Mortal Wounds:The human skeleton as evidence for conflict in the past
Martin Smith
Pen & Sword
290pp, 45 black-and-white photographs and 19 black-and-white illustrations
Hardback, £22.95

Dr Martin Smith is a forensic anthropologist who has spent 10 years working in orthopaedic, surgical and accident and emergency departments. This has given him a practical knowledge of wounds and how they have been inflicted, and he has carried this knowledge into his work on wounds still visible on skeletal remains from the distant past. But, from the outset, he makes it clear that this book is aimed at the general reader rather than specialists in the subject of osteoarchaeology. This is to be welcomed.

In the first chapter he describes the materials that make up bones, and illustrates it with clear, well-noted diagrams. He is aware that most non-specialists are not familiar with the names of most of the bones that make up the human skeleton, and to help clarify this he provides annotated drawings naming them.

He begins with a clear statement of his view of his subject, when he says: 'I see dead people; the human body as archaeology.' The book then examines s a variety of human remains from prehistory to the 19th century. As Smith analyses the wounds on skeletal remains, he demonstrates that humans have been inflicting deliberate violence on one another from the earliest times. This is crucial in the field of Battlefield Archaeology.

Although each chapter could be read independently from the rest of the book, the reader would miss out on a lot of very useful information by doing so. The flow of the narrative from one era to the next proceeds with great skill so, like history itself, it becomes almost seamless.

Smith describes the difference between wounds that have healed on skeletal remains and those still present at the time of death. He tells us that these wounds may not have been the cause of death, explaining that soft tissue wounds that are fatal may leave no trace on the skeleton.

He also addresses the intriguing question of when war, as we understand it today, started. His conclusion is that it developed not as a single explosion, but by slow incremental steps because of changes in human behaviour. He argues that there was never a golden age when we lived in peace and harmony, but that men have been killing each other with weapons since the earliest times, and he supports this contention with convincing evidence. The possibility that the first weapons were made for hunting animals and were subsequently used to kill fellow humans as a deliberate act is discussed. He states that many of the wounds found on early skeletons could be the result of accidents. However, he also points out that there are too many for them all to be accidental, and concludes that many were homicides. Evidence that different human groups tried to annihilate each other has been found in the 'Pit of Bones', that dates back 400,000 years, at Atapuerca in northern Spain. He goes on to discuss how the advent of the use of metal produced a different category of wound on skeletons from those made by stone weapons. He also asserts that the use of metal weapons made the taking of heads as trophies much easier. This gives rise to something uniquely human – that is, says Dr Smith, 'the use of violence as a means of communication'.

This well researched, well written book is recommended for archaeologists, military historians and all those interested in the development of human kind.
David Sim

 

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