Researchers determined the medieval "cold case" was an incident of "raw violence" and "overkill."
Modern forensic analysis has proven endlessly beneficial in solving present-day murders, but now that same technology is being used to help crack the unsolved cases of the past — including the brutal murder of a man more than 700 years ago.
A new study published in the December issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports focused on the skeleton of a medieval man discovered in the San Biagio church in Cittiglio, Italy, in 2006. First found in a tomb near the church entrance, the man’s remains were radiocarbon-dated to indicate that they had been buried before 1260 C.E.
The skeleton was battered, with substantial visible damage to the skull, but at the time, and in a later 2008 study, many of the details about the man’s death remained unknown.
Now, University of Insubria anthropologist Chiara Tesi and a team of researchers believe they can provide some answers about the battered skeleton.
Speaking to Live Science, Tesi said, “The individual was probably taken by surprise by the attacker” who struck the victim four times in the head with a sword. Likely, the attacker initially struck the victim from the front, and continued to strike at him after he turned and tried to escape. The back of the skull sustained the deepest wounds.
Researchers used techniques like computed tomography (CT) and precision digital microscopy to create a 3D reconstruction of the victim’s face, allowing them to more accurately analyze his injuries. In doing so, the team was able to piece together the sequence of the murder.
Using their model, the team “tested wound formation by placing a blade on the reconstructed head and replicating the blows received by the subject,” Tesi said.
After the first, frontal attack — which the victim attempted to dodge, though he still sustained a small blow to the top of his head — he turned and attempted to flee.
At this point, “the victim was then hit in rapid succession by two other strikes, one affecting the auricle region and the other the nuchal region,” Tesi said. “At the end, probably exhausted and face down, he was finally hit by a last blow to the back of the head that caused immediate death.”
Tesi described the murder as “evident overkill,” which likely indicates that the attacker’s motive was impassioned, complex, and determined.
Despite identifying the method of the murder, researchers were unfortunately unable to identify their victim, though his burial location — a tomb in an 11th-century atrium — suggests that he may have been a prominent member of the church, possibly a member of the De Citillio family that established it in the first place.
Several other clues offered the researchers some insight about the man, however, including a healed forehead wound that could indicate previous experience in warfare, and marks on the right shoulder blade that may have been the result of “the habitual practice of archery and the use of a bow from an early age,” Tesi said.
The researchers estimated the victim was between 19 and 24 years old at the time of his death.
Tesi stated she believes the facial reconstruction can additionally serve as a way to help people sympathize with the victim.
“Seeing the face and eyes of a young man is definitely more emotional than simply looking at a skull,” she said.
Looking for more examples of how facial reconstruction has brought the past to life? Check out this story of the 1,000-year-old female Viking warrior whose reconstruction revealed a deadly wound to her skull. Then, see the reconstructed face of a warrior who died at the Battle of Visby — and the gory wound he sustained.