What were the major causes of death and injuries during and after ancient battles?

Lacerations and dying throughout prehistoric, Egyptian and Mediterranean times taking under special consideration the psychological impact on the individual

Essay, 2008
33 Pages, Grade: 75 Punkte = 1,7


(...) all infantry actions, even those fought in the closest of close order, are not, in the last resort, combats of mass against mass, but the sum of many combats of individuals – one against one, one against two, three against five. This must be so, for the very simple reason that the weapons (...) are of

very limited range and effect.” 1

As Keegan suggest in his Face of Battle – one of the most reviewed, criticized, but also honoured publication stressing warfare and its impact on the single warrior facing both the receipt of rewards and death – that any kind of combat appears to be an individual conflict, either. This circumstance has not been changed over all periods of violent actions between human beings. For the last decades, even the myth of a peaceful prehistoric community has been declared to be wrong-turned.2 However only few historical3, anthropological4 or sociological/psychological5 works seem to be of large interest questioning the causes of death, fatal wounds and injuries throughout a war, even though this (my Italics) might be a timeless interrogation. This paper, hence, will not demand to revolutionize the hiatus of research on the central question, but it attempts to allow an insight into the circumstances of prehistoric, Egyptian and Mediterranean warfare. By underlining especially the most common lesions of these periods as well as pointing out the reasons behind apparently unnecessary casualties, it will give a short introduction to a warrior’s/soldier’s particular behaviour while battling. Additionally the paper tries to offer both various arguments, which may support Keegan’s intention referring above and – which appears to be even more important – a critical view to the reader to obtain an objective review. As a result, it will be undoubtedly significant to elucidate as much archaeological, textual and visual sources as possible6 including the interpretative utilization of currently discussed examines due to the central of the paper.

Prehistoric warfare was underestimated in perspectives of offering only little substantial evidence stressing the causes of death and injuries during and after battle actions for a long time. This lack of research was distinctively correlated with the intention of pacified hunter- gatherer communities.7 Therefore significant investigations did not seem to be necessary in reflection on learning more about Australopethines’, Neanderthals’, and especially Homo erectus ’ social and archetypal violent behaviour.8 However this questionable view of traditional scholarship has radically changed since the late 19th Century. For the last decades – obviously especially since the end of the 20th Century – archaeological9, military10, cultural11 as well as evolutionary, biological12 and social (anthropological)13 studies have increased. Consequently, they underlined the importance of doing research on prehistoric warfare. In this case Keeley’s publication14 rapidly changed the conventional interpretation of prehistoric communities living together in peace and harmony.15

Hence the most certain – and unfortunately the almost only – sources concerning the causes of death and injury during and after prehistoric battles are archaeological findings.16 There are currently only few data obtainable given by tomb elucidations.17 As a result observations are hardly limited to both human remains and their characteristically deformations which might be evident for prehistoric violence, and weapons utilized during the early times of human being. Archaeological supplies can be categorized into various groups of being conspicuous. Typical findings of skeletons regarding prehistoric warfare show no grave inclusions18, several types of bondage or human remains being hobbled with ropes19, as well as a huge amount of wounds often received from different directions. Other skeletal information which might be the result of violent actions are injuries indicating the victim’s penetration by more than one person – often illustrated by an unsymmetrical arrangement of lesions20 or insects remaining on the bones showing that the killed was left unburied.21 Subsequently there are three major evidence reflecting on lacerations, which could be caused by penetration:

a) The trauma is frequently due to a number of projectiles being embedded. Osgood i.e. indicates a male found at Stonehenge dated from the Early Bronze Age that has been killed by three peri-mortem injuries.22 Lesions grounded by spears or arrows mainly elucidate impacts of close-ranged shots with projectiles.23 Apart from the wounds of the Stonehenge male, Thorpe also stresses the different directions of the fatal shots.24

b) Traumatic lesions caused by bladed weapons mainly result in sharp force wounds. Such lacerations are typical basis of violent death dated from the Lower and Middle Palaeolithic, i.e. from Swanscombe (Britain), Ehringsdorf (Germany) or Fontéchevade (France).25 Sharp force abrasions are significant for being peri-mortem and, therefore, usually a result of violent impacts especially on the skull of the victim.

