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Archaeologists discover medieval man ‘broken on the wheel’

An archaeological dig in Milan has uncovered the remains of a young man who suffered massive injuries, likely caused by torture and execution while being ‘broken on wheel’.

The team of researchers from Università degli Studi di Milano were examining the remains of 56 individuals that were discovered buried at San Ambrogio square in the Italian city of Milan. These skeletons date from between the era of the Roman Empire to the sixteenth-century, but their focus was on individual found with two buckles. Radiochemical tests were performed, which dates the body to between the years 1290 and 1430. He was between 17 and 20 years old when he died.

The individual was found with numerous wounds, which the researchers noticed as having a very specific distribution. All the long bones on his forearms and legs were fractured in a way that the weapon hit the bones perpendicularly. He also had blunt force injuries to his face, a stab wound that hit his vertebrae, and a deep fracture at the back of his skull, which the researchers believe was caused during a clumsy attempt to decapitate him.

The researchers considered that the person may have been killed in battle or some other type of violence, but they note that none of the other bodies discovered at this site in Milan had injuries consistent with a battle. Moreover, his injuries seem to have been very systematic, on being in the same places on both sides of his body. They write:

The historical analysis of reports and documents dating back to the past in northern Italy suggests a possible manner of execution called “wheel torture” whose modus operandi may explain the observed fractures. As already mentioned, in this case the victim was fastened to a wagon wheel and then the executioner produced the fracture of bones of the upper and lower limbs by striking with a blunt weapon. The broken limbs then were passed through the spokes of the wheel which was then raised on a pole. At the end of the torture the victim was killed by decapitation or stabbing to the abdomen or the chest (or both).

They also found that the two buckles were found on each side of the body, which might have been used with a shroud in order to keep the body parts inside.

The wheel punishment was used in Europe from Antiquity up until the mid-19th century. It was a public event where the condemned person would be tied to a wagon wheel, and then be tortured with the breaking of his bones in a way that prolonged the pain. In some cases they would be executed afterwards, while some records have the victim remain tied up the wheel and left to die from their injuries over the next few days. This punishment was given for serious crimes, include murder and highway robbery. During the Black Death and other outbreaks of the plague, it was also a punishment handed out to those suspected of spreading the illness. Archaeologists have uncovered only a handful of other cases where they believe the person was ‘broken on the wheel.’

The researchers also found several other interesting observations about this young man – he would have been 11 centimetres shorter than the average person for his age, and he also had wormian bones and frontal bone thickening, which likely left him with noticeable physical disorders. Even his teeth had visible disorders which would have left him with an unusual smile. This leads the researchers to theorize on why he was brutally killed:

The victim of the wheel 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, being a “freak”, by an angry crowd, as a plague spreader. From this point of view the present case may concern not only a mere case of interpersonal violence but it may represent a tragic event of discrimination.

The article, “First signs of torture in Italy: A probable case of execution by the wheel on a skeleton from 13th century Milano,” by Debora Mazzarelli, Daniele Gibelli, Mirko Mattia, Barbara Bertoglio, Emanuela Sguazza, Anna Maria Fedeli and Cristina Cattaneo, appears in the Journal of Archaeological Science. Click here to access it from Elsevier.

Top Image: 14th century depiction of the wheel punishment.

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