Archaeologists Make Rare, Gruesome Find in Portugal

Oblique cuts in the bottom third of the legs of a medieval skeleton found in Portugal.
Oblique cuts in the bottom third of the legs of a medieval skeleton found in Portugal.
T. Fernandes, M. Liberato, C. Marques, E. Cunha

In the small city of Estremoz, near Portugal’s border with Spain, archaeologists recently excavated three graves located at the edge of a medieval cemetery. They were intrigued by the graves' isolated location and odd burial style. Within, they found something shocking: All three people had amputated hands and feet.

Between the 13th and 15th centuries, Estremoz was an important village located between the kingdoms of Portugal and Castile. In the mid-13th century, Christians colonized the area, driving out the Moors. The famous castle of Estremoz, parts of which still stand, was built to house the royal court. The nearby cemetery of Rossio Marquês de Pombal dates to this period. It's on the edge of this cemetery that the archaeologists found the burials.

Writing in the International Journal of Paleopathology, researchers from the Universities of Évora and Coimbra describe the young to middle-aged men found in the graves with cut marks to their forearms and ankles. The cuts are clean through the bones but not quite at right angles, and appear to have happened just before or just after death. Even more interesting, the bones from the severed hands and feet were also found in the graves—but not in the right places.


Field drawing of the skeletons. The arrow points to one of the men's right hand lying below his left elbow.
T. Fernandes, M. Liberato, C. Marques, E. Cunha

In the case of a late-teenage male, both of his feet and his left hand were buried under his left hip, while his right hand was under his left elbow.

In another grave, they found evidence that one amputation took more than one try to complete. The man's right leg had a second set of cuts, likely inflicted after a failed first attempt to cut off his foot. The researchers think that a sharp implement such as a machete, sword, cleaver, hatchet, or axe was used to deliver the blows swiftly and with high force.

The archaeologists believe the cuts were made while the men were still alive—or very near death—and almost certainly restrained. Lead author Teresa Fernandes tells Mental Floss that “due to the absence of any artifact, we cannot state for sure that the feet were bound; yet considering the historical evidence, prisoners were normally bound with the legs straight while hung."

Why had the men been treated like this?

Generally, amputations occur throughout history as the result of a medical therapy, accident, ritual, intentional violence, or punishment. While there is evidence from the same cemetery for foot disease, these particular men had no other indications of problems with their bodies, meaning medical treatment can be ruled out. So too can ritualistic post-mortem amputation, since there are no historical or archaeological accounts of amputation of hands and feet after death. And their injuries were clearly not the result of an accident.

The researchers think these amputations were a punishment.

Historical records of amputations related to criminal cases are relatively rare. But medieval kings in the Iberian peninsula had the discretion to mete out capital punishment—including hanging, drowning, and even boiling someone alive—as they saw fit. They could also use mutilation as punishment. The researchers found one mention specifically of the amputation of both hands and feet of traitors during a civil war in 14th-century Portugal.

“These skeletons may represent the testimony of vigorous application of justice as an act of royal sovereignty in a peripheral but militarily strategic region,” Fernandes' team writes.

Other researchers agree with this interpretation. Piers Mitchell, a palaeopathologist at the University of Cambridge, tells Mental Floss that because "the amputations are all at similar locations, and are symmetrically placed on the limbs, deliberate amputation as a punishment seems the most plausible interpretation."

Lost to the ages, however, is what these men may have done to merit this extreme punishment. Execution "could be enforced in the event of treason, theft, making false currency, or myriad sexual crimes," Fernandes says. “But the form of execution isn’t stipulated by law."

Archaeological evidence of judicial amputation is extremely rare, according to Jo Buckberry, a bioarchaeologist at the University of Bradford who has done similar studies on ancient British skeletons. "The evidence of cut marks and the inclusion of severed hands and feet make this Portuguese case especially compelling,” she tells Mental Floss. Mitchell explains that often, "the extremities are absent in the graves of those who underwent amputation," which makes it noteworthy that these graves contained the spare body parts.

The fact that amputees were all young men also intrigues scholars. "This pattern has been seen in execution cemeteries in Anglo-Saxon England,” Buckberry says, “leaving us wondering if young men are more likely to commit crimes, or to be caught doing them, or if punishments are especially harsh for this demographic group."

These three unfortunate men may never tell us exactly what they did or who they are. But their bones show the most severe case of amputation as judicial punishment to date, revealing just one of the extreme penalties for committing a crime in medieval Portugal.

Wayfair’s Fourth of July Clearance Sale Takes Up to 60 Percent Off Grills and Outdoor Furniture

Wayfair/Weber
Wayfair/Weber

This Fourth of July, Wayfair is making sure you can turn your backyard into an oasis while keeping your bank account intact with a clearance sale that features savings of up to 60 percent on essentials like chairs, hammocks, games, and grills. Take a look at some of the highlights below.

