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Facial reconstruction of axe-wounded Visby warrior. Source: Cicero Moraes

Axe-Wounded Visby Warrior Brought to Life Over 600 Years Later

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A medieval warrior’s skull, recovered from a mass grave outside Visby, a city on the Swedish island of Gotland, has been brought to life by a digital artist. Killed in the 1361 AD Battle of Visby, in which 2,500 Danish warriors, mostly heavily-armed mercenaries, massacred 1,800 peasant farmers wielding farming tools, the warriors brutally broken face reveals the horrors of what is regarded as one of the most violent battles in European history.

Scientists took the 3D scans of the skull revealing that his eye and cheek bones had been smashed with a pole weapon just before his mouth and nose was split open with an axe. Using these 3D scans, and genetic statistical data, a digital artist has now brought this warrior back from the dead by recreating his heavily-wounded head and face.

The first excavation of the mass graves from the Battle of Visby in 1361, led by Oscar Wilhelm Wennersten in 1905. (Julius Jääskeläinen / CC BY 2.0)

The first excavation of the mass graves from the Battle of Visby in 1361, led by Oscar Wilhelm Wennersten in 1905. (Julius Jääskeläinen / CC BY 2.0 )

Darkness Unfolding On the Fields of Gotland

On 22 July, 1361 AD, almost 2,000 residents of the Swedish town of Visby on the island of Gotland were slaughtered by 2,500 invading Danish troops. King Valdemar Atterdag of Denmark had just conquered the neighboring territories of Skåne and Öland, and he was greedy to subjugate Gotland.

A Gutnish yeomen army of peasant farmers and their families came head to head on July 27 with the Danish warriors outside Visby’s town walls, and around 1,800 peasant farmers wielding farming tools were quickly slaughtered. Historians often equate this event with the 1356 AD Battle of Poitiers, when a similar number of French were brutally killed by an Anglo-Gascon force commanded by Edward, the Black Prince, during the Hundred Years' War .

The digital facial reconstruction of the Visby warrior really brings the Visby massacre to life. (Cicero Moraes)

The digital facial reconstruction of the Visby warrior really brings the Visby massacre to life. ( Cicero Moraes )

A Third of the Visby Defenders Were Young and Elderly

Since 1905, five mass graves have been identified outside Visby’s medieval town walls. Most recently, archaeological excavations at one of these mass graves revealed the horrors of the slaughter when it was determined that “at least a third of the 1,800 poorly armed militia of farmers were children and elderly.”

Now, Brazilian digital artist Cicero Moraes has brought one of the Visby defenders back to life. Moraes built his reconstruction using a three-dimensional model of the skull which was given to him by the Swedish History Museum in Stockholm . His creation was published in the 3D computer graphics journal OrtogOnLineMag.

Charting Ancient War Wounds

It is thought that shattered bones above the warrior's left eye and on his left cheek bone were most probably inflicted by a heavy pole weapon. Furthermore, the man’s mouth and nose were smashed by an axe. Once these bone wounds had been charted by digital scans, Moraes set “soft tissue thickness markers” across the entire skull. These pins determined the position of the warrior’s muscles and skin.

While the warrior's skull forms the frame of the digital recreation, the sizes of his mouth, nose and eyes are approximations based on the averages given by statistical data. Moraes said that once the man’s face was defined, “approximations generated the most scientifically accurate image” in shades of gray, with eyes closed and without hair.

The facial reconstruction of the Visby warrior unearthed within a mass grave outside on the Swedish island of Gotland. (Cicero Moraes)

The facial reconstruction of the Visby warrior unearthed within a mass grave outside on the Swedish island of Gotland. ( Cicero Moraes )

The Townsfolk Gave Everything to Avoid Getting Axed

Attempting to stop the massacre, after the main Battle of Visby the militia of farmers and their families surrendered to the Danish warriors. To save their city from being sacked the Gotlanders they handed over a large amount of their wealth to the invading King Valdemar. However, Valdemar appointed sheriffs and one year later added King of Gotland to his list of titles.

According to John Keegan’s 1976 book The Face of Battle, about 2,000 of the bodies of these city defenders were “unusually, buried in their armor.” The author concluded that “hot weather and the great number of dead (2,000) inspired the Danish to strip them before decomposition began." The site of the excavation, according to Keegan, has yielded “one of the most fearsome revelations of a medieval battle known to archaeologists.” Moraes’ facial reconstruction of an axe-wounded warrior brings this event to life.

Top image: Facial reconstruction of axe-wounded Visby warrior. Source: Cicero Moraes

By Ashley Cowie

References

Keegan, J. 1976. The Face of Battle. London: Jonathan Cape.

Comments

Pete Wagner's picture

It’s almost CERTAINLY WRONG that he had dark hair.  DNA analysis would confirm.  I’d bet he was fair haired, maybe blonde or light reddish.  The black-headed/haired people originated from Persia, and found their way later into Rome, spreading quickly, often violently.  The aboriginal villagers were generally fair-haired prior to the arrival of the Romans and Persians.  DNA analysis, with honest/accurate dating, would easily confirm this, but nobody has yet done that analysis.

Nobody gets paid to tell the truth.

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