c) Blunt force wounds including crushed bones are archetypal verifications of club-like weapons and lead to death quickly.26 These scratches can be identified by investigating archaeological sources dated from the Mesolithic, i.e. findings in North America are seen as typical evidence for blunt force injuries due to the settlement of hunter-gatherer communities.27 Kennewick Man being excavated in Washington State28, the skeleton of Grimes Point's Teenage Male (Nevada), and Spirit Cave Man found in Nevada29 have trails of the named wounds.30 Archaeological substantiations for an enlargement of conflicts can also be found in Central Europe. In Germany, for example plenty of remains of spears and arrows are evident for a violent development during the Mesolithic period.31

Another surveillance stressing the causes of death or major injuries during or after prehistoric battles is also noteworthy: signs of cannibalism might be evident for battle actions, as they ought to illustrate foraging surviving strategies. As Fernández- Jalvo/Díez/Cáceres/Rosell point out, the problem of cannibalism makes it very difficult to suggest an injury to be grounded in violent behaviour – additionally meaning the external action of an actual enemy.32 Hence the controversy dealing with prehistoric surviving methods is a role model regarding further problems stressing the limits of modern research on prehistoric warfare.33 An extra observation is done by Klein: although there is a huge amount of evidence available concerning major lesions during Neanderthals’ period, it is widely discussed, whether these archaeological sources, i.e. hollowed out at La Chapelle- aux-Saints (France) or Neander Thal (Germany) actually illustrate a higher level of conflicts (or rather actual warfare), or if such discoveries are mainly details reflecting Neanderthals’ archetypal short-range hunting methods.34

Thus skeletal indications have to be interpreted carefully because they may not directly emphasize injuries caused by battle actions. Plenty of traumas could also be discernible for accidents or animal attacks.35 Other lacerations would even lead to wrong-turn investigations as they were influenced by environmental impacts like out-washing or mud-flushing.36 Major wounds causing death might be a result of ritualism rather than battle actions, either. Such lesions are, however, hard to identify and slow down the current abilities of certain research.37 Additionally it is also an obstacle to outline whether an excavated bone essentially shows a peri-mortem or a post-mortem injury.

As a result the most significant causes of death and lacerations during and after prehistoric battle actions may be as follows: traumatic injuries caused by bladed, club-like, or pointed weapons/projectiles, the bondage of skeletons which probably illustrates execution or the beating of defeated enemies, as well as reprisal and vengeance. In addition ritual killing stressing a battle’s preparation (meaning the sacrifice of members of the own community) or sacrificing a captured enemy could be likely.38 Acts of cannibalism as an archetypal part of foraging surviving strategies ought to be evident for being killed after a battle, too (thereby it is questionable, if such methods were only used with wounded individuals). The excavation of both mass graves – such as the findings of Tormarton in southwest England39 – and specifically individual examples like Kennewick Man or Spirit Cave Man40 might allow – more or less – certain conclusions. Nonetheless modern archaeologists will always have to face significant limitations of research stressing prehistoric warfare.41

The availability of sources stressing causes of death and laceration during and after battles changes during the course of the pharaonic period in ancient Egypt. Several tomb scenes and reliefs give detailed information about the types of utilized strategies and kinds of wounds.42 Apart from visual evidence43, textual supplies become more important. Both Edwin Smith Papyrus – dated from c. 1600 B.C., Sixteenth/Seventeenth Dynasties44 – and Ebers Papyrus – dated from the Middle Kingdom45 – offer medical insights into ancient Egyptian dealings with major wounds in general. However it is questionable, whether particularly Ebers Papyrus emphasizes actually certain data by doing research on surgical practice. Otherwise Edwin Smith Papyrus is very detailed and obviously reliable. It consists of 48 cases with descriptions of mainly treating wounds of the head and the torso. As the most given lacerations may be distinctively related to accidents of daily life, few examples, hence, could probably elucidate injuries of Egyptian warfare, either. The high frequency of feuds between the rulers of Sixteenth/Seventeenth Dynasties in Thebes and their direct enemies of Fifteenth Dynasty controlling the northern part of Egypt possibly will be a result of the writing of this papyrus.46 Thus Edwin Smith Papyrus characterises some lacks of data, too: i.e. further evidence for major lesions excluding traumatic wounds cannot be identified by interpreting the text, which seems to be a general problem of Egyptian papyri during the course of the pharaonic period.47

