The war to begin all wars? Contextualizing violence in Neolithic Britain

Authors: Smith, M.J.

Pages: 109-126

ISBN: 9780415842198

DOI: 10.4324/9781315883366-17


The Neolithic period has been a focus of study in British archaeology for close to two centuries. Characterized as a period of rapid and significant economic and social transition, the time between the late fifth and late third millennia BC is the period during which the foundations were laid for trajectories of ongoing and accelerating social change that continue to be played out in our own time. In the British Isles, as in other parts of Atlantic Europe, a range of momentous innovations were adopted, including ceramics, crop and animal domestication, greater levels of sedentism and the collective building of a variety of monumental structures that imply whole new ways of conceptualizing the landscapes people inhabited. This period is also of particular interest from the viewpoint of biological anthropology as it constitutes the earliest time from which human burials occur in significant numbers in Britain. Human remains from this time have been encountered from a range of contexts, althoughthe great majority have been recovered from collective burial monuments generally referred to as long barrows. These are commonly trapezoidal mounds, typically 30-40m in length, but with the largest examples being more than 100m long. The construction and use of these mounds was concentrated around the mid-fourth millennium BC. The burial assemblages they contain are commonly disarticulated and fragmented, suffering from poor preservation and, until recently, poorly documented recovery. The interpretation of these remains is consequently difficult and fraught with issues of equifinality. In spite of such difficulties, a variety of insights have been obtained from the study of earlier Neolithic burials, including the recognition of evidence for hostilities occurring on a variety of scales. This chapter considers the nature of such evidence as manifested in human remains and discusses ways in which further consideration of these data may be taken forward towards an improved understanding of the nature of violence and conflict during this seminal period in human social development. Due to their prominence in the landscape, long barrows were among the earliest archae-ological features to be explored in Britain. The possibility that the burials within might constitute evidence for past hostilities is an idea that has fallen in and out of favour over recent centuries. The earliest written accounts (dating from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries) interpret long barrows as war graves containing the dead from battles that had taken place in antiquity. This idea was still accepted in the early 1800s when the prolific barrow digger William Cunningtoninterpreted the collective burials he encountered in long barrows along similar lines, even identifying a layer of dark earth as having been discoloured by the blood of the slain (Eagles and Field 2004). As the nineteenth century progressed, researchers turned their attention towards specific features of these burials, such as the high degree of commingling and the extreme levels of fragmentation present. Many fractures, particularly on crania, were interpreted as weapon injuries by a new breed of investigators with medical expertise, such as John Thurnam (1810-73) and George Rolleston (1829-81). During the later part of the century, various alternative explanations were proposed, including cannibalism and human sacrifice (Smith and Brickley 2009: 32). However, debates of the time generally produced more heat than light, and the question of how and why these assemblages were formed was ultimately confounded by equifinality due to insufficient understanding of skeletal taphonomy. During the earlier twentieth century, the notion of prehistoric warfare remained prominent, although it no longer featured in discussions of the earlier Neolithic. Instead, the time of the long barrows came to be viewed essentially as a time of stability to be contrasted with later upheaval. Invasion and conquest became a convenient device to explain the end of the Neolithic and the transition to forms of society that characterized the Bronze Age, purportedly underpinned by craniometric data. The prevailing view that the dolichocranic (long-headed) Neolithic population was replaced by brachycranic (short-headed) invaders from continental Europe was accepted purely on assumption as it fitted neatly with the culture-historicist paradigm of the time. The evidence from Britain was essentially being made to fit the accepted view of “civilization” being carried northwards and westwards into Europe from the Near East by waves of Indo-European migrants (Trigger 2006: 237). After 1945 such ideas, built upon perceived links between racial and cultural traits, were unsurprisingly rejected. Following this, the idea of Neolithic cannibalism re-emerged in the ideas of Piggott (1954: 47-8), only to be convincingly demolished by Brothwell (1961, 1971), one of the first of a new breed of archaeological osteologists that had not previously existed in Britain. With the rise of processual paradigms in the 1960s and 1970s, explanations of the past thathinged upon fleeting events and prominent individuals were rejected wholesale in favour of gradual processes of cultural diffusion and collective endeavour. At this time mention of battles, invasions and conflict in general became conspicuous by their absence from published literature. Much of prehistory, in general – and the Neolithic in particular – came to be viewed as an idyllic, egalitarian time when war was largely absent, prior to the corrupting influences of personal wealth and social stratification that were to come with the advent of metallurgy. This type of view persisted over subsequent decades and was perhaps most clearly articulated by Castleden (1987: 217) who specifically titled Neolithic Britain as “a land without war” characterized by “a very long and uninterrupted period of peace, never since attained anywhere in Europe”. This view prevailed up to the publication of Keeley’s (1996) seminal work War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage, which laid the ground for a re-examination of the period driven by evidence rather than adherence to theoretical tenets. Although a small number of Neolithic burial monuments have been excavated in the pastthree decades, recent years have most prominently been characterized by a re-evaluation of much of the excavated material that was available during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with particular attention focused on human remains. New techniques, improved standards of analysis and revised theoretical frameworks have combined to provide a broad range of information that was previously inaccessible. One of the most significant aspects of this ongoing reappraisal has been the recurrent recognition of skeletal injuries consistent with violent assaults in assemblages from throughout the British Isles. Taken together, these provide a more definitive answer to the fluctuating debate that has surrounded the question of Neolithic conflict, with the potential to serve as the basis for a more refined and better-focused set of questions.

Source: Scopus