Outdoor Furniture

Brisbane bench from Wayfair
Brisbane/Wayfair

- Jericho 9-Foot Market Umbrella $92 (Save 15 percent)
- Woodstock Patio Chairs (Set of Two) $310 (Save 54 percent)
- Brisbane Wooden Storage Bench $243 (Save 62 percent)
- Kordell Nine-Piece Rattan Sectional Seating Group with Cushions $1800 (Save 27 percent)
- Nelsonville 12-Piece Multiple Chairs Seating Group $1860 (Save 56 percent)
- Collingswood Three-Piece Seating Group with Cushions $410 (Save 33 percent)

Grills and Accessories

Dyna-Glo electric smoker.
Dyna-Glo/Wayfair

- Spirit® II E-310 Gas Grill $479 (Save 17 percent)
- Portable Three-Burner Propane Gas Grill $104 (Save 20 percent)
- Digital Bluetooth Electric Smoker $224 (Save 25 percent)
- Cuisinart Grilling Tool Set $38 (Save 5 percent)

Outdoor games

American flag cornhole game.
GoSports

- American Flag Cornhole Board $57 (Save 19 percent)
- Giant Four in a Row Game $30 (Save 6 percent)
- Giant Jenga Game $119 (Save 30 percent)

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

This Football-Sized Fossil Egg is the First Found in Antarctica, and It May Have Belonged to a Mosasaur

An artist’s interpretation of the birth of a baby mosasaur.
An artist’s interpretation of the birth of a baby mosasaur.
Francisco Hueichaleo, 2020

In 2011, Chilean scientists discovered a football-sized fossil off the coast of Seymour Island, near the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. Though they didn’t know what it was at the time—and simply called it “The Thing”—new research shows that not only is it the first fossil egg ever found in Antarctica, it’s also the largest soft-shelled egg ever found anywhere.

In a study published today in the science journal Nature, researchers from the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Chile dated the nearshore rock formation where the fossil egg was found to be from the Late Cretaceous period—about 68 million years ago—and measured the fossil itself to be roughly 11.4 inches by 7.9 inches (29 centimeters by 20 centimeters). This empty, partially collapsed egg is smaller only than that of the elephant bird, an extinct, flightless species from Madagascar whose eggs averaged about 12 inches by 8 inches.

giant fossil egg from antarctica
A side view of the fossil egg.
Legendre et al. (2020)

But beyond their size, the eggs don’t have much in common; an elephant bird egg is about five times thicker than this fossil egg, and its hard shell has distinct pores and a prismatic layer that the fossil egg lacks. In other words, an elephant bird egg resembles a giant chicken egg. (And giant is no exaggeration—an elephant bird egg could hold the contents of about 150 chicken eggs.)

elephant bird egg next to a chicken egg
An elephant bird egg next to a chicken egg (and a man's head), to put it in perspective.
Oli Scarff/Getty Images

With its soft shell and oblong shape, the new fossil egg, from the new taxon Antarcticoolithus bradyi, is more similar to a lizard or snake egg, which suggests it could’ve been laid by a large reptile. To test that theory, the researchers compared it to the egg traits of 259 species of lepidosaurs—a subclass of reptile that includes snakes and lizards—and surmised that the egg-layer may have been a marine reptile that measured roughly 23 feet (7 meters) or longer.

The researchers believe this mystery mother might have been a mosasaur, a type of large marine lepidosaur whose remains have also been discovered in the area. During the Late Cretaceous period, mosasaurs were among the most fearsome predators in the ocean. They had strong flippers and sharp teeth, and some species grew as long as 50 feet (though that’s still a good 10 feet shorter than the fictional mosasaur depicted in 2015’s Jurassic World). Fossilized contents of their stomachs show they feasted on a variety of wildlife, including fish, seabirds, turtles, plesiosaurs, and more—one mosasaur had even eaten a few other mosasaurs. And although mosasaurs did live in Antarctica, the continent during the Late Cretaceous period looked nothing like its current frigid landscape.

“Antarctica was rich in life,” Dr. Julia Clarke, a professor in UT Austin’s Department of Geological Sciences and co-author of the study, tells Mental Floss. “Temperate forests diverse in plant species covered exposed land. Giant marine reptiles and much smaller coiled ammonites and relatives of living birds hunted in the seas, while on land, mid-sized non-avian dinosaurs ambled.”

mosasaur birth and egg
The egg looks a lot smaller when you compare it to a full-grown mosasaur.
Francisco Hueichaleo, 2020

Since scientists have uncovered the remains of mosasaurs and plesiosaurs of all ages in the rock formation where the fossil egg was found, some think it may have been a popular place for creatures to hatch and raise their young.

“Many authors have hypothesized that this was sort of a nursery site with shallow protected water, a cove environment where the young ones would have had a quiet setting to grow up,” Lucas Legendre, a postdoctoral researcher and the lead author of the study, said in a press release.

If the fossil egg really did belong to a mosasaur, it could alter our understanding of how mosasaurs gave birth. In South Dakota during the 1990s, scientists unearthed the skeleton of a lizard-like mosasaur called a Plioplatecarpus with five unborn offspring preserved in its abdomen. Because they weren’t in eggs, it was generally thought that mosasaurs gave birth to live young. The existence of Antarcticoolithus bradyi, however, suggests the possibility that some mosasaurs laid soft-shelled eggs that hatched immediately after.

According to Clarke, the discovery of the fossil egg is especially exciting because it demonstrates “how much we have yet to learn about the evolution of eggs, from the first egg-layers that moved away from water to the immense diversity of eggs and reproductive strategies we see today.”