Besides artistic and textual substantiations a huge amount of archaeological findings are obtainable. Several mummified human remains tender certain insights into Egyptian warfare, while excavations of weapons lead to conclusions pointing out the mentioned changes of the wars’ definition, the putting together of troops, and the metamorphism of injuries as a result of tactical and weaponry improvements.48 Such progresses include the utilization of bows and arrows49, and the invention of battle-axes50 which could cause archetypal lacerations as being elucidated in Edwin Smith Papyrus. Various other short-range weapons like swords, spears as well as spear cases, and shields have also been found.51

Apart from fatal impacts of short-distance and long-range warheads, fractures and gross disruptions were still the most common causes of battle injuries and death.52 Such wounds can be examined due to mummified remains, i.e. the mummy of Nesiamun dated from c. 700 B.C., Twenty-fifth Dynasty being excavated at Thebes, Deir el-Bahri.53 Although it is widely discussed, whether the lesions of Nesiamun have actually caused his death, there are conclusions that suggest the impact of a horse.54 Otherwise a military casualty is also likely due to the fractures of the skull and the upper part of the torso particularly. Besides a possible accident grounding Nesiamun’s decease is discussed as well. The results, however, of modern technological opportunities cannot radically limit the problems of archaeology stressing wounds or death. The mummy of Nesiamun is a momentous example illustrating both the limitations of research and the importance of CAT’s and other computer- based machineries to receive new information and to obtain answers regarding scientific questions of nearly all areas of examine.

In general the causes of injuries and death during a battle changed in comparison to prehistoric warfare55: the most common lesions are grounded in close-quarter combats; the number of fractures generally increased, too. Additionally there is a ‘specific kind of death’ during the course of the pharaonic period, as it is estimated by Nunn.56 Egyptian physicians utilized (my Italics) criminals and captured enemies to do further medical research. These methods including investigations of the brain and other anatomical contributions, i.e. cranial nerves, are likely in the early Third Century B.C. done by Herophilus in Alexandria.57 Although being regarded as cruel and inhuman medical observations – as these techniques undoubtedly were, such studies were fundamental to allow modern scientists significant insights into ancient Egyptian medicine – such as Edwin Smith or Ebers papyri.

The most detailed information stressing the causes of death and injuries during and after a battle are available from the ancient Mediterranean world. This circumstance is based on plenty of classical sources that enclose historiographic58, literary/philosophical59, and several textual supplies due to both the attempt of justifying wars60 and the individualistic illustration of combat’s cruelness.61 Because of the better accessibility of sources during ancient Mediterranean history a huge amount of modern studies are obtainable, as well. This advantage62 (my Italics) lead to various examines being very specific and, therefore, make it possible to get distinctive insights into ancient warfare.63 However the knowledge of a large number of revises seems to be helpful and, secondly, may simplify one’s research, but it does not always have to be the case. In fact the interpreter of sources (not necessarily ancient texts, but any type of textual, visual and archaeological materials) has to be widely critical, objective, and, as a result, the scholar (and more often the student) has to do much more research on the background of utilized data.64 Otherwise the reception of classical sources could be critical, too.


1 Keegan, J.: The Face of Battle. London 1976, p. 100. In the following cit. as Keegan 1976.

2 See Keeley, L. H.: War Before Civilization. The myth of the peaceful savage. Oxford/New York 1996.

3 See again Keegan, J.: A History of Warfare. London 1993. In the following cit. as Keegan 1993.

4 See esp. Aiello; L. C.; Dunbar, R. I. M.: Neocortex size, group size, and the evolution of language in the hominids. Current Anthropology 34 (1993), pp. 184-193.

