Tis But a Scratch!

Have at you!

As I’m studiously ignoring ‘Deadliest Warrior’ for the time being (though I will say that I thought the Vampire vs Zombie was a much better use of the format) I’ll just comment briefly on a recent UK TV series entitled ‘Back From the Dead’. It’s part of a series on, essentially, Osteoarchaeology (aka bioarcheology), although they employ the services of a less specific Forensic Anthropologist instead.

They take a number of human remains from a given site and period, look at the evidence in the bones in terms of healed and unhealed injuries, as well as the apparent age, sex, status and likely occupation of the original owner. It’s a fascinating subject and does make for an interesting and entertaining – not to mention gory – TV documentary. I have only nitpicks with it, really, although the fight scenes from the ‘Samurai’ episode were pretty poor, with theatre-style hack and slash choreography (including the dreaded static edge-to-edge block move) and even wirework a la ‘Crouching Tiger’. Unnecessary. They’ve have been better going for the classic ‘gunfighter’ style duel, with the fight ended by a single sword stroke. This would still be an oversimplification, but closer to real history (and I need to apologise here for linking to Wikipedia with the phrase ‘real history’ – sorry Wikiers, but I’m still slightly bitter about the ‘original research’ thing!).

Anyway, one of my major nitpicks, if that’s not a contradiction in terms, had to do with the ‘Crusader’ episode (currently still available for UK viewers here). Whilst I enjoyed the ‘300‘ style wide-angle slowmo scenes interpreting the various battle wounds received by the skeletons/people in question (complete with severed limbs reminiscent of Monty Python’s Black Knight), I found one conclusion by the specialist featured to be particularly speculative.

There was a clear cut down through the joint of one humerus – a disabling wound and clearly produced by a sword blade. But as the cut didn’t extend very far into the bone, the conclusion was made that the man must have been wearing ‘chain mail’ that slowed down the blow and limited the damage, and therefore that he must have been a Templar Sergeant (informing the detailed recreation shown shortly afterward).

Firstly, I don’t regard the cut shown as being at all limited – particularly if this man was a warrior and had considerable muscle mass around that joint. If the man was, as seems likely, moving when the blow was struck, this will limit the penetration of the blade. For example, if he had simply stepped back, only the tip of the sword/scimitar would have connected, explaining the wound. The other thing is that the wound from an edged weapon is dependent upon cutting angle and the force applied – if all the attacker’s strength and technique is not brought to bear, the cut will not be as severe. But really, I think a 6″ (or so) cut down through an upper arm bone is quite severe enough for a sword wound!

Had he been wearing mail, there would not be a cut! Or at least, not a clean partition as shown. Period riveted mail armour (NOT ‘chain mail’ please, Channel 4) is quite simply proof against cuts (or thrusts, for that matter) from the swords of the period in question. Have a look at this video. I don’t know whether this was something that the bone specialist had been pressed on, or whether the claim appears in the original research (perhaps someone with access to the article can let me know at bs.historian@yahoo.com), but it should not have been made without reference to an expert in arms and armour. The man in question could not have been wearing armour, and so the conclusion that he was a senior Templar soldier is invalid.

As ever, the subject is (or should be) interesting enough without resorting to making stuff up.


2 thoughts on “Tis But a Scratch!

  1. I am an avid swordsman and I’ve studied martial combat for close to a decade. I’ve worn chain armor, and I’ve even made some. I must concur with your assement here as well. Had the combatant you described been wearing chain armor (even the less often used butted mail version) the blade would not have penetrated the armor. About the only thing that will get through chain armor is a arrow or a crossbow bolt, and even at that it has to be at close range. Many men-at-arms and professional soldiers wore studded leather, or more commonly boiled leather armor pieces when they went into battle. It’s concievable that someone could have could through the leather with enough force and a sharp enough blade. However, I’m inclined to agree with your assessment that he simply moved as the blow was landing and thus had a lesser wound.

  2. Very interesting – a year ago I would have not had a clue about that stuff, and then a had a long chat with a pirate re-enactor who explained that all that errol flynn stuff was so much guff, and called the cutlass a “tool” of the time, have a fight, cut down saplings, a loaf of bread etc…

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