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15th century Martyr's skull used as 'medicinal drink'

Experts have long pondered why the skull of a martyr on display in an Italian cathedral is marked with 16 perfectly round holes.

15th century Martyr's skull used as 'medicinal drink'
The skull shows multiple drill markings
[Credit: Gino Fornaciari/University of Pisa]
Now experts have revealed that the drilling of the skull took place after the man was beheaded by 15th century Ottoman Turk invaders.

It is thought that 'bone powder' was harvested in order to treat paralysis, epilepsy and strokes, believed to be caused by demonic influences in the early 18th century.

The skull belongs to one of 800 ‘martyrs of Otranto’ who were executed on August 14, 1480 near the town of Otranto in Apulia, Italy.

They were beheaded when they refused to give up their Christian faith, Discovery reported.

The massacre followed a 15-day siege, where all men over the age of 50 were killed and the women and children either murdered or sold into slavery.

The martyrs, whose bones are displayed at the Cathedral of Otranto, were beatified by Pope Francis on 12 May 2013 and are now the patron saints of the city.

But, one of the skulls was set apart from the rest because it featured rounded holes that had been deliberately drilled into it.

The reason for the drilling had perplexed researchers for years.

Gino Fornaciari, professor of history of medicine and paleopathology at the University of Pisa, Italy, noted the holes are a regular round shape.

15th century Martyr's skull used as 'medicinal drink'
Skull powder was used in the 18th century to treat paralysis, stroke, epilepsy 
and ‘other illness of the brain’. A jar marked 'cranium' is shown 
[Credit: Museum of Pharmacy, Crascow]
Exactly half of them are a conical shape and the rest are partial perforations, according to the Journal of Ethnopharmacology.

Professor Fornaciari said: ‘The perfectly cupped shape of the incomplete perforations leads to hypothesise 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.’

A trepan or trephine is a surgical instrument used up to drill a burr hole into the skull in order to expose the tissue for medical reasons.

Bone dust harvested from the skulls of saints or martyrs who died violent deaths was thought to be an effective treatment for a variety of conditions.

Valentina Giuffra, also from the University of Pisa, said that the ingredient was chosen because the head was the most important part of the body and invisible spiritual forces remained active even after death.

French chemist Nicolas Lemery, who lived at the turn of the 17th century, wrote that when added to water, powdered skull can treat paralysis, stroke, epilepsy and ‘other illness of the brain’.

‘The skull of a person who died of violent and sudden death is better than that of a man who died of a long illness or who had been taken from a cemetery: the formers has held almost all of his spirits, which in the latter they have been consumed, either by illness or by the earth,’ according to his book, Pharmacopee universelle.

Drills were likely used to collect the powder before the bones were arranged in the glass cabinet in 1711, although no-one knows why the particular skull was singled out.

The skull is the only evidence to support historical accounts that the macabre ingredient was used in medicine.

Author: Sarah Griffiths | Source: Mail Online [February 10, 2015]

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