Our grisly history

History isn’t often pretty. Archaeologists have been excavating a site called Towton, where a major battle was fought in the Wars of the Roses in 1461, and in which 28,000 people died and were buried in mass graves scattered about the battleground. It’s a fascinating story of the soldiers involved in the battle, and they were both diverse and contradicting certain stereotypes about medieval citizens.

The men whose skeletons were unearthed at Towton were a diverse lot. Their ages at time of death ranged widely. It is easier to be precise about younger individuals, thanks to the predictable ways in which teeth develop and bones fuse during a person’s adolescence and 20s. The youngest occupants of the mass grave were around 17 years old; the oldest, Towton 16, was around 50. Their stature varies greatly, too. The men’s height ranges from 1.5-1.8 metres (just under five feet to just under six feet), with the older men, almost certainly experienced soldiers, being the tallest.

This physical diversity is unsurprising, given the disparate types of men who took the battlefield that day. Yet as a group the Towton men are a reminder that images of the medieval male as a homunculus with rotten teeth are well wide of the mark. The average medieval man stood 1.71 metres tall–just four centimetres shorter than a modern Englishman. “It is only in the Victorian era that people started to get very stunted,” says Mr Knüsel. Their health was generally good. Dietary isotopes from their knee-bones show that they ate pretty healthily. Sugar was not widely available at that time, so their teeth were strong, too.

I can identify: the oldest there were up around my age, and certainly in much better physical shape, and there they were battering each other to death. And then there are bits I can’t identify with at all — they shredded each other with savagery. Some of the dead weren’t simply killed in the heat of battle, they were butchered by repeated blows to the head. This was far more brutal than was necessary to fell an enemy.


Towton 25 suffered eight wounds to his head that day. The precise order can be worked out from the direction of fractures on his skull: when bone breaks, the cracks veer towards existing areas of weakness. The first five blows were delivered by a bladed weapon to the left-hand side of his head, presumably by a right-handed opponent standing in front of him. None is likely to have been lethal.

The next one almost certainly was. From behind him someone swung a blade towards his skull, carving a down-to-up trajectory through the air. The blow opened a huge horizontal gash into the back of his head—picture a slit you could post an envelope through. Fractures raced down to the base of his skull and around the sides of his head. Fragments of bone were forced in to Towton 25’s brain, felling him.

His enemies were not done yet. Another small blow to the right and back of the head may have been enough to turn him over onto his back. Finally another blade arced towards him. This one bisected his face, opening a crevice that ran from his left eye to his right jaw. It cut deep: the edge of the blade reached to the back of his throat.

Yeesh. These were people so much like us, and we can’t have evolved much beyond that point biologically, yet this is an ugly story of what we often call inhumanity, but is probably more typically human.