Bloody Stone Age: war in the Neolithic
Skull from Rodmarton, Gloucestershire, with a linear fracture caused
by a severe blowThe perception that much of prehistory was relatively
peaceful is changing. New research has identified evidence of violent
assault in the Neolithic. What does this tell us about Stone Age life
as a whole? Forensic archaeologist Martin Smith explains.
Whilst many Neolithic burials have been excavated during the last 150
years, they have received only limited study. Modern analysis of these
remains by osteo-archaeologists is revealing shocking evidence for
violent assaults involving clubs, axes, and arrowshot about 5,500
Recent years have seen growing interest in conflict archaeology.
Warfare has gone from being a subject rarely mentioned by
archaeologists to one that is widely debated. Current world events
may have something to do with this, but it is also linked to advances
in our ability to recognise evidence of violence, and a drive towards
new theoretical approaches for making sense of it.
Most research of this kind has usually been concerned with more recent
periods, but lately consideration is also being given to prehistory.
In particular, we now have a growing body of evidence for aggression
between groups and individuals during the Neolithic, most of which
comes in the form of skeletal injuries. The fact that acts of violence
sometimes occurred in this period now seems indisputable. However,
assessing what this tells us about Neolithic life as a whole is
Injury probably caused by arrowshot, in a skull recovered at Littleton
Drew, Gloucestershire.Old wounds: new evidence
Many injuries to the skeleton are difficult to interpret, as there may
be a number of ways in which a particular injury could be incurred.
Fractured ribs, for example, can be sustained in various ways, mostly
through accidents such as falls. It is generally impossible to be
specific about the origin of these kinds of fractures in
Some types of injury, however, may be more consistent with a
particular cause. Fractures of the skull are a good example. Head
injuries inflicted with weapons often produce patterns of fracture
that are more easily recognised as such than wounds to other parts of
the skeleton. Improved understanding of the properties of bone
fracture has led to our recognition of a growing number of Neolithic
head injuries consistent with violence, many of which might previously
have been interpreted as damage after burial.
Such signs of violent assault are apparent throughout much of Europe,
and not least in Britain. These include a number of healed head
injuries apparently inflicted with blunt, club-like implements, as
well as unhealed fractures inflicted very close to (if not actually
at) the time of death. The latter include a mixture of sharp-force and
blunt-force trauma, possibly inflicted with stone axes.
Tip of an arrowhead embedded in part of a human vertebra from Tulloch
of Assery, Caithness. Then there are projectile wounds. This category
is particularly unequivocal where fragments of arrowheads remain
embedded in bone, although recent experimental research has revealed
that it is sometimes possible to recognise such injuries even where
the ‘murder weapon’ is no longer present. In a recent research project
examining evidence of cranial trauma, Mick Wysocki, Senior Lecturer in
Forensic Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Central
Lancashire, and Rick Schulting, Lecturer in Scientific and Prehistoric
Archaeology from Oxford University, produced a conservative estimate
(based on the view that some examples might be misdiagnosed) that 26
out of 350 crania examined (7.4%) displayed traumatic injuries.
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