In a medieval Italian cemetery, archaeologists recently exhumed the skeletal remains of a victim of a medieval torture device known as the breaking wheel. University of Milan archaeologist Debora Mazzarelli and her colleagues found the young man (who was probably between 17 and 20 years old when he died) in a medieval cemetery beneath what is now S.
Ambrogio Square in Milan. Radiocarbon dating of his bones suggests that he died sometime between 1290 and 1430. His skeleton bears evidence of brutal trauma inflicted around the time of his death, and it appears to match medieval descriptions of execution using the wheel.
Medieval executioners: “This is how we (don’t) roll”
The wheel wasn’t a cutting-edge means of torture and execution, even in the Middle Ages. Greek playwright Aristophanes and later Roman Imperial writers describe torture on the wheel as a way of wringing a confession from a suspect. By the medieval period, the wheel most often turns up in accounts of the lives—and often very graphic deaths—of the Christian saints; the device even became the symbol of one, St. Catherine of Alexandria. But court records also describe its use to punish crimes like murder, rape, and highway robbery.
Although a few accounts of the saints describe them being tied to a large wheel and rolled off a cliff, more historically reliable sources tend to describe convicts being tied, with their arms and legs spread, to the spokes of a wagon wheel while the executioner shattered their limb bones with a heavy maul.
When archaeologists exhumed the young man in Milan, they saw that the bones of his forearms and lower legs on both sides had been broken by heavy blows around the time of his death, leaving sharp edges the same color as the outer surface of the bone. A blow from some blunt object had also broken several of the bones of his face. But none of those things would have been immediately fatal, and that was the point.
“The final blow[s] to the face and stomach [were] given after a certain amount of agony, chosen by the executioner,” wrote Mazzarelli and her colleagues.
A vertebra in the young man’s lower spine still bears the mark of a piercing blow from a sharp weapon; the angle looks as if the blow came from the front and pierced all the way to his spine. And on his occipital bone, at the very base of the back of his skull, archaeologists found a fracture with sharp, linear edges—the work of a cutting blow from a heavy, edged weapon. It cut through the surface of the bone and nearly cleaved the lower, back part of the skull completely off. Mazzarelli and her colleagues say the fracture is the mark of a “clumsy decapitation.”
Executed for the crime of being different?
Six-hundred years later, we have no way of knowing who the unfortunate young man was or why he was executed, but historical records and his own skeleton may offer a reasonable line of speculation. In medieval Northern Italy, the wheel was mostly a tool for public executions, especially for men accused of spreading the plague. Based on the details of the wheel victim’s skeleton, his appearance might have caused his medieval neighbors to view him with suspicion, especially if they were already fearful of a plague outbreak.
He was shorter than the average man in medieval northern Italy by about 11cm (4.3 inches). Despite his small stature, he sported an extra thoracic vertebra and an extra rib on each side. The unusual thickening of his frontal bone (the forehead) suggests that he probably had a hormonal disorder. In the sutures between the bones of his skull, archaeologists found several small bits of what are called Wormian bones, which often show up along with a congenital disease. He had a noticeable gap between his upper front teeth, and his upper incisors are turned at an odd angle.
Based on bones and teeth alone, there’s no way of knowing what condition (or conditions) the man had or how else they might have impacted his appearance or his behavior. No single condition could account for everything Mazzarelli and her colleagues observed in the skeleton. But they suggest that he “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, for being a ‘freak,’ by an angry crowd, as a plague spreader.”
It’s a grim story, but it illustrates one reason that studying violence in the past is relevant today; the tools have changed, but basic patterns of human behavior are still the same. Cases like the young man in Milan can also help forensic anthropologists learn to identify skeletal signs of trauma and torture in more recent victims of conflicts around the world.
What’s a little strange, however, is how little archaeological evidence of torture in the past has been found so far. Archaeologists have found evidence of violence between humans dating back to the Paleolithic, but the Milanese wheel victim is one of very few clear cases of actual torture, despite how often torture is mentioned in historical records beginning in ancient times.