Byzantine warrior had his broken jaw wired

The jaw of a 14th century Byzantine warrior was wired back together after a severe break, and it worked. His jaw healed. Unfortunately his healed mandible together with the rest of his head was later cut off by Ottoman invaders.

The warrior’s skull was discovered in a 1991 excavation at the medieval fort of Polystylon on the shores of the Aegean in western Thrace, Greece. He had been decapitated, likely by the Ottoman forces that took the city in the early or mid-1380s. The exact date of the city’s fall is not known, but it was one of the last holdouts in the area, resisting the Ottoman conquest for at least 20 years as other urban centers in the region were conquered.

Archaeologists believe he was beheaded after the Ottomans finally managed to take Polystylon. A horrific perimortem injury on his frontal bone, a compressed and shattered fracture inflicted by a puncturing weapon indicates he was at the very least thoroughly disabled before his head was severed. He may have already been dead, as post-mortem violence to bodies was common in the wake of conquest.

The skull was intact with mandible and the upper three cervical vertebrae in place, so the head must have still had soft tissues binding it together before it was buried. It’s likely it was recovered by a sympathizer for secret burial without the knowledge of the decapitating authorities. The head was then buried in a pre-existing grave in the fort’s Late Byzantine cemetery. It was placed at the head of the coffin of the original occupant, a five-year-old child. There is no evidence of any familial connection between the warrior and the child. A broken pot found on top of the child’s chest is believed to have been used as a digging tool by the burier.

The warrior’s jaw suffered almost as harsh a treatment as his forehead and neck. His mandible was in two pieces. The cause of the fracture could not be conclusively determined from the injury, but it had to have been a forceful encounter like a fall from a horse, a blow from a sharp weapon at close range or from a projectile propelled by ignited black powder.

His highly adept physician realigned the two parts of his jaw into their original position and securing them in place by threading a metal wire in and out at the base of the teeth from the left and right molars immediately adjacent to the fracture to the third molars. The wire left bands on the molars and their tartar. The teeth could not be tested to confirm what type of metal was used, but process of elimination points to gold. There is no grey discoloration like you’d see from silver, no green from copper or bronze.

“It must have been some kind of gold thread, a gold wire or something like that, as is recommended in the Hippocratic corpus that was compiled in the fifth century B.C.,” Agelarakis said. Gold is soft and pliable but strong and nontoxic, he added, making it a good choice for this type of medical treatment.

“In one of the dentitions, I saw that the tooth was filed a little bit so that the knot that was tied in the wire would not scratch the cheek,” [Adelphi University anthropology professor Anagnostis] Agelarakis said. “It’s very sophisticated — it’s flabbergasting.”

If the warrior was still on active duty, it must have been difficult for him to lay low and drink liquid foods while his bandaged jaw healed, Agelarakis noted. It’s unclear if the warrior’s tongue was also wounded in the incident, and whether his speech or pronunciation were affected following treatment, he added.

This is the only mandibular fracture ever discovered in Polystylon, and the treatment would have been very expensive because it required a highly skilled physician and precious metal. It indicates the warrior was not a simple soldier manning the fort, but someone of great importance, perhaps even the military leader of the city. That would also explain why someone put themselves in danger to bury at least one part of the man in consecrated ground. It would also explain why the Ottoman’s decapitated him.