5 See esp. Lee, A. D.: War in late Antiquity. A social History. Malden/Oxford 2007. See also Shalit, B.: The

Psychology of Conflict and Combat. London/New York/Westport 1988.

6 See esp. “lndex of Figures and Diagrams”.

7 Thorpe, I. J. N.: The ancient origins of warfare and violence. In: Parker Pearson, M.; Thorpe, I. J. N. (eds.): Warfare, Violence and Slavery in Prehistory. British Archaeological Reports International Series 1374 (2005), Oxford, pp.1-18, p. 1.

8 Wrangham, R. W.: The evolution of coalitionary killing. Yearbook of Physical Anthropology 42 (1999), pp. 1- 30, pp. 2-5. Aiello; Dunbar, pp. 184-186.

9 See Keeley. See also Osgood, R.: The dead of Tormarton − Middle Bronze Age combat victims? In: Parker Pearson, M.; Thorpe, I. J. N. (eds.): Warfare, Violence and Slavery in Prehistory. British Archaeological Reports International Series 1374 (2005), Oxford, pp. 139-144.

10 See Keegan 1976. See also Keegan 1993. See furthermore O’Connell, R. L.: Ride of the Second Horseman. Oxford 1995.

11 See Dawson, D.: Evolutionary theory and group selection. The question of warfare. History and Theory 38 (1999), pp. 79-100. See furthermore Dunbar, R. I. M.: The Social Brain Hypothesis. Evolutionary Anthropology 6 (1998), pp. 178-190.

12 See Wrangham. See also Van der Dennen, J.: The Origin of War. The evolution of a male-coalitional reproductive strategy. Groningen 1995. See furthermore Berger, T. D.; Trinkaus, E.: Patterns of trauma among the Neanderthals. Journal of Archaeological Science 22 (1995), pp. 841-852.

13 See Kelly, R. C.: Warless Societies and the Origin of War. Ann Arbour/Michigan 2000. See furthermore Fernández-Jalvo, Y.; Díez, J. C.; Cáceres, I.; Rosell, J.: Human cannibalism in the early Pleistocene of Europe. Journal of Human Evolution 37 (1999), pp. 591-622.

14 See Keeley.

15 Thorpe, p. 1. Knüsel, C. J.: The physical evidence of warfare − subtle stigmata? In: Parker Pearson, M.; Thorpe, I. J. N. (eds.): Warfare, Violence and Slavery in Prehistory. British Archaeological Reports International Series 1374 (2005), Oxford, pp.49-65, pp. 49-51.

16 For a critical reflection on the utilization of archaeological sources see later arguments.

17 Thorpe, pp. 2-3.

18 Osgood, p. 141.

19 For various experimentally archaeological studies see esp. Aldhouse-Green, M.: Ritual bondage, violence, slavery and sacrifice in later European prehistory. In: Parker Pearson, M.; Thorpe, I. J. N. (eds.): Warfare, Violence and Slavery in Prehistory. British Archaeological Reports International Series 1374 (2005), Oxford, pp. 155-163, p. 156. See also fig. 1: “Human remains probably being bounded. Excavated at Danebury, Hampshire”.

20 Thorpe, pp. 8-9. Van der Dennen, pp. 18-23.

21 Knüsel, p. 60.

22 Osgood, p. 144.

23 Illustrating such lacerations see esp. fig 2: “Spear points found nearby the dead of Tormarton in south Gloucestershire. A typical cause of injury or death during the Middle Bronze Age”.

24 Thorpe, p. 10. See esp. fig. 3: “Penetrating wound from a projectile or a pointed weapon indicated as a peri- mortem lesion. Frontal bone found at the mass grave near the site of the battle of Towton dated from 29th of March 1461”.

25 See esp. fig. 4: “A peri-mortem sharp force trauma indicated to be the result of a bladed weapon. Skull found at the mass grave near the site of the battle of Towton dated from 29th of March 1461”. I.e. Swanscombe gives evidence for individual cases of healed injuries including heavy lacerations of the skull. The victim found at Ehringsdorf shows a fatal lesion of the forehead, while a hole in the skullcap probably caused the death of the human excavated at Fontéchevade. Thorpe, p. 6. Knüsel, pp. 51 and 55.

