Introduction: The bioarchaeology of conflict

Authors: Knüsel, C. and Smith, M.J.

Pages: 3-24

ISBN: 9780415842198

DOI: 10.4324/9781315883366-11


Warfare is often described as “senseless”, having no place in civilized society, yet it continues to feature in modern social relations, with a long and established history. Recurrent legacies of warfare are far from trifling. They include population displacement and forced migration, changed governance, demographic shifts, destruction of property and goods, and environmental degradation and destruction, as well as economic, educational and sociocultural disruption. Implicit – and unplanned – benefits include technical and medical innovations, infrastructural rebuilding, and attractive opportunities for social and economic advancement for surviving combatants, their kin and their leaders once hostilities have ceased. Warfare also provides for the acquisition of land, goods and a workforce, either as indoctrinated group members or as slaves. The last of these may especially characterize the motivation for earlier armed aggression when group sizes were small and thus under threat of local extirpation. Perhaps the least realized of the changes wrought by warfare is the demise of beliefs and associated social institutions entrusted with defence against or success in conflicts. Attacks on and destruction of cultural patrimony, such as buildings, places of worship, cemeteries, historic sites and culturally symbolic objects, are a consequence of modern warfare, which may have also been a motivation in earlier conflicts, when statuary and depictions of deities and leaders were targeted during periods of strife. Given the momentous changes wrought by historical and contemporary conflicts, it is anenduring oddity that, in contemporary archaeological discourse, the place of warfare in social relations and societal change remains a minor, muted concern or, quite simply, omitted. A lack of synthesis of the physical evidence of violence with broader archaeological interpretation continues despite growing literature on violence and violence-related injuries. We have the enigma of a considerable number of inspired treatments of warriors, their representation and accoutrements (see Armit 2012; Baray et al. 2011; Carman and Harding 1999; Harding 2007; Jeunesse 1996; Kristiansen and Larsson 2005; Treherne 1995, among others) in the Old World with decidedly less evidence for warfare and bookshelves of volumes on historical battles and warfare with only occasional integration with the remains of the casualties of such conflicts (for exceptions, see Fiorato et al. 2000; Kjellström 2003). In the New World, the situation is similar but different in its expression. Where there has long been interest in ritual sacrifice and practices such as trepanation, these have only comparatively recently been explicitly linked towarfare (see Verano 2001, for an example), treatment for traumatic injuries sustained in conflict (Verano 2003) and warriors (Buikstra et al. 2004). This volume aims to fill this gap by considering the physical evidence for violence-related trauma within its social context. In the process, it provides the groundwork for distinguishing warfare from individual acts of violence, in the way that murder and bodily harm are distinguished from the premeditated and sustained, cooperative group action to inflict physical harm that defines warfare (see Ferguson 1984 and Milner 1995, as discussed in Knüsel 2005). It addresses the scale and frequency of violent encounters based on the physical traces left in the remains of human bodies and their depositional context. This endeavour is greatly aided by a well-established literature on the diagnosis of skeletalinjury from violent encounters. Through improvements in the understanding of bone fracture mechanics (see Berryman and Symes 1998; Galloway 1999; Kimmerle and Baraybar 2008; Knüsel 2005; Madea and Staak 1988; Novak 2000; Sauer 1998; Smith et al. 2007) and skeletal trauma identification, it is clear that violent assaults could have been an identifiable aspect of social life throughout human development. Identification of trauma is made through observing bone breakage patterns and their timing with respect to the collagen content of the bone. Researchers are greatly aided by the uniformitarian approach afforded by the anatomy of the human body and the standard anatomical terminology that comes with it. The human body is a rare example of a truly indisputable cross-cultural constant that has been present in all societies (Boric and Robb 2008; Joyce 2005; Sofaer 2006). As such, the study of the body as exposed to violence is part of a wider discourse in which the body becomes a sort of text – an artefact of nature that has been inscribed to convey messages that can be best understood within the social and cultural milieu of those producing such signs. Like the body, bone fracture – bone failure, in mechanical terms – represents a universal. Fractures result from the response of bone to applied stresses beyond the physiological norm. Because traumatic injuries are determined by local skeletal architecture, their patterning is not only cross-culturally but also diachronically analogous. However, where field observation and careful recovery of skeletal remains, followed by reconstruction of traumatized bones, is not undertaken, the extent to which trauma can be identified is greatly reduced. We know that peoples in the distant past engaged in violence against each other at times, just as more recent people have, and that sometimes such hostilities were conducted in an organized manner involving groups rather than sole individuals. But in most cemetery data there is only sporadic evidence of healed trauma; these are the individuals injured in the course of their daily lives or who, having sustained weapon-related injuries, recovered and returned to their communities to die some time later from other causes. The challenge now facing investigators is to try to determine the social circumstances that exposed individuals to violence and the scale of its occurrence. In this, non-normative burials come to the fore. These oddly placed, often multiple burials result from a period of time when the social mores governing treatment of the dead were suspended or others imposed in the aftermath of conflict.

Source: Scopus