Warfare and Society: Archaeological and Social Anthropological Perspectives

By Ton Otto; Henrik Thrane et al. | Go to book overview

23 The Dead of Tormarton:
Bronze Age Combat Victims?

As bronze may be much beautified
By lying in the dark damp soil,
So men who fade in dust of warfare fade
Fairer, and sorrow blooms their soul.
(Wilfred Owen)

RICHARD OSGOOD

Postgraduate research by the author at Oxford University into Bronze Age warfare (published for the most part in Osgood 1998 and Osgood and Monks with Toms 2000) conducted a detailed examination of published palaeopathological reports from Late Bronze Age sites of Britain and North Europe in the hope of finding evidence for combat wounds. Perhaps unsurprisingly there were precious few examples; human remains from this period are quite scarce, and those displaying trauma as a result of fighting an even smaller sub-set. One site, however, intrigued me. Not only did it reveal the best evidence for warfare in the British Bronze Age, but there also lay the possibility that more information could be recovered. This site was Tormarton, a rural location in the west of England which had yielded the skeletons of two men with ancient weapons injuries. An excavation proposal was established and funding was raised through the University, BBC television, and the British Academy. The aim of this proposal was to establish a context for the human bodies and to try to provide a cogent argument as to the framework of combat in this period, and whether or not they did indeed relate to warfare.


The discovery of the site

In 1968 a gas pipeline was cut into the Jurassic Limestone in West Littleton Down, Tormarton, South Gloucestershire. What was uncovered remains one of the most intriguing Bronze Age discoveries in the British Isles.

Local farmer Dick Knight had been following the progress of the pipeline with his family, keeping a careful lookout for archaeological finds. His watchfulness was rewarded by the finding of a number of human remains in the disturbed soil east of Wallsend Lane (ST 76737667). Initially thought to be the bones of two individuals dumped without ceremony into a ditch or pit, later palaeopathological work revealed that at least three individuals, all young males, were represented. The remains were studied and then placed at Bristol City Museum where they are now on display.

What made this archaeological discovery so significant was the presence of dramatic weapons injuries suffered by the unfortunate victims. The oldest individual, a man in his mid-late 30s in age and c. 1.751.76 ms in height, had twice been speared from behind – a lozenge shaped hole perforated one side of the pelvis (Figs. 1 and 2).

Another of the men had suffered wounds that are shocking to anyone who sees them. He too had been

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