A. Lunardini*, F. Rollo**, G. Fornaciari*
*Department of Oncology, Transplants and New Technology in Medicine, Division of Paleopatology, University of Pisa, Italy.
**Department of Molecular Biology, Archeo-Antropology, Molecular and ancient DNA Laboratory, University of Camerino, Italy.
The exploration of the ossuary of Marengo, on June 1999, revealed a small sample of the soldiers dead during the famous Napoleonic battle (on 14th of June, 1800). In this funereal structure were discovered 0.9 cube meters of bones, mostly of human origin (98.6%). The anthropological study showed the existence of about 250 individuals, in general young adult males, represented especially by long bones of the limbs. The paleopatological study revealed thirteen antemortem pathologies (three fractures, nine periostites, and one muscle ossified sprain), only three perimortem lesions (two by cutting blade and one by firearm) and one congenital anomaly.
Marengo, a great plain near the town of Alessandria (Piedmont, Northern Italy), was the scenario of one of Napoleon’s greatest victories, which resulted in the Austrians ceding Northern Italy to the France.
The battle, fought on 14th of June 1800, lasted only thirteen hours, but the number of the soldiers dead and wounded was striking: about 6000 in the Austrian army and 2100 in the French, among dead the French general Louis C. Desaix, according to the circumstantial account performed, in the same evening of the battle, by French general Berthier Alexandre (Casali, 2000).
The narrow victory by French forces at this battle enabled Napoleon to consolidate his power as First Consul.
In 1846, almost fifty years after the battle, on the same plain of Marengo, the chemist Antonio Delavo built a villa with an ossuary in its park, to collect the human remains frequently emerging during ploughing from the soil.
Between 6th and 13th of June 1999, with the support of the Napoleonic Society of Marengo, a first anthropological survey of the ossuary was performed. The structure of the ossuary was composed of two burials niches containing approximately 0.9 cube meters of bone remains, mostly of human origin (98.6%).
The exploration revealed only a small sample of the soldiers dead in the battlefield represented, in general, by long bones of the limbs.,As a matter of fact, if we exclude the children, the women and the bones of sure archeological derivation, the number of the soldiers males, between 20 and 35 years aged (Stloukal & Hankova, 1978) and certainly dead in the battlefield (supposing the XIXth century armies composed almost completely by young men), resulted about 250. The ossuary resulted completely empty of coins, buttons or remnants of uniforms, so it was impossible to establish the nationality of the soldiers, probably both Austrians and French.
The stature, established anthropologically for only five individuals (Trotter & Gleser, 1958), resulted of about m 1.68 (range: m 1.63-1.72), a medium-high value.
The paleopathological study showed thirteen antemortem pathologies (three traumatic pathologies, nine periostites and one muscle ossified sprain), three perimortem lesions (two caused by cutting blade and one by gunshot) and one congenital anomaly.
The antemortem pathologies include a case of ossification by a severe muscle trauma, nine cases of periostitis and three cases of recovered fractures.
The ossification tendon or muscle sprain took place along the linea aspera
of a left femur, connected with the insertion of the adductors and the pectineus
These muscles are particularly developed in horsemen.
Three cases of periostitis were observed along the linea aspera
of the femurs (1 right, 2 left), in connection with the insertion of the adductors. This peculiar site of the periostitis can also be ascribed to heavy practice of horse riding.
Instead, six cases of tibial periostitis, connected with the insertion of the inferior tibialis
muscle, can be considered “marching” lesions (Aufderheide & Rodriguez-Martin, 1998).
Three fractures, all at the level of the medio-diaphiseal tract of long bones and well consolidated, were caused by direct traumas. These lesions, most probably connected with the military life, took place perhaps in previous combats.
The first medio-diaphiseal fracture of a right radius (also named “defense” or “Parry’s” fracture) (Aufderheide & Rodriguez-Martin, 1998) recovered well “in axis”, with no angulation or shortening of the forearm; it was probably treated by a good military surgeon. On the contrary the fracture of a right humerus, consolidated well, but in angular deformity, with shortening of the bone of 5 cm.
Finally, a fracture of a right tibia recovered with shortening of about 6 cm, causing certainly limp in this subject.
Three diagnoses of acute lesions have been made: two caused by cutting blade and one by gunshot, certainly coinciding with a rapid death of the involved subject.
The first lesion was found in a right humerus. It consists in a thin cut, with sharp margins (3.5 cm long, 0.2 cm wide, 3.5 cm deep), interesting behind the superior epiphysis. This almost perfect median cut has a vertical direction, involving the head and the anatomic and the surgical neck of the humerus. This morphology of the injury could suggest a wound caused by the point of a “briquet”, the typical large dagger of the French infantry. As a matter of fact the blade of this very common weapon exactly corresponds with the cut profile.
The wound was certainly produced from behind and top-down, involving the right humerus through the deltoid; for this direction, it is likely that the blow was directed against a run-away or a falling soldier.
The second cutting blade was localized on the left part of a frontal bone .
The lesion, consisting in a triangular cut with superior apex (0.11 cm long and maximum of 0.32 cm wide), involved the medium tract of the frontal bone. The wound was produced by the central part of a cutting blade, probably a “briquet” in this case as well.
The aggressor was certainly right-handed, because the injury is on the left side of the skull.
The third lesion, caused by a firearm, involved the right half of the squama
of a frontal bone. It consists in a circular breach, with clear-cut margins, extending towards the interior of the skull. There is a clear inward bevelling with a trunk-conic profile (external diameter of 21.5 mm, internal diameter of 27 mm). The external diameter of this defect, certainly produced by a penetrating projectile, has a caliber larger of the ammunitions used in contemporary muzzle-loading guns (16 mm) (Exteberria, 1999); on the contrary it well corresponds to the 20 mm caliber of the so-called “biscalliens”, the iron balls of the canister (Nafziger, 1996).
There is only a case of congenital anomaly in the sample: a spina bifida aperta
This is the most common of all spinal congenital defects especially if is localized in the sacrum. There are two types of defect: spina bifida occulta
and spina bifida aperta
, the latter is more severe (Aufderheide & Rodriguez-Martin, 1998).
In this case the anomaly did not prevent a regular military service of the subject.
It is evident that the exiguous number of lesions we have identified in the Marengo ossuary can only offer a glimpse of the traumatology of this important battle of the Napoleonic Era. The partiality of the bones of the soldiers (250 on about 7000 dead individuals), limited to the long bones of the limbs, explains, almost partially, this result.
However, it was possible to obtain some precious and direct informations about the “dynamics” of the severe wounds produced during a Napoleonic era battle.
Only an accurate exploration of military common grave or of an entire war cemetery, with intact burials, could offer a more global traumatological picture.
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