18 February 2015

This skull was extensively trepanned. For scruples.

Explained at io9:
Researchers at the University of Pisa, Italy, have solved a longstanding mystery around the honeycombed skull of one of the Italian martyrs beheaded by 15th century Ottoman Turk invaders when they refused to give up their Christian faith...

The skull was later drilled, most likely to obtain bone powder to treat diseases such as paralysis, stroke, and epilepsy, which were believed to arise from magical or demonic influences...

"The perfectly cupped shape of the incomplete perforations leads(us) to hypothesize 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," Fornaciari said...

This would make the Otranto skull a unique piece of evidence supporting historical accounts on the use of skull bone powder as an ingredient in pharmacological preparations...

Indeed, in his Pharmacopée universelle, a comprehensive work on pharmaceutical composition, French chemist Nicolas Lémery (1645 –1715) detailed how powdered human skull drunk in water was effective to treat "paralysis, stroke, epilepsy and other illness of the brain."

"The dose is from half scruple up to two scruples," Lémery wrote.

"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 former has held almost all of his spirits, which in the latter they have been consumed, either by illness or by the earth," he added.
Yes, I had to look it up too:
Scruple: a unit of apothecary weight, with symbol ℈. It is a twenty-fourth part of an ounce, or 20 grains, or approximately 1.3 grams. More generally, any small quantity might be called a scruple.  


  1. Looks like my first comment was eaten by the blogspot monster.

    Another reason this was done in the middle-ages Church was due to the belief in the healing power and holiness in the bones of a saint. Many relics were collected, and a place of worship couldn't even be errected without there being some sort of holy relic. Among enough pieces of the True Cross to apparently make an entire ship, the bones of saints were very common. Some were even the real deal, but many were, of course, fraudulent.

    Regardless, in some areas (Britain) the priests would occasionally grind a little bone powder from a saint into the bread for Eucharist. They apparently believed it would bring healing, and possibly confer a spiritual blessing (forgiveness, etc). It didn't seem to happen often, even in times of extreme despair (see: Bubonic Plague), but it did indeed happen.

    The harvesting of bone powder from the skull of a saint may have been a carryover from that earlier tradition.

  2. Oh, and as to the reasoning (above), it had something to do with 2 Kings 13:21 (Elisha's bones healing someone) and the far earlier (pre-Roman Church) Christian tradition of meeting in the catacombs, around sepulchers, and gathering in places where bones of a martyr were laid.


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