26 See esp. fig. 5: “A blunt force trauma elucidating crushing injuries being indicated as a peri-mortem depressed fracture. Bone found at the mass grave near the site of the battle of Towton dated from 29th of March 1461”.

27 Thorpe, pp. 8-9.

28 See esp. fig. 6: “Head of Kennewick Man excavated at Washington State dated from the Mesolithic”.

29 See esp. fig. 7: “Reconstruction of the head of Spirit Cave Man excavated at Nevada dated from the Mesolithic”.

30 Kennewick Man shows a dent in the forehead, a healing laceration on the temple as well as fractured ribs and few minor injuries. A fracture of the skull and two ruptured discs in the spine are likely having caused the death of Spirit Cave Man. Thorpe, pp. 8-9.

31 Guilaine, J.; Zammit, J.: Le Sentier de la Guerre. Paris 2001, pp. 99-104.

32 Fernández-Jalvo/Díez/Cáceres/Rosell, pp. 618-621.

33 Knüsel, p. 49. Keeley, pp. 18-26. Osgood, pp. 139-141.

34 See esp. Berger, T. D.; Trinkaus, E.: Patterns of trauma among the Neanderthals. Journal of Archaeological Science 22 (1995), pp. 841-852.

35 Knüsel, p. 51.

36 Osgood, pp. 143-144.

37 See esp. Fernández-Jalvo/Díez/Cáceres/Rosell.

38 See esp. diagram 1: “Most common lesions during prehistoric times”.

39 Osgood, p. 139.

40 Thorpe, pp. 8-9.

41 Knüsel, pp. 60-61.

42 It is common that various battle strategies and tactics lead to different injuries. During prehistoric times, the main lesions of violent actions were fractures − especially of the skull and the upper part of the body. As significant changes like technological inventions, better and lighter equipment as well as modified unit’s movements and military skills in general developed the face of warfare − more or less − transformed into battles of troops rather than individual fights. Therefore the causes of injuries also changed. Some significant, but likewise individual exceptions will be investigated in the following. Regarding the specification of techniques in various armies see esp. Sidebottom, pp. 82-99. See also Alston, pp. 187-189.

43 See esp. fig. 8: “Relief elucidating a pharaoh killing Syrian enemies. Scene dated from the reign of Amenhotep II, c. 1427-1400, Eighteenth Dynasty, excavated at Thebes, el-Asasif”.

44 Allen, J. P.: The Art of Medicine in Ancient Egypt. With an Essay by D. T. Mininberg. London/New Haven/New York 2005, pp. 9 and 70-71.

45 Nunn, J. F.: Ancient Egyptian Medicine. London 1996, p. 190.

46 Allen, p. 7.

47 Nunn, p. 200.

48 Watson, G. R.: The Roman soldier. Bath 1981 (First Published 1969), pp. 118-119. Lee, pp. 123-125.

49 See esp. fig. 9: “A bow excavated from the tomb of Senenmut dated from c. 1460 B.C., Eighteenth Dynasty, Thebes, Sheikh Abd el-Qurna and several arrows dated from c. 1900-1800 B.C., Twelfth Dynasty being typical weapons used by Egyptian warriors”.

50 See esp. fig. 10: “A battle axe − partly reconstructed − found at the family tomb of an Egyptian official dated from 1460 B.C., Eighteenth Dynasty, Thebes, el-Asasif”.

51 See esp. fig. 11: “Reconstructions of spears, spear cases, and a shield dated from c. 1950 B.C., Twelfth Dynasty allowing short-distance combats”.

52 By observing esp. fig. 8: “Relief elucidating a pharaoh killing Syrian enemies. Scene dated from the reign of Amenhotep II, c. 1427-1400, Eighteenth Dynasty, excavated at Thebes, el-Asasif”, it can be pointed out that such fractures as of the upper part of the body were mainly caused by horses or chariots.

53 See esp. fig. 12: “The computer-assisted tomography (CAT) of the mummy of Nesiamun showing fractures of the skull, his right hummers and other injuries probably causing his death”.

54 Allen, pp. 36-37.

55 See esp. Shalit regarding the importance of psychology during a battle. In comparison see Wrangham, pp. 22-27.

56 Nunn, p. 207.

57 Nunn, p. 207.

58 See i.e. Diodorus: The Library of History, Book V.29. In: Diodorus of Sicily. The Library of History. With an English Translation by C. H. Oldfather. Vol. III. London 1952 (First Published 1939); Plutarch: Sertorius, 3. In: Plutarch’s Lives. The Translation called Dryden’s. Corrected from the Greek and revised by A. H. Clough. Vol. II. Liverpool 1883; Appian: Iberike, I.2.82 (Celtiberian War 137-136 B.C.). In: Appian. Wars of the Romans in Iberia. Iberike. With an Introduction, Translation and Commentary by J. S. Richardson. Warminster 2000.

59 See for example Lucretius: The way things are. The De Rerum Natura. Translated by R. Humphries. Indiana 1968; Plato: Plato in Twelve Volumes. Vols. 5 & 6. Translated by P. Shorey. Cambridge/London 1969; Aristotle: Aristotle in 23 Volumes. Vol. 22. Translated by J. H. Freese. Cambridge/London 1926.

60 In parts see i.e. Tacitus: Annals, Book II.46. In: The Annals of Tacitus. Books I-VI. Edited with a Commentary by F. R. D. Goodyear. Vol. II. Cambridge/London a.o. 1981; Tacitus: Histories, Books I-IV. In: Tacitus. The Histories. With an English Translation by C. H. Moore in four Volumes. Cambridge/London 1951-1952 (First Published 1925-1937; Reprinted 1936-1937). See esp. Caesar: De bello Civili, libri III/VI. In: Caesar. The Civil Wars. With an English Translation by A. G. Peskett. London/New York 1951 (First Published 1914); Caesar : De bellum Gallicum, libri II-VII. In: Caesar. The Gallic War. With an English Translation by H. J. Edwards. Cambridge/London 1952 (First Published 1917).

61 See i.e. Josephus: The Jewish War, Books V-VII. In: Josephus. With an English Translation by H. St. J. Thackeray. Vol. III. London/New York 1956-1958 (First Published 1926-1943).

62 For some critical aspects regarding the number of publications and ancient sources see the following paraphrases.

63 Such specific publications are for example Goldsworthy, A. K.: The Roman army at War. 100 BC-AD 200. Oxford/New York 1998(First Published 1996); Edwards, C.: Death in ancient Rome. London/New Haven 2007; Spiegel, N .: War and peace in classical Greek literature. Jerusalem 1990.

64 The texts of Caesar i.e. suggest probably the best overview regarding the Roman army between First Century B.C. and AD First Century. Both De bellum Gallicum and De bello Civili offer a highly standardized Latin language, as well. But Caesar also utilized his commentaries and his successes in Britain and the Gallic area to justify the increasing costs of his campaigns. Besides, the commander attempted to scatter the problems of Rome’s domestic policy. This practice was common during the ancient warfare and, hence, is still used in modern times. By regarding Diodorus of Sicily and his Library of History, at least two aspects a very important to be noticed: firstly, the writer used to emphasize his texts as being the most comprehensive works concerning the historical development. Therefore Diodorus demanded to be the most significant author at his time. By having done this way, the Sicilian replaced several other authors, whose works seem to be lost. Secondly, Diodorus is widely criticized due to his type of research. Especially scholars of the Nineteenth Century judged the Sicilian by only copying the texts of a number of classical historians without pasting his own intentions. As a result Diodorus’ Library of History seems to be a list keeping as much data as possible. Both Caesar’s and Diodorus’ cases elucidate the importance of investigating an author’s political, social and cultural background as well as his relations to a specific topic.

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What were the major causes of death and injuries during and after ancient battles?
Lacerations and dying throughout prehistoric, Egyptian and Mediterranean times taking under special consideration the psychological impact on the individual
The University of Liverpool  (School of Archaeology, Classics and Egyptology)
Ancient Warfare