Dead men’s secrets

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Published: August 20, 2015 12:18:10 AM

The mass grave of Schöneck-Kilianstädten throws new insights into collective violence by the ancient human race

Two breakthroughs in forensic archaeology have been reported in August, which draw attention to the extraordinary violence that seems to have been commonplace in ancient times. At least one of these may offer some insight into why violence is so hard to leave behind though civilisation obviously benefits from its reduction.

One study by researchers in institutions in Greece, Spain and France conclusively identifies the remains of Philip II of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great, on the basis of a war wound made famous in the historical literature by authors like Plutarch and Demosthenes. The other, an investigation of a mass grave in the Schöneck-Kilianstädten region of Hessen, Germany, establishes that Pol Pot was about 7,000 years behind his time. He and Chemical Ali would have been at home among their peers in Europe at the dawn of the age of agriculture.

The Schöneck-Kilianstädten dig is a long mass grave which holds the bones of at least 26 people, mostly men and children. This is the third such mass grave found in northern Europe, where both the victims and the perpetrators of the atrocity were of the Linearbandkeramik culture (named for the artwork on their pottery), which arrived in Europe in 5,500 BC. The dating is significant, and may tell us something about the conditions under which societies become violent.

The Linearbandkeramik community appears to have entered the continent through the Balkans and established itself in what would become Germany and Austria. Unfortunately for them, they took to agriculture during a phase of repeated climate change, which would have impacted food security and heightened competition for resources. Early human communities were hunter-gatherers who could choose to sidestep conflict simply by moving on. In fact, the world was explored and peopled by such communities in search of free range.

However, an agricultural community is settled and must defend its fields and harvests. Resources are clearly demarcated and conflict is zero-sum. Sidestepping violence when it is offered ceases to be an option and conflict must follow. That may explain the horrific violence seen at Schöneck-Kilianstädten, where the victims appear to have been beaten to death, with especial care having been taken to break their shins. The macabre violence suggests that they were made examples of, an early example of psychological warfare. Similarly bizarre violence has been a hallmark of battles for lebensraum, the Holocaust being the most obvious example.

The Schöneck-Kilianstädten dig holds a couple of lessons. The first is anticipated: as the world heads for a possible phase of anthropogenic climate change, societies should be prepared for heightened levels of violence as resources like arable land become scarcer and habitats change.

The other lesson is actually hopeful. The human race is emerging from a period when land was the fundamental source of value, whether for agriculture or industry. In the post-industrial landscape, intellectual property and its non-material derivatives could outstrip land as a source of value. This abstraction or dematerialisation of value should lead to a world where it is less necessary to resort to territorial behaviour, and mass violence is avoidable.

Apart from the mass grave in Germany, another breakthrough in forensic archaeology has been reported from Greece, where a puzzle dating from the 1970s has been solved, using radiological imaging. The royal tombs at Vergina, which was ancient Macedonia’s capital, have been contested turf in the archaeological community, with the establishment holding that Tomb II is of Philip II. However, the researchers were convinced that a male skeleton in Tomb I was that of Philip, and they matched it with the classical record.

On his way home from a campaign in Asia, Philip was attacked by the Thracian tribe for a share of a booty and wounded almost fatally by a lance which passed through his knee and killed the horse under him. CT scans of the leg of the male in Tomb I showed a corresponding penetration impact and massive ankylosis of the knee, resulting in lameness. The bones of a woman and a neonate were also found in the tomb, which again corresponds with the historical record. Philip’s wife Cleopatra gave birth a few days before his assassination in what is now Vergina, and mother and child were killed shortly thereafter, paving the way for Alexander’s coronation.

Now that the fate of Philip is settled, other archaeological puzzles demand attention. Foremost among them is the controversy over the Saxon king Harold, who was killed at the Battle of Hastings by an arrow in the eye, but whose grave has been elusive. Was he buried in a parish church by his lover Edith the Fair, as amateur researchers have claimed? Or was he buried at Waltham Abbey, as reported, but in his old age, having escaped the Norman Conquest?

The specific nature of his wound makes this a fit mystery for radiological analysis.

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