Unlocking the Identity of the Stirling Knight

Unlocking the Identity of the Stirling Knight

(Read the article on one page)

In 1997, a crypt of skeletons was unearthed during an excavation of Stirling Castle in Scotland. What was originally believed to have been part of the Governor’s Kitchens was revealed to be the ‘lost’ private chapel believed to have been built in the early 1100s. The little chapel of St. Michael fell into disuse after the grander Chapel Royal was built by James IV, perhaps as penance for plotting his father’s death. The crypt contained the skeletons of at least six males, one female, and two infants, all of whom received Christian burials. In the tumultuous Middle Ages, when wars raged between England and Scotland, only the elite were buried indoors. Although it has been over 700 years since these bodies were buried, the team of forensic archeologists at BBC Two’s “History Cold Cases” were confident that they could identify at least one of the souls: the largest and best preserved male.

Stirling Castle, Stirling, Scotland

Stirling Castle, Stirling, Scotland ( dun_deagh / flickr )

The team, led by Professor Sue Black, worked backwards from information derived from the bones and then from knowledge of the era in order to construct a likely identity to the large male, the rugby player as they affectionately called him. The man had been an exceptionally strong nobleman (lower classes would not have been buried in the chapel). His skeleton suggests that he was 5 feet, 7 inches (1.7 meters) tall with a hardy physique. Deep grooves in his shoulder bones suggest he had developed large muscles even while he was still growing, perhaps starting from his early teens.

Dr Jo Buckberry of Bradford University, who carried out research into the Stirling Castle skeletons.

Dr Jo Buckberry of Bradford University, who carried out research into the Stirling Castle skeletons. © Historic Scotland

Between his special status as buried in the chapel and his powerful build, Professor Black concludes that the man was most likely a knight. Training for a young noble’s son would have begun in earnest around the age of 15. At this time, even while his body was still growing, the boy would be expected to wear heavy chainmail armor while wielding heavy swords and shields. Further skeletal evidence suggests that this knight spent much of his time on horseback. While his upper body, particularly the back and shoulders, were exceptionally muscular, his lower body does not appear especially strong. The suggestion that he was a knight on horseback is further supported by signs of repeated trauma in his anklebones. In the show, Professor Black meets with men who still joust in real life in order to keep the tradition alive. They explain how jousting is a perilous sport and it is not uncommon for participants to be knocked from their horses. If the foot is caught in the stirrup, it can lead to a nasty ankle injury. The constant horseback riding of knighthood and occasional falls of jousting damage the spine over time. The knight’s skeleton reflects these in its obvious signs of wear and tear. 

The man’s body showed signs of serious wounds from earlier fights. Most strikingly was a dent in the front of his skull where he was presumably struck by an ax or sword. This blow did not kill him, however, it most likely caused him a serious concussion. Rather, the researchers believed that the man was killed by an arrow wound.

The joust between the Knight of the Red Rose and the Lord of the Tournament, as engraved by Thomas Hodgson

The joust between the Knight of the Red Rose and the Lord of the Tournament, as engraved by Thomas Hodgson ( public domain )

One of the aspects the team was most interested in uncovering was whether the man was Scottish or English. Radiocarbon dating put the man’s existence around 1290 to 1350 A.D. Within even this narrow window of time, Stirling Castle (located on the frontlines between the England and Scotland) changed hands several times. In addition, French forces were known to have played a role in the conflict, often fighting with the Scottish against the English.

“Techniques have advanced a long way since the skeletons were discovered in 1997 and we can now tell much more about where people came from, their lifestyles and causes of death,” said Dr. Jo Buckberry, a biological anthropologist. “As the castle changed hands a number of times these are people who could have come from Scotland, England or even France and one of my hopes is that we will be able to find out where at least some of them originated.”

Dr Jo Buckberry with the skeleton of the Stirling knight.

Dr Jo Buckberry with the skeleton of the Stirling knight. © Historic Scotland

Analysis of minerals in the teeth and bones revealed a diet that contained a great deal of salted fish – strange given how far Stirling is from the sea. Preserved fish was, however, the primary means of feeding English troops fighting away from home. Further mineral analysis suggests the man grew up in a region in southern England or western France. Finally, Professor Black meets with historians who are experts on this time period. Based on the given time parameters, the historians rule out the possibility of the man being French because French troops were not near Stirling Castle at that point in time. Thus, the team concludes that the man was an English knight, killed by a Scottish arrow, while the English held Stirling Castle.



It doesn't rule out the possibility that his death, which happened around the time of Sir Stricheley.... was actually someone else... His diet consisted of a great deal of salted fish..which was probably herring and he could even have been a visiting knight from either Scotland or England...correlation and coincidence yes, but casuation? Keep us posted...

Register to become part of our active community, get updates, receive a monthly newsletter, and enjoy the benefits and rewards of our member point system OR just post your comment below as a Guest.

Human Origins

Noah's Sacrifice - watercolor circa 1896–1902 by James Tissot
The imperfect state of archaeological researches in the Near East impedes any definite identification of the original race or races that created the earliest civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt. According to Gordon Childe, however, the predominant racial element in the earliest graves in the region from Elam to the Danube is the ‘Mediterranean’.

Ancient Places

Himmerod Abbey and Church building
Himmerod Abbey, a Cistercian monastery that's existed for almost 900 years in what is now western Germany is closing down for good, due to running expenses and also a shortage of monks. Notably, the monastery was used during the 1950’s in a distinctly non-monastic capacity, as a secret meeting point of former Wehrmacht high-ranking officers discussing West Germany's rearmament.


The ancient and mysterious Sphinx, Giza, Egypt.
In 1995, NBC televised a prime-time documentary hosted by actor Charlton Heston and directed by Bill Cote, called Mystery of the Sphinx. The program centered on the research and writings of John Anthony West, a (non-academic) Egyptologist, who, along with Dr. Robert Schoch, a professor of Geology at Boston University, made an astounding discovery on the Great Sphinx of Giza in Egypt.

Our Mission

At Ancient Origins, we believe that one of the most important fields of knowledge we can pursue as human beings is our beginnings. And while some people may seem content with the story as it stands, our view is that there exists countless mysteries, scientific anomalies and surprising artifacts that have yet to be discovered and explained.

The goal of Ancient Origins is to highlight recent archaeological discoveries, peer-reviewed academic research and evidence, as well as offering alternative viewpoints and explanations of science, archaeology, mythology, religion and history around the globe.

We’re the only Pop Archaeology site combining scientific research with out-of-the-box perspectives.

By bringing together top experts and authors, this archaeology website explores lost civilizations, examines sacred writings, tours ancient places, investigates ancient discoveries and questions mysterious happenings. Our open community is dedicated to digging into the origins of our species on planet earth, and question wherever the discoveries might take us. We seek to retell the story of our beginnings. 

Ancient Image Galleries

View from the Castle Gate (Burgtor). (Public Domain)
Door surrounded by roots of Tetrameles nudiflora in the Khmer temple of Ta Phrom, Angkor temple complex, located today in Cambodia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Cable car in the Xihai (West Sea) Grand Canyon (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Next article