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The skull of a medieval martyr used to make medicinal powders

From Wikipedia Commons of the bones of 800 martyrs on display at the Otranto Cathedral

Photo taken by Laurent Massoptier via Wikipedia. The bones of 800 martyrs on display at the Otranto Cathedral

In the Cathedral of Otranto are five large display cases that contain the bones of the “martyrs of Otranto.” The skulls face the cathedral’s visitors and are mixed with long bones and bones of the pelvis. In one of the lower rows of the central window is a peculiar skull that faces away exposing 16 round holes in the cranial vault.   The origin of these perforations has baffled visitors for years. But this week researchers from the University of Pisa announced that they know the origin of the holes.

The “martyrs of Otranto” refers to the 800 men of Otranto, Italy who were executed by Ottoman Turk invaders.   On August 14, 1480 after Ottoman Turks besieged and conquered the village of Otranto, the invaders killed all of the men over 50, and killed or enslaved women and children under 15. When the surviving men, an estimated 800, were given a choice to either covert to Islam or die, they chose death. The martyrs were exhumed, moved to the cathedral, and beatified in 1771; Pope Francis canonized them in May 2013.

The skull belonging to a Martyr of Otranto with 16 holes drilled into it. Image credit: Gino Fornaciari/University of Pisa. Click here for full-size image.

Researchers of the University of Pisa were allowed access to the skull, but they could only examine it through the glass case. The skull has 16 round perforations of different sizes and depths with only eight completely penetrating the cranial vault. The shape of the incomplete perforations helped researchers narrow down the instrument used to puncture the bone. The researchers argue that a trephine with a semi-lunar blade or rounded bit was used. According to Gino Fornaciari, professor of history of medicine and paleopathology at the University of Pisa, a trephine of this shape would produce only bone powder.

If this is true then the Otranto skull could support historical accounts of corpse medicine, a type of remedy that was used to treat nosebleeds, paralysis, strokes, and epilepsy. Corpse medicine is pretty much as gruesome as it sounds – remedies made from bones, organs, and blood harvested from dead bodies. The body parts from saints or those who died a violent death were the most valuable and thought to be the most effective. Europeans also consumed powder made from the bones and mummies stolen from archaeological sites from Egypt to Ireland. This practice was so pervasive throughout Europe from the middle-ages to the 18th century that London apothecaries sold entire human skulls as ingredients for medicinal powders.

As ridiculous (and disgusting) as it sounds now, corpse medicine was a mixture of popular spiritual beliefs and medical theory.  The head was the body part most coveted by physicians and chemists for corpse medicine because medieval Europeans believed that the spiritual power from the body remained in the skull after death. So by ingesting remedies made from a human head a patient gained the strength of the dead person. The ancient medical theory of “like cures like” was also employed because powdered skull bones were thought to be an effective treatment for illnesses of the head.


Dolan, M. (2012 May 6). The Gruesome History of Eating Corpses as Medicine. Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved from:

Lorenzi, R. (2015 February 9). Mystery Over 15th-Century Drilled Skull Solved. Discovery News. Retrieved from:

Osborne, H. (2015 February 11). Pulverised skull of Martyr of Otranto was used as medicinal bone drink. International Business Times. Retrieved from:

Sugg, R. (2011). Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires: The History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians. New York, NY: Routledge.




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