Mystery of Drilled Skull Solved

Researchers at the University of Pisa have solved a longstanding mystery concerning the honeycombed skull of one of the Italian martyrs beheaded by 15th century Ottoman Turk invaders when they refused to give up their Christian faith.

Featuring 16 perfectly round holes of various sizes and depth, the skull belonged to an individual who was executed on a hill outside the town of Otranto in Apulia, along with more than 800 other men.

The skull was later drilled, most likely to obtain bone powder to treat diseases such as paralysis, stroke and epilepsy, which were believed to arise from magical or demonic influences.

Beatified in 1771 and canonized by Pope Francis in 2013, the so-called “Martyrs of Otranto,” whose identities are largely unknown, are now the patron saints of the City of Otranto. They all met their ends on August 14, 1480, following a 15-day siege by the Ottoman forces commanded by Gedik Ahmed Pasha. During the assault, all Otranto men over the age of 50 were slaughtered, while women and children under the age of 15 were either slain or sold into slavery.

The remaining men, including more than 800 survivors, were told to convert to Islam. As they refused, they were taken to a hill and beheaded one by one.

The remains of the martyrs are now impressively exposed behind five large glass cabinets in the Cathedral of Otranto. In particular, the skulls are meticulously lined up in horizontal rows, with the facial bones turned toward the visitors.

However, in a low row of the central window, a skull is positioned with the face toward the ceiling and the cranium facing visitors. “The specimen was probably arranged in this manner so as to show a series of holes on the cranial vault,” Gino Fornaciari, professor of history of medicine and paleopathology at the University of Pisa, and colleagues wrote in the February issue of the Journal of Ethnopharmacology.

Although the window could not be opened and the skull could not be removed for study, the researchers noted that the holes featured a regular, rounded shape.

Of the 16 holes, eight turned out to be complete perforations, involving the bone in all its thickness and producing a rounded, conical-shaped hole. The edges featured rounded walls.

“The perfectly cupped shape of the incomplete perforations leads us to hypothesize the use of a particular type of trepan, with semi-lunar shaped blade or rounded bit; a tool of this type could not produce bone discs, but only bone powder,” Fornaciari said.

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