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Warfare, Violence and Slavery in Prehistory, ed. M. Parker Pearson & I.J.N.Thorpe
BAR International Series 1374, 2005. 233p, ISBN 1 84171 816 5 (£27)

Whatever happens to be our perceived political correctness regarding war (its glamour, its horrors and its atrocities) and ‘man’s inhumanity to man’ in general, we are fascinated by such topics. From Homer to Andy McNab stories based on war have entertained for centuries. ‘Best sellers’ from the likes of Po and King exploit the darker sides of human nature. Since the (aggressive) Rock tribe and (more peaceful) Shell tribe battled it out in the ludicrously anachronistic One Million BC (Hal Roach 1940) to Vietnam backdrops such as The Deer Hunter (Cimino 1978) and Hamburger Hill (Irvin 1987) (so-called because the amount of firepower rendered human bodies to the consistency of hamburger meat) Hollywood directors and producers have fed us diets of blood and guts in sanitised and not-so-sanitised ways. Torture scenes in Marathon Man (Schlesinger 1976) or Reservoir Dogs (Tarantino 1992) are often the most memorable scenes in movies and the realistic portrayal of the horrors and carnage of the D-Day landings in the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan (Spielberg 1998) are acclaimed as being the most powerful images in the movie.

Why should we have such a fascination with war and violence? I am not a psychologist but I assume that it is because that even we in our comfortable and relatively peaceful western environment know how cruel we can be to each other. From bullying in the playground to the holocaust, the horrific treatment of humans by humans is around us in the media, history books and, occasionally and in some cases, in our private lives.

For this reason, I feel that it is a shame that some of the essays in this book are almost apologetic in their tone when they try and assess the degree of violence in Prehistory: well, it could be murder, it could have been a hunting accident. It is correct to question archaeological data but surely the tendency of humans to settle differences by acts of violence, whether it be global conflict or pub brawls (as Parker Pearson points out) has a long pedigree (and Layton’s chapter in this book goes some way to explaining this). Classical, medieval and more recent history have also demonstrated that life can come incredibly cheaply and torture (‘no-one expects the Spanish Inquisition’) and sacrifice (the burial of Patroklos) were often condoned and indeed thought necessary.

The book starts with almost two introductions (Thorpe and Parker Pearson) who look at warfare and violence from historical and theoretical perspectives. Definitions are sought (as they are in other chapters) for what constitutes war and I feel that the simplest wins when it comes to prehistory. The duel between David and Goliath is a case in point where a duel settled a larger conflict (and incidentally the outcome may be taken as an argument in favour of superior weapons technology as much as a tale of good over evil – was it Joseph Heller that said this or Ben Elton? I can’t remember).

Knüsel’s chapter deals with the physical signs of trauma on skeletal material, a useful tutorial in what to look for, however his examples are almost all taken from a medieval mass grave and their direct relevance to prehistory can be questioned, especially given the very different weapon assemblages. Nevertheless Orschiedt uses similar tell-tale signs to examine the trauma visible on the skulls from the Mesolithic multiple skull burial at Ofnet in southern Germany with evidence for blow fractures on skulls and cut marks on cervical vertebrae. Two papers on Rock Art (Nash and Bevan) in Spain and Italy respectively illustrate some of our best images for group conflicts not just people bearing arms but also wearing headdresses and suffering injury. Of course the large amount of martial equipment throughout the Bronze and Iron Ages must surely demonstrate the presence of conflict and this is addressed in the chapters of Hårde, Sánchez-Moreno and Fontijn while defensive architecture and iconography are also invoked by Aranda Jiménez & Sánchez Romero and Freire. But Osgood gets us back to the real gore with a re-analysis of the famous be-speared Tormarton skeletons, Craig et al. demonstrate some gruesome goings-on at Danebury and Aldhouse-Green skilfully uses archaeological and historical evidence to document the brutalities of Iron Age sacrifice and bondage. Taylor concludes with a wake-up call to archaeologists on the realities of slavery.

For too long archaeologists have had a closed-eyes approach to human inequality. Our sanitised view of a rurally idyllic Neolithic is being changed by fresh re-assessments of the evidence. Always aware of increased martial equipment and architecture in the Bronze and Iron Ages, skeletal re-examination is forcing us to be aware of the realities. We like to glibly claim that archaeology is ‘about people’ yet are happy to talk of war, slavery, sacrifice in the abstract. The reality is that these abstracts were as real to our ancestors as, to us, are the images from Rwanda, Bosnia, Iraq, Chechnya, Congo, Zimbabwe………….. This book is a brave attempt to open our eyes.

Alex Gibson
University of Bradford

Review Submitted: October 2005

The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews Editor.

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