April 24, 2021

SE1. Special Episode: An Osteoarchaeology of Violence & Trauma in the European Past

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Dr. Linda Fibiger, School of History, Classics and Archaeology, University of Edinburgh.




Fibiger, L. 2018. The past as a foreign country: Bioarchaeologial perspectives on Pinker's "Prehistoric Anarchy". Historical Reflections/Réflexions Historiques 44(1), 6-16.  https://doi.org/10.3167/hrrh.2018.440103

Steven Pinker’s thesis on the decline of violence since prehistory has resulted in
many popular and scholarly debates on the topic that have ranged—at times even raged—
across the disciplinary spectrum of evolution, psychology, philosophy, biology, history, and
beyond. Those disciplines that made the most substantial contribution to the empirical
data underpinning Pinker’s notion of a more violent prehistoric past, namely, archaeology
and bioarchaeology/physical anthropology, have not featured as prominently in these discussions
as may be expected. This article will focus on some of the issues resulting from
Pinker’s oversimplifi ed cross-disciplinary use of bioarchaeological data sets in support of
his linear model of the past, a model that, incidentally, has yet to be incorporated into current
accounts of violent practices in prehistory.

Dyer, M. & Fibiger, L. 2017. Understanding blunt force trauma and violence in Neolithic Europe: The first experiments using a skin-skull-brain model and the Thames Beater. Antiquity 91 (360), 1515-1528. https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2017.189

The difficulty in identifying acts of intentional injury in the past has limited the
extent to which archaeologists have been able to discuss the nature of interpersonal violence
in prehistory. Experimental replication of cranial trauma has proved particularly
problematic due to the lack of test analogues that are sufficiently comparable to the human
skull. A new material now overcomes this issue, and for the first time allows accurate
insight into the effects of different weapons and different blows in inflicting cranial
injury; in this case, blunt force trauma caused using a replica of the ‘Thames Beater’
Neolithic wooden club.

Downing, M. & Fibiger, L. 2017. An experimental investigation of sharp force skeletal trauma with replica Bronze Age weapons. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 11, 546-554. https://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jasrep.2016.12.034

Skeletal sharp force trauma provides direct evidence for the use of bladedweapons against humans. As such, it is
an important source of evidence for examining the prevalence of violence and weapon use in the past. The primary
aims of this study are to provide experimental evidence for the efficacy of Bronze Ageweapons against skeletal
tissue and to test the applicability of existing criteria for sharp force trauma analysis to Bronze Age skeletal
material. To that end, three Bronze Ageweapons - a dirk, flanged axe andWilburton sword - were used to strike
four Synbone spheres (‘crania’) and two cylinders (‘long bones’). Subsequent damage to the weapons and
Synbonewas analyzed usingmacroscopic andmicroscopic methods including digital photography, three-dimensional
digital modelling, and metric analysis. The results of the study suggest theWilburton sword and flanged
axe could be effective weapons in combat and existing methods for cutmark analysis are generally applicable
to injuries createdwith Bronze Ageweaponswhen taking into account the size of the weapons. Sword (slashing)
and axe (chopping) trauma can be distinguished on the artificial bone material based on the degree of wastage
and fracturing. Further research is needed to develop criteria for distinguishing sword and dirk trauma as
sword trauma was not distinguishable from knife weapon classes. Additionally, Synbone may not be an ideal
skeletal tissue analogue in sharp force trauma research as it does not record the microscopic striations created
by a blade passing through bone.


Angela Boyle, Burial Archaeologist, Professional Archaeological & Osteoarchaeological Services.




Boyle, A. 2021. 'Cowboys and Indians? A Biocultural Study of Violence And Conflict In South-East Scotland C AD 400 to C AD 800'. School of History, Classics and Archaeology, University of Edinburgh.

This thesis considers the skeletal evidence for violence in south-east Scotland during the early medieval period and includes analysis of human remains not previously examined alongside biomolecular analyses of selected skeletons. South-east Scotland experienced several dramatic events in this period, including the end of Roman rule, the Anglian invasion and the commencement of Viking attacks. The traditional view held by some archaeologists in the relatively recent past was that the anglicisation of post-Roman Britain was akin to Hollywood cowboys and Indians and that the Anglo-Saxon conquest was a form of ethnic cleansing. The primary aim of this research was to utilise bioarchaeological data alongside other strands of evidence, such as new radiocarbon dates, isotope and DNA analysis alongside XRF and SEM analysis of injuries, to explore if the period was conflict-ridden or not. Other avenues of research incorporated into this thesis include burial practice, the evidence for weaponry and the iconography of carved stones. Human remains provide the most direct evidence of violence in the past yet regional studies remain relatively uncommon, particularly in Scotland. This is the first major synthesis of human remains in south-east Scotland and includes the first bioarchaeological analysis of several important assemblages from the region, ie. Lundin Links, Lasswade and the recently rediscovered mass burial from the Roman fort at Cramond. Osteological analysis of more than 300 skeletons, many of which were excavated in the 19th and first half of the 20th century, has demonstrated a general absence of evidence for violence except for notable concentrations in and around the Firth of Forth. In this region, significant advances in the bioarchaeology of trauma in recent years have facilitated the identification of important cases of peri-mortem trauma previously unrecorded. In addition, isotope analysis has provided important data on origins and mobility while DNA analysis has proved useful in confirming the sex of poorly preserved adult skeletons. This has important implications for our understanding of the relationships between Angles, Britons and Picts, the nature of conflict in the area and for political and social interaction both within and on the fringes of the study area. Conclusions have been reached on the nature, function and impact of violence more generally. It seems likely that the threat of violence within the region acted as a sufficient deterrent most of the time and that the main focus of aggressive action was on the Pictish frontier.


Elin Ahlin Sundman, Department of Archaeology, University of Iceland.


Dr. Anna Kjellström, Department of Archaeology and Classical Studies, Stockholm University.




Sundman, E.A. & Kjellström, A. 2020. 'Medieval Masculinities and Violence: Weapon-Related Trauma in Skeletal
Assemblages from Two Religious Houses in Iceland and Sweden. European Journal of Archaeology 23 (4) 2020, 567–584.

Previous research has shown that physical violence had a normative presence in medieval Nordic societies.
In this study, weapon-related trauma (WRT) was examined in human skeletal assemblages from
two religious houses, Skriðuklaustur in Iceland, and Västerås in Sweden. The aims were to identify
patterns of WRT and to relate these to the masculinities of different groups of men. Violence was a
prominent component of identity among lay men, especially for men with warrior experience. The use of
violence was more problematic among clerics. The hypothesis that these notions of ideal masculine behaviour
would affect the ways in which masculinities were enacted and would be reflected in the patterns of
WRT was borne out by the results of this study. No WRT was identified among the canons and lay
brothers in Skriðuklaustur, but it was present in about thirty per cent of the males interpreted as
belonging to the lay elite buried in the northern part of the church at Västerås.


This is a podcast about new and innovative research in archaeology.

Each episode I talk with pioneering and influential archaeologists about their journal papers, books and research projects.

Season 1 is all about the latest research into the Archaeology of the Roman West.

Season 2 is on Innovative Research in Australia.

Season 3 is on Early Medieval Europe.

Season 4 is on Latest Research on the Peopling of North America.

Future Seasons:  Well, I'm open to suggestions!  

Medieval Europe, Osteoarchaeology, Mesoamerica, Pacific Archaeology, Prehistoric Burials, Post-Medieval, Scientific Techniques, South-east Asia, Bronze Age Monuments. You tell me!

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