Crusaders Grave Shows Many Were Killed From Behind
Medieval warfare was a bloody and brutal affair. This was especially true during the Crusades, when warriors on each side were motivated by religious passion and a cause they deeply embraced. This helps provide the context for recent shocking discoveries made by archaeologists at a site in the ancient port city of Sidon, on modern-day Lebanon’s Mediterranean coast. They unearthed two mass crusaders graves filled with the battered and broken skeletons of approximately 25 Christian crusaders, who were apparently massacred by Muslim attackers who besieged the Christian-controlled city in the mid-13th century.
Parallel sword wounds to the back of a crusaders neck, found in the Sidon mass crusaders graves, suggesting decapitation of captives after the battle. (Richard Mikulski / PLOS One )
The “St. Louis” Slaughter Resulted In Sidon’s Crusaders Grave
As revealed in a recent research study in the journal PLOS One , a team of archaeologists from Bournemouth University in the United Kingdom uncovered the remains of this grisly slaughter, while performing excavations outside the remains of a medieval fortress known as St. Louis’ Castle. Close examination of the skeletons and their grave sites revealed the truth about who the victims were and what their mission was in Sidon, a city that was occupied by Christian forces for most of the 12th and 13th centuries.
Several European-style belt buckles were found mixed in with the skeletons, of the type that were worn by crusaders during that time period. A single crusader coin was also unearthed in the excavations, offering even stronger proof about the skeletons’ identities.
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Radiocarbon dating of the bones showed that the individuals in the graves had died sometime in the 13th century, when the Seventh Crusade was taking place. DNA evidence and isotope analysis of their teeth proved that at least some of the individuals had been born in Europe or were of European descent, and these tests also revealed the age and gender identity of the victims.
Sword wounds to the back of a crusaders head reveal the extreme violence that resulted in the two mass crusaders graves found in Sidon, Lebanon. (Richard Mikulski / PLOS One )
“All the bodies were of teenage or adult males, indicating that they were combatants who fought in a battle when Sidon was attacked,” Professor Richard Mikulski, the excavation leader, explained in a Bournemouth University press release issued in conjunction with the PLOS One article. “When we found so many weapon injuries on the bones as we excavated them, I knew we had made a special discovery.”
It seems the bodies of the individuals killed were not treated with much respect by their enemies.
“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,” said Bournemouth archaeologist Professor Martin Smith, another excavation participant. “Charring on some bones suggests they used fire to burn some of the bodies.”
Based on wound locations, it seems that the European soldiers who were killed were attempting to flee their enemies and were attacked from behind. They may have racing toward the entrance of the nearby fort seeking safe shelter from attackers who had them badly outnumbered before they were violently struck down.
From the outset it was clear to the archaeologists that these young men had come to a violent end. The skeletons all showed signs of having been beaten with heavy objects, stabbed with swords, or pierced with arrows. In a few instances the individuals in the graves had been killed by decapitation, which suggests they had been taken as prisoners of war before being executed.
13th century manuscript showing medieval knights fighting in armor, with wounds similar to those in the mass crusaders graves found near Sidon, Lebanon. (The Morgan Library & Museum / PLOS One )
Paying the Ultimate Price for a Hopeless Cause
During the 13th century, the city of Sidon was considered an important Christian outpost on the Mediterranean. It had been captured in 1110 following the First Crusade , and maintained as a defensive settlement in a hostile area of the Levant.
In 1253, Muslim soldiers under the authority of the Mamluk Sultanate invaded Sidon and destroyed most of the city. The Mamluk Sultanate controlled a vast empire that included Egypt and the Levant (modern-day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel), and their forces were far too powerful for the Christian defenders of Sidon to resist. About 2,000 Christians were killed during the Battle of Sidon , and another 400 were taken prisoner and carried off to Damascus as captives.
Were the dead crusaders buried outside the castle walls in Sidon massacred during this conflict? They very well might have been since they were clearly on the losing end (and decisively so) in the battle that claimed their lives.
After destroying the fortress city of Sidon, the Mamluk invaders abandoned it. A short time later King Louis IX of France, who had been leading the Seventh Crusade since 1249, came to Sidon and issued orders that it be rebuilt, this time with higher walls and larger guard towers to make sure it could be protected.
“Crusader records tell us that King Louis IX of France was on crusade in the Holy Land at the time of the attack on Sidon in 1253,” explained Dr. Piers Mitchell, a University of Cambridge archaeologist and expert on the Crusades who participated in the University of Bournemouth excavations. “He went to the city after the battle and personally helped to bury the rotting corpses in mass graves such as these. Wouldn’t it be amazing if King Louis himself had helped to bury these bodies?”
The ruins of the crusaders St. Louis Castle on the site of the acropolis at Sidon, Lebanon. (O.Mustafin / Public domain )
There is a good chance the 13th-century crusaders discovered during the latest excavations died during the 1253 conflict. But there is a possibility they could have been killed later, in 1260, when the rebuilt Sidon was besieged and again destroyed, this time by Mongol hordes sweeping in from the east.
At this time, the gigantic and aggressive Mongol Empire was making a major effort to seize control of the Levant. This led to an extraordinary collaboration between the Muslim Mamluks and the Christian crusaders, who agreed to a truce so they could fight off the advances of the powerful Mongols. This joint effort was ultimately successful, but there were undoubtedly a fair number of Christian casualties during the 1260 siege of Sidon.
In the end, the Christian attempt to maintain control over Sidon, and to maintain a lasting presence in the Levant, was doomed to failure . The city was abandoned to Muslim powers once and for all in 1291, after the Crusader presence in the area was forever terminated following the fall of the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem in that same year.
Sidon Sea Castle on the coast of Lebanon, built by the crusaders in 1228. (Heretiq / CC BY-SA 2.5 )
New Details Emerge about a Violent and Tragic Period
Despite the grim reality behind it, the discovery of the mass crusaders graves was an exciting one for the British archaeologists.
Such finds are rare, and this one offers a chance for scholars to deepen their understanding of a period of history largely known about from written historical records rather than archaeological revelations. In their Bournemouth press release, the archaeologists noted that the results of their study have revealed new and important details about warfare practices during the Crusades, specifically during the 13th century when Christian soldiers fought under the leadership of Louis IX during the Seventh and Eighth Crusades.
Ultimately, the Crusades offered a great example of the futility and the folly—not to mention the madness—of warfare, in any age or era. The crusaders’ objective to reclaim the Holy Land and drive out the Muslims was never achieved, and the human cost of this 200-year quest was appalling.
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The latest discoveries in Sidon have helped reveal the truth about the brutal nature of this conflict.
“So many thousands of people died on all sides during the crusades,” Dr. Mitchell stated. “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.”
Top image: Excavations at Sidon Castle, Lebanon revealed two mass crusaders graves containing many skeletons that had clear signs of extreme violence, according to the latest research study in PLOS One. Source: Claude Doumet-Serhal / PLOS One
By Nathan Falde