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Medieval Skeleton Shows Signs of Being Tortured by the Breaking Wheel

One theory as to why aliens have never traveled across our galaxy to visit Earth is that the technology needed for space transportation is the same technology that’s used in weapons and ETs end up destroying each other before they can make the trip. Before you get all puffy-chested, we’re not much better. A new discovery of a skeleton that died of obvious torture is the earliest evidence of one of humanity’s greatest transportation inventions being turned into a weapon – the Breaking Wheel, also known as the Wheel of Torture, execution wheel and the Catherine wheel. Does this mean we’ll never leave planet Earth?

“This report aims at presenting a case of the skeleton of a male, aged between 17 and 20 years, recovered from the archaeological site of S. Ambrogio in Milan and dating back to the Middle Ages (1290–1430). The anthropological and osteological analyses highlighted symmetrical multiple perimortem fractures of ulnae, radii, tibiae and fibulae both on the right and left side. In addition, signs of decapitation were found on the occipital bones.”

That’s a  clinical explanation for the practice of breaking a human’s arms and legs, threading them through the spokes of a wagon wheel and then hoisting the wheel on top of a pole, where the poor soul was left in the hot sun to die a slow death which, if the executioners and the gawking public got tired of waiting for, was hastened by lowering the wheel and decapitating the person. According to a new report in the Journal of Archaeological Science, that’s almost precisely what happened (the decapitation failed so he was stabbed to death) to a man whose skeleton was found in a 13th century Italian cemetery beneath San Ambrogio Square in Milan, making his the first known remains of a victim of the breaking wheel.

Believe it or not, it gets worse.

“The victim of the wheel could have been sacrificed, being a “freak”, by an angry crowd, as a plague spreader. From this point of view, there may be a case of interpersonal violence but it may represent a tragic event of discrimination.” reports that the breaking wheel was generally reserved for serious crimes, like murder or highway robbery, but this man’s skeleton had wormian bones (extra bones in the skull) and frontal bone thickening, which gave him a noticeable physical deformity. His teeth were also misshapen, giving him an odd smile, and he was 4.3 inches (11 cm) shorter than the average older teen of the time. If that wasn’t enough, the plague was running rampant and people were often executed if they were suspected of spreading it. “A tragic event of discrimination” is far too nice of a description for why this poor young man was broken by the wheel.

There are scholarly debates over who should be given credit for inventing the Breaking Wheel. The sixth century author Gregory of Tours mentions the punishment of being run over by a heavy wagon, so France could be the winner, but similar devices were used in the Roman Empire, India, Scotland, Germany, Russia, Sweden (!) and North America up until the mid-1800s. The name ‘Catherine’s Wheel’ comes from the legend of St. Catherine of Alexandria, who was sentenced in the 4th century Roman Empire to be executed by breaking wheel for her faith, but the wheel “miraculously” broke when she touched it – so they beheaded her. Paintings of her usually show a broken wheel.

Catherine of Alexandria


“This case describes for the first time the remains of a victim of the wheel and underlines the importance of archaeology and anthropology in reconstructing cases of violation of human rights in the past.”

In other words, some things never change … and probably won’t, no matter which planet you live on.


Paul Seaburn is the editor at Mysterious Universe and its most prolific writer. He’s written for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show", "Politically Incorrect" and an award-winning children’s program. He's been published in “The New York Times" and "Huffington Post” and has co-authored numerous collections of trivia, puzzles and humor. His “What in the World!” podcast is a fun look at the latest weird and paranormal news, strange sports stories and odd trivia. Paul likes to add a bit of humor to each MU post he crafts. After all, the mysterious doesn't always have to be serious.
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