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Three skeletons discovered in a pit excavated at Bucharest’s University Square.

16th Century mass grave linked to campaign of Michael the Brave discovered in Romania

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Michael the Brave was a 16 th century prince of the Romanian state of Wallachia. In 1594 he led his countrymen into open revolt against the Ottoman Empire and was able to capture a number of castles along the Danube River as well as several forts deep within Ottoman territory.  Unfortunately, while Prince Michael was away, his supporters in Bucharest, who had lent him money for the military campaign he was waging, were attacked and killed. A team of archaeologists now believe they have found the mass grave where these men were deposited after suffering a very violent death.

Michael the Brave entering Alba Iulia

Michael the Brave entering Alba Iulia ( Wikimedia Commons )

The discovery, reported by Forbes Magazine, was made over a period in 2010 to 2011 on a site in Bucharest’s University Square, about 35 metres from the western boundary of the cemetery of Saint Sava church . Within the cemetery itself, the archaeologists discovered 688 bodies dating back to somewhere between the 16 th and 19 th centuries. However, outside the cemetery, three more bodies were found in a circular pit in positions suggesting they had been thrown roughly into it.

The three skeletons were covered by a layer of animal bones, bricks, pottery fragments and other debris, presumably thrown on top of the bodies to fill the pit. This material was of great benefit to the archaeological team because it enabled them to date the remains fairly accurately, to the end of the 16 th or early 17 th century.

Mihai Constantinescu and his team had to carefully disentangle the skeletons before they could examine the bones in detail. They recorded their findings in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology , noting that all three were male, young to middle-age adults. The skeletons showed evidence of dental problems and osteoarthritis as well as indications that the men had engaged in some fairly strenuous activities, including lifting, throwing and moving heavy objects, walking for long distances and sitting in crouched positions.

More striking were the visible injuries, suffered both during life and at time of death. These included a fractured collarbone, ribs, left wrist, kneecap, hip, lumbar spine, nose, and right middle toes on skeleton 1; an injury inflicted by an arrow in the back of skeleton 2, along with a penetrating fracture in the left shoulder blade and injuries to both knees.

Skeleton 2: rib with the arrowhead that produced the injury.

Skeleton 2: rib with the arrowhead that produced the injury. (Photo courtesy of M. Constantinescu.)

Of the injuries inflicted at time of death, skeleton 2 suffered the most with a total of 18 wounds. Skeletons 1 and 3 endured mostly minor injuries before the final death blows, skeleton 3 being finally despatched by what appears to have been a beheading blow by a sword and skeleton 1 with a massive cranial fracture. All three men suffered a number of attacks from the front, primarily by bladed weapons and arrows. Skeleton 2 also had a musket ball lodged in his neck, an arrowhead in a rib, a hacking wound to the face and evidence of an attempted beheading. Comparisons with cut marks made by weapons preserved in Bucharest Military Museum show that the most likely weapons used, aside from the arrows, were a type of sabre with a straight blade and another sabre with a curved blade.

Skeleton 2: cervical vertebra with the musket ball that produced the injury

Skeleton 2: cervical vertebra with the musket ball that produced the injury (Photo courtesy of M. Constantinescu).

The archaeologists believe the men were either military commanders or elite Ottoman infantry known as ‘janissaries’, who had lent Michael the Brave money for his campaign. If they had been local men they would have been laid to rest in the cemetery. A possible motive is tensions generated when the supporters tried to collect the debt. The archaeologists aren’t exactly sure as yet, and it may not be possible to unravel the mystery entirely.

Featured image: Three skeletons discovered in a pit excavated at Bucharest’s University Square. (Photo courtesy of M. Constantinescu.)

By Robin Whitlock

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