Swordsman or Archer? an Herculean discovery

One of the burials excavated during this season is of a mature male and showed signs of notable physical strength, so much so it earned him the nickname Hercules! Our resident osteo expert, Siobhan Swiderski, tells is the story of the discovery of this remarkable medieval(?) man:


It all began with a scapula – the likes of which I had never seen.  To say that this scapula was ripped would be an understatement.  It had a scapular six-pack.  This was the scapula of a well fit man.  It was, for all intents and purposes, the most scaptacular scapula I had ever laid eyes on.

Coming from Cutting 3, the scapula was found to the south of the north wall in what had been believed to be the foundation trench for the church.

The body of the scapula itself was robust, and it curved like a crescent posteriorly.  The glenoid fossa, the articulation point for the humerus, had some lipping – bone remodeling which occurs due to repeated stress during life.

Articulation point for the humerus

The oblique ridges were deep, creating two waves along the subscapular fossa.  The ridges mark the attachments of the intramuscular tendons of the subscapularis muscle which aids in adduction and rotation of the humerus (Fig 2).

 Waves visible along the subscapular fossa

Fin suggested, and I quickly agreed, that this could be an indicator of Hercules having been either a swordsman or a longbow man – both occupations which would have required training and repeated use of the right shoulder and arm from a young age, accounting for the robust development of the scapula.

Possible swords man or long bow man (images from http://www.medievalwarfare.info/)

Not long after the scapula was excavated a mandible was found.  The teeth were worn, indicating an age range of 40-55 (Lovejoy, 1985).  This is based on known, consistent patterns of tooth wear studied in pre-industrialized societies where there is a high presence of grit in the diet due to food processing techniques.

Preservation of the teeth

The skull itself became visible shortly thereafter in the cutting; I assisted Ian and Michael in excavating the one we named Hercules from his previously disturbed resting place.  Several hours and bamboo skewers later we succeed in freeing the skull from the cutting.  Our patience paid off as he emerged none the worse for wear and in remarkable condition.

Skull in excellent condition after initial cleaning

It was as if his burial had been disturbed and his remains were piled up with his skull on top.  All the disarticulated remains from the area all pointed to a robust, well developed adult male.  The following day I washed the skull and found out just what a trooper our Hercules had been….

His cranial cavity was filled with soil and during the washing process a clean crack appeared on the inferior right temporal bone which followed a straight path separating not only the temporal bone but the inferior portion of the occipital bone as well (see below).

Aside from that, the rest of the skull was in excellent condition.  The styloid processes remained intact, as did most of the sphenoid.  Even the superior and inferior nasal conchae emerged from the wash mostly intact.

Delicate bones of the nasal cavity remain intact

As centuries of soil were washed away I noted a healed blunt force trauma to the lateral portion of the right parietal bone.

Indentation in skull visible in top right hand corner

Above the crack which separated the inferior portion of the temporal bone from the superior (the squamosal suture remained intact) there were two deep and sharp cut marks – three to four inches in length (sword wounds, perhaps?) which appeared to have occurred close to the time of death as they had no signs of healing (and ultimately contributed to the post-mortem crack which had appeared as the damp soil dried in the cranial cavity post-excavation).

The blow that killed him? Possible sword or axe cut

On the left side of the occipital there was a puncture wound which penetrated into the brain cavity, causing a thick flake of bone to protrude endocranially about one centimeter.  This flake had remodeled and froze the wound at a ninety degree angle still visible from the interior of the skull.

Puncture wound in base of skull, piercing the endocranial wall

As if these three major traumas weren’t enough, on the endocranial surface of the left parietal I observed two small circular indentations – one approximately a centimeter and a half in diameter, and the other, more posteriorly positioned indent, about a half a centimeter in diameter.  Tuberculosis?  From what I’ve seen of tuberculosis evidence left on bone, these marks fit the profile of bone remodeling due to the presence of the tubercles associated with this condition.

Evidence of disease? Possible tubercle


Second possible tubercle visible as point in centre of skull interior

Also of note was almost complete suture obliteration at the obelion point along the sagittal suture (which is a super academic and fancy way of noting a point along the midline of the skull near the crown of the head).  This correlates with the age assessment based on the dental attrition and leads me to believe that this individual lived into his late forties, early fifties. (I didn’t rate the other points used for aging based on suture obliteration so I’m being conservative in my estimate).

Knitted suture and indication of age

Oh my goodness, do I love osteoarchaeology!  To be able to tell so much about an individual from their bones never ceases to amaze me.  Applying knowledge I learned at university in the field – well that’s pretty awesome too.

Siobhan Swiderski

Archaeological Supervisor,

University of Minnesota Twin Cities


About Irish Archaeology Field School

The Irish Archaeology Field School (IAFS) is Ireland’s leading provider of university accredited, site based archaeological research and training. Our archaeological and heritage programs include research projects in a number of locations in Ireland, including in Co. Wexford and Co. Offaly (with satellite schools frequently undertaken elsewhere). We provide credited and uncredited programs (and internships) for novice and experienced students, and also specialise in the preparation of purpose-built faculty led programs incorporating excavation, historical research, remote sensing, non-invasive survey, ground investigation, landscape assessment etc. Whilst our programs are excavation-centered and aimed primarily at students of archaeology, anthropology and history, courses are open to all, and are guaranteed to give you an enriching and thoroughly worthwhile study abroad adventure.
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One Response to Swordsman or Archer? an Herculean discovery

  1. Jessica says:

    Great work Siobhan! This was really interesting! It’s amazing to see how much information can be derived through bone analysis.
    The photos are great too!
    I can’t wait to read about Helen and Hector.

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