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.
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.