumas, most of which were penetrating defects, inflicted by a long-heavy weapon.

From osteological evidences to the victim’s identity and cause of death

Each injury was inflicted by a sharp bladed implement, most frequently by a long-heavy weapon like a sword; this is consistent with weapons in use during medieval times. Resulting penetrating injuries were likely to cause brain damage and death in battle. 


Age distribution of the assemblage is older than expected for a Medieval army. It also contrasts with other reported mass graves. This can be explained by the presence of seasoned veterans on the battlefield, or local able-bodied males banded together for collective defense (perhaps while the younger men might had been away). The rarity of visible antemortem traumas on these individuals suggest that few of them had experienced previous armed conflicts, therefore, favouring the civilians’ hypothesis.


Injuries were mostly localized on the right side or the back of the skull and often at the postcranial joints.  These evidences show that the head was the main target of the assailants in this conflict. Both upper and lower joints were targeted as a second resort, certainly because armours intersect at joints.

Reasons for aiming the skull can be tactical - temporarily incapacitating -, psychological - related to one’s identity - or practical - lack of (adequate) head protection -. Limited head protection is generally observed for archers, civilian defenders or victims who had lost their helmet. Also, the head was easier to target than the rest of the body, when fighting from horseback.

Right-sided injuries indicate direct or backhand blows given from horseback. Posterior lesions correspond to blows struck at fleeing or fallen men. Such lesions are more consistent with the presence of cavalry, pursuing opponents.




The distribution pattern of the sharp force traumas suggests specific circumstances of death for these men: there were certainly routing civilian troops - lacking adequate head protection - attacked from above, and probably behind, possibly by cavalry.  Evidences indicate that they died on the battlefield, before being buried together.


This case study shows that digital microscopy is a great complementary technique to macroscopic analysis of skeletal trauma in archaeological samples. It allows precise observation of features, such as cutmark cross-section, striations or damage, and reflection on lesion type and weapon category. Methods also underline that casting is a useful technique to analyse trauma remotely.



Wounded to the bone: Digital microscopic analysis of traumas in a medieval mass grave assemblage (Sandbjerget, Denmark, AD 1300-1350)

by Boucherie A., Jorkov M.L.S. & Smith M.

An article by an International Journal of Paleopathology 19 (2017) : 66-79

trauma mass graves digital microscopy sharp force trauma