Otranto Drilled Skull Mystery Solved

By on February 11, 2015

Researchers shed light on why this 15th century skull from the Otranto cathedral was drilled to extract bone dust.
Drill holes discovered in Otranto martyr skull

The Otranto cathedral in Italy is the site of a brutal slaughter in the 15th century, when invading Turks beheaded more than 800 Christians who refused to convert to Islam. Surrounding the altar, massive glass cabinets display the remains of those who died tragically defending their faith.

But one skull in particular has attracted attention for an unexpected feature.

Related: Otranto Cathedral Houses Bones of 15th Century Martyrs

In a lower row of the center case, one of the Otranto martyr skulls was discovered to have perfectly shaped drill holes of various sizes. The bones are inaccessible, so the skull must have been drilled prior to its installation in the case in 1711. But why?

Researchers at the University of Pisa, Italy have recently solved the mystery. The 16 holes in the cranium of the skull are consistent with a particular type of drill used to extract bone dust for pharmacological preparations.

Beginning as early as the late Middles Ages, bone dust was being used to treat paralysis, stroke, and other illnesses believed to arise from magical or demonic influences. The head was considered the most important part of the body, where spiritual forces remained active even after death. A skull belonging to someone who died a violent, sudden death was considered more powerful, as the spirits had not been consumed by the earth such as those whose remains have been buried.

The added benefit of the skull belonging to a martyr must have made a particularly potent mixture.

Jar used to hold human cranium bone dust concoctions
An example of a vase used to hold human cranium preparations

There are no indications that the skull has any particular significance, however, so the reason it was chosen from hundreds of others remains a mystery.

via Discovery

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