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Otranto Drilled Skull Mystery Solved

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

Otranto Cathedral Houses Bones of 15th Century Martyrs

The Otranto cathedral in Italy is a macabre reliquary displaying the bones of 800 martyrs slaughtered by Turk invaders in the 15th century.
Otranto cathedral reliquary filled with the bones of martyrs beheaded by Ottoman troops in 1480

The small Italian harbor town of Otranto is home to a macabre memorial: A cathedral filled with the remains of 813 people brutally slaughtered by Ottoman soldiers in the 15th century. On the altar of the Cathedral of Santa Maria Annunziata is a statue of the Madonna and child. She protects five large glass reliquaries behind her filled with the bones of martyrs.

Related: Otranto Drilled Skull Mystery Solved

Legend says that when the Turks sailed into the Otranto harbor, they stormed the town walls after a 15 day siege and began a bloody crusade to conquer its people. As the story goes, a tailor named Antonio Primaldi led 800 martyrs in a stand against the savage Muslim forces. When they refused to convert, they were taken to the Hill of Minerva, now known as Martyr Hill, and beheaded while their families were forced to assist.

Killing stone inside the Otranto cathedral
Killing stone believed to have been used in the beheadings

It is said that after decapitation, Primaldi’s body remained standing until the last of his people were mowed down. One of the soldiers, an Ottoman Turk named Bersabei, was so astonished that he converted to Christianity on the spot, and was subsequently impaled by his comrades.

The Madonna watches over the remains of 800 beheaded martyrs in the Otranto cathedral

Though there seems to be some scholarly disagreement with the validity of these accounts, Pope Francis conducted the venerable rite for the canonization of saints for the Martyrs of Otranto in 2013.