Academic journal article Antiquity

Understanding Blunt Force Trauma and Violence in Neolithic Europe: The First Experiments Using a Skin-Skull-Brain Model and the Thames Beater

Academic journal article Antiquity

Understanding Blunt Force Trauma and Violence in Neolithic Europe: The First Experiments Using a Skin-Skull-Brain Model and the Thames Beater

Article excerpt


Evidence of blunt force cranial trauma incurred through interpersonal violence has been firmly established in recent population studies of the British and European Neolithic (Schulting & Wysocki 2005: 107; Lawrence 2006: 53; Smith & Brickley 2007: 25; McKinley 2008: 477; Ahlstrom & Molnar 2012: 17; Schulting 2012: 223; Schulting & Fibiger 2012; Fibiger et al. 2013: 190; Meyer et al. 2015: 11217). Experimental studies on the means by which these injuries were sustained can greatly aid our understanding of the variable causes and contexts of violence and, more generally, the nature of social interactions in prehistory (Wedel & Galloway 2014: 73). Hitherto, however, there has been very little research to identify the specific implements responsible for these types of injury in prehistory.

Experimental studies of blunt force trauma in other time periods have often used human cadavers or animal proxies when attempting to replicate intentional injuries, although both of these mediums are often either susceptible to major faults in accuracy, or raise various questions about their ethicality (Corey et al. 2001: 104; Thali et al. 2002a: 199, 2002b: 178; Byard et al. 2007: 31; Raul et al. 2008: 359; Wedel & Galloway 2014: 140; Smith et al. 2015: 427). In recent years, however, new methods using synthetic 'skin-skull-brain' models have begun to emerge as an alternative. These polyurethane human skull substitutes are made to uniform specification, meaning that they avoid the inaccuracies and ethical issues of using animal substitutes or human cadavers (Thali et al. 2002a: 195, 2002b: 178; Smith et al. 2015: 427).

This article presents the results of the first use of skin-skull-brain models to investigate the causes of blunt force trauma in the Neolithic osteological record. A replica of the 'Thames Beater', a Neolithic wooden club, was able to produce fractures in synthetic skulls with remarkable similarities to those found on Neolithic skeletal remains from Asparn/Schletz, a massacre site in Austria (Teschler-Nicola 2012: 107), thereby demonstrating the suitability of this method for providing appropriate test analogues. The research opens up new and innovative avenues for exploring the mechanisms and context of blunt force trauma in prehistory. This is essential for understanding the meaning of the social and cultural contexts of such events (as varying forms of violence are indicative of different social pressures and interactions), whether considering material from standard funerary contexts or the increasing number of remains from mass graves across Western and Central Europe (e.g. Schulting & Fibiger 2012: 2; Teschler-Nicola 2012: 101; Fibiger et al. 2013: 191; Chenal et al. 2015: 1329).

Blunt force trauma

Many mechanisms of injury can cause blunt force trauma, and the limited ways in which bone can react to an impact--whether violent or accidental--can complicate diagnosing the intentionality behind an injury (Alcantara et al. 1994: 521; Lovell 1997: 148; Raul et al. 2008: 359; Jacobsen et al. 2009: 2; Sharkey et al. 2012: 835; Wedel & Galloway 2014: 33). Cranial fractures are more often indicative of intentional violence than postcranial trauma (Lovell 1997: 149; Chattopadhyay & Tripathi 2010: 102; Schulting 2012: 224; Fibiger et al. 2013: 191). Certain fractures, however, are often discounted as the result of accidentally incurred trauma (Lovell 1997: 150; Ortner 2003: 121; Freeman et al. 2014: 64).

Fracture formation from blunt force trauma to the cranium is influenced by the biomechanical properties of the skull (Lovell 1997: 155; Kasrai et al. 1999: 238; Wedel & Galloway 2014: 134; Carr et al. 2015: 508). Cranial sutures (the joints between the bones of the skull) are able to absorb force, and can stop the progression of fractures across the surface of the cranium (Lovell 1997: 155; Wedel & Galloway 2014: 135). …

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