Interpersonal Violence in the Neolithic of NW Europe

Skeletal Evidence for Interpersonal violence in the Neolithic of Northwest Europe

Supported by the Leverhulme Trust

Principal Investigator: Dr. Rick Schulting (School of Archaeology, Oxford)
Collaborators: Dr. Pia Bennike (Laboratory of Biological Anthropology, University of Copenhagen)
Dr. Jörg Orschiedt (Archäologisches Institut, Universität Hamburg)
Research Student: Ms Linda Fibiger (School of Archaeology, Oxford)

A. Project Background

Interpersonal violence is a powerful form of social interaction. Violence, or the threat of violence, can be brought to bear in a variety of social contexts, ranging from the level of the household to that of different polities. There has been considerable recent interest in the archaeology and anthropology of warfare and violence (Carman 1997; Guilaine and Zammit 2001; Keeley 1996; Kelly 2000; Martin and Frayer 1997; Orschiedt 2002; Osgood and Monks 2000). Yet, despite this interest and despite Neolithic Europe’s rich archaeological record, the role of violence here remains poorly understood. With some notable exceptions (e.g. Mercer 1999), the tendency has been to downplay its role in structuring both society and individual experience. Such a stance has resonance with Keeley's (1996) argument that archaeologists have, largely through omission, 'pacified' the past. For European prehistory, discussions of warfare that have taken place focus on the evidence of fortifications, and whether they functioned as practical defences or as largely symbolic statements (Bradley 1998; Burgess et al. 1988; Keeley and Cahen 1989; Mercer 1989a,b; Oswald et al. 2001; Whittle 1996). The skeletal material itself—certainly one of the most direct and incontrovertible indicators of interpersonal violence—has until recently received relatively little attention.

The present project will contribute to redressing this situation through the examination of selected skeletal collections in northwest Europe. Individual examples of interpersonal violence are of great interest in themselves, particularly in what they can tell us about the contexts of violence and the roles it may have played. For example, the considerable evidence for violence in the Early Neolithic mass grave at Talheim in southwest Germany (with some 34 men, women and children being killed) has been instrumental in bringing about a re-assessment of the nature of Neolithic society (Wahl and König 1987). At the same time, as well as discussing such individual cases, it is crucial to put the skeletal evidence for interpersonal violence into a population perspective, and this forms a main goal of the project. In addition, the research will provide a baseline for future comparisons of the prevalence of forms of interpersonal violence in different periods and regions, both within Europe and further afield, and so provide a firmer foundation for understanding the possible causes and consequences of violence in the past. Some of the broader themes of interest are whether an increase (or a decrease for that matter) in violence can be detected firstly with the appearance of agriculture in the Neolithic, and secondly with the appearance of more formal weaponry in the Bronze Age. The present project will help provide a context in which answers to these questions can begin to be sought.

B. Research objectives and hypotheses

The overall goal of the project is to further understanding of the prevalence and contexts of interpersonal violence in the Neolithic period (5500-2500 BC) of northwest Europe.

More specifically, the following objectives have been identified:

  • to conduct a detailed literature review for selected areas of northwest Europe (Britain, Ireland, northern France, Belgium and the Netherlands, Germany, Austria and southern Scandinavia);

  • to assess, using modern forensic criteria (e.g., Galloway 1999), the specific examples identified through the literature search, together with selected earlier prehistoric skeletal collections in general;

  • to document examples of injuries of high, medium and low probability through digital photography, measurement and text descriptions;

  • to assess any demographic patterning in the individuals showing healed and unhealed injuries (e.g., are men more affected than women by lethal trauma?), or in the locations of injuries;

  • to assess any temporal (through AMS dating) or spatial patterning in the data;

  • to interpret the findings within a social framework, looking at variation in the character of interpersonal violence, and relating it to wider environmental, economic, social, and cultural factors.

C. References

Bradley, Richard. 1998. 'Interpreting enclosures'. In: M. Edmonds and C. Richards (eds.), Understanding the Neolithic of North-Western Europe. Glasgow: Cruithne Press. pp. 188-203
Burgess, C., P. Topping, C. Mordant, and M. Maddison (eds.). 1988. Enclosures and Defences in the Neolithic of Western Europe. Oxford: BAR International Series 403(i)403).
Carman, John (ed.) 1997. Material Harm: Archaeological Studies of War and Violence. Glasgow: Cruithne Press
Guilaine, Jean, and Jean Zammit. 2001. Le Sentiér de la Guerre: Visages de la Violence Préhistorique. Paris: Éditions du Seuil.
Keeley, Lawrence H. 1996. War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Keeley, Lawrence H., and Daniel Cahen. 1989. 'Early Neolithic forts and villages in NE Belgium: a preliminary report'. Journal of Field Archaeology (16): 157-176.
Kelly, Raymond C. 2000. Warless Societies and the Origins of War. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Martin, Debra L., and David W. Frayer (eds.). 1997. Troubled Times: Violence and Warfare in the Past. Amsterdam: Gordon and Breach.
Mercer, Roger J. 1989. The earliest defences in western Europe. Part 1. Fortress 2: 16-22.
—. 1989. The earliest defences in western Europe. Part 2. Fortress 3: 2-11.
—. 1999. 'The origins of warfare in the British Isles'. In: J. Carman and A. Harding (eds.), Ancient Warfare. Stroud: Sutton, pp. 143-156.
Orschiedt, J. 2002. Die Kopfbestattungen der Ofnet-Höhle: Ein Beleg für kriegerische Auseinandersetzungen im Mesolithikum. Archäologische Informationen 24: 199-207.
Osgood, Richard and Sarah Monks. 2000. Bronze Age Warfare. Stroud: Sutton.
Oswald, Alastair, Carolyn Dyer, and Martin Barber. 2001. The Creation of Monuments: Neolithic Causewayed Enclosures in the British Isles. Swindon: English Heritage.
Wahl, J., and H. König. 1987. Anthropologisch-Traumologische Untersuchung der Menschlichen Skelettreste aus dem Bandkeramischen Massengrab bei Talheim, Kreis Heilbronn. Fundberichte aus Baden-Wurtemberg 12: 65-193.
Whittle, Alasdair. 1996. Europe in the Neolithic: The Creation of New Worlds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Publications and conference/seminar presentations
Armit, I., C. Knűsel, J. Robb and R. Schulting. 2007. Warfare and violence in prehistoric Europe: An introduction, in T. Pollard and I. Banks (eds), War and Sacrifice.
Schulting, R.J. 2007. Hawks and Doves: skeletal evidence for interpersonal violence in Neolithic Europe. Seminar presented at the Department of Archaeology, University of Reading. 
Schulting, R. J. 2006. Skeletal evidence and contexts of violence in the European Mesolithic and Neolithic. In R. Gowland and C. Knüsel (eds), The Social Archaeology of Funerary Remains, 224-237. Oxford, Oxbow.
Fibiger, L. Skeletal evidence for interpersonal violence in Neolithic northwest Europe. Paper presented at the 7. Kongress der Gesellschaft für Anthropologie e.V., Freiburg im Breisgau, 10-14 September 2007.
Fibiger, L. Minor dents or major injuries? Skeletal evidence for violence and conflict in Neolithic northwest Europe. Seminar presented at the Department of Archaeology and Ancient History, University of Lund, 23 August 2007
Fibiger, L. Gewalt und Konflikt in der Jungsteinzeit Nordwesteuropas. Paper presented at the meeting of the Arbeitsgemeinschaft für Paläoanthropologie und Prähistorische Anthropologie, University of Mainz, 2-3 March 2007.
Fibiger, L. Trauma and Conflict in Neolithic Europe – News from the North. Paper presented at the 8th Annual Conference of the British Association of Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology, Birmingham, 15-17 September 2006.
Schulting, R. J. and Wysocki, M. 2005. "In this chambered tumulus were found cleft skulls...": an assessment of the evidence for cranial trauma in the British Neolithic. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 71, 107-138.
Schulting, R.J. Interpersonal violence in Neolithic Britain. Paper presented at the 71st annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, San Juan, Puerto Rico, 26-30 April 2006.