(Forbes) On the acropolis of ancient Abdera in western Thrace, within the fortress of Polystylon, archaeologists discovered a cemetery dating to the final throes of the battle between local Byzantine occupants and invading Ottoman Turks. A single decapitated skull found in the center of the burials may be evidence of the last human trophy head, removed from a defender of the fort.
In the early 1380s, residents of Polystylon made a stand against the Ottoman Turks encroaching upon their family land. It was the last Byzantine stronghold that the Ottomans vanquished along the shores of western Thrace, after all its neighbors fell to the Turks.
During the final occupation of Polystylon, a large number of people perished and were buried inside the walls. About two-thirds were kids between the ages of 4 and 11, and almost all the rest were adult men. Although DNA work has not yet been completed, skeletal and dental variations on the bones show biological kinship. One sole female skeleton has been found in the Late Byzantine cemetery at Abdera, due either to the evacuation of women prior to the commencement of fighting or to their capture and removal during warfare.
The cemetery within the fortification walls of Polystylon was discovered in 1991 and contained at least 20 graves, all of which were studied by Anagnostis Agelarakis, a bioarchaeologist at Adelphi University. One particular grave, that of a young child, was found nearly dead center in the cemetery. Rows of nails were all that remained of a simple wooden coffin. The child wore bronze beads that likely formed a bracelet around the left wrist and had every indication of healthy teeth and a good quality diet. Also found next to the child was a single human head, that of a middle-aged adult male.
"In my 30-plus years of working in bioarchaeology, it was the first time that I have uncovered such a find," Agelarakis tells me. "It's a truly spectacular time capsule of the Late Byzantine period safely preserved in the earth at Polystylon." In a recent report in the journal Byzantina Symmeikta, Agelarakis details the remains he studied and weaves a narrative of the fall of the fortress and decapitation of one of its last occupants.
Agelarakis's investigation of the adult skull revealed a traumatic injury to the front midline of the skull caused by a sharp blow from a heavy weapon that likely fatally penetrated the frontal lobe. The presence of three small neck vertebrae fragments and the jaw suggest that the head was still mostly fleshed at the time it was deposited near the child's grave, but no clear evidence of the location of the decapitation was found.
Because of this information, Agelarakis hypothesizes that the man may have been decapitated and his body unburied for a period of time. While the rest of the body has not been found, it is possible that someone pitied the man and clandestinely buried his head in the Late Byzantine cemetery. A large fragment of utilitarian pottery was found near the two bodies; it may have been used as a shovel, and then was left in the pit with the head after burial.
Beheadings are not commonly found on archaeological sites from this period, which means the timing of the injury and decapitation is particularly interesting. On the one hand, if beheading was the cause of the man's death, then the head trauma would have been the post-mortem mutilation. If the head wound preceded the beheading, though, then the decapitation would represent a post-mortem mutilation of the man's body.
"Historical records," Agelarakis writes, "provide ample narratives of both executions by impalement and beheading of combatants that had surrendered in battle against the Ottomans, and decapitations for the verification through trophy keeping of important individuals who had fallen while resisting Ottoman subjugation."
The importance of the decapitated man may be seen in the trauma he suffered about a decade before his death. Agelarakis notes that he sustained a fracture of his lower jaw that healed, although not particularly well. While the exact mechanism of this injury is unknown, he may have broken his jaw falling from a horse, from being struck by a spear or dagger, or from being hit by a projectile.
To survive and thrive after such an injury suggests some amount of medical care was tendered to the man while he recuperated. It also may suggest that he was important to the people of Polystylon. Cutting off the man's head may therefore have been a "revengeful act of subjugation, a punishment toward worthy opponents, possibly aimed to belittle, dehumanize, and silence him forever," Agelarakis suggests.
Unusual cases of human skeletons are interesting to look at, but in the end, their importance rests with what new information they can provide about life in the past. As an example of healed trauma, the isolated head reveals evidence that practices detailed in the much earlier Hippocratic Corpus were followed, Agelarakis tells me. And as an example of decapitation, he says, "the warrior head adds valuable data to the historical record of the time period and the relative dating of the Polystylon fortress."