Two mass graves containing the remains of several 13th-century Crusader soldiers have been identified in Lebanon.
The skeletal remains of 25 soldiers were found within the dry moat of Sidon Castle on the eastern Mediterranean coast in southern Lebanon. Each of the bodies showed signs of serious injury and were buried with swords, maces, and arrows.
The Crusades were a series of religious wars fought by European forces in the medieval period to attempt to recover the ‘Holy Land’ in and around Jerusalem from Islamic Rule.
The city of Sidon was first captured by European forces in 1100 AD, after the First Crusade. However, by the second half of the 13th century the Crusaders’ military strength was weakening, and they struggled to keep possession of the city.
Sidon was attacked and destroyed in 1253 by Mamluk troops, and again in 1260 by Mongols. It is likely that the soldiers found had died in one of these battles.
Many of the skeletons show wounds to the back of the body, suggesting the soldiers were attacked from behind, perhaps during a hurried retreat. Some may have been decapitated after a battle in a summary execution.
A team of international researchers conducted the study, the findings of which have just been published in the journal PLoS ONE.
The researchers first identified the remains as Crusader soldiers based on the inclusion of European-style belt buckles and coins within the graves.
DNA and isotope analysis of the soldiers’ teeth further confirmed that some of the men were born in Europe. Others appear to be the offspring of soldiers who migrated to the area and then married local people.
Commenting on the Sidon find, Dr Richard Mikulski of Bournemouth University, who played a central role in the excavation, said, ‘All the bodies were of teenage or adult males, indicating that they were combatants who fought in the battle when Sidon was attacked. When we found so many weapon injuries on the bones as we excavated them, I knew we had made a special discovery.’
His colleague at Bournemouth University, Dr Martin Smith, added, ‘To distinguish so many mixed up bodies and body parts took a huge amount of work, but we were finally able to separate them out and look at the pattern of wounds they had sustained.’
‘The way the body parts were positioned suggests they had been left to decompose on the surface before being dropped into a pit sometime later. Charring on some bones suggests they used fire to burn some of the bodies,’ Smith added.
Meanwhile, it has been suggested that a European monarch helped put the bodies in the ground. Dr Piers Mitchell of the University of Cambridge has pointed out that King Louis IX of France was in the Holy Land at the time of the attack on Sidon in 1253. According to records, the king went to the city after the battle and helped bury rotting corpses.
‘Wouldn’t it be amazing if King Louis himself had helped to bury these bodies?’ Dr Mitchell asked.
‘So many thousands of people died on all sides during the Crusades, but it is incredibly rare for archaeologists to find the soldiers killed in these famous battles. The wounds that covered their bodies allow us to start to understand the horrific reality of medieval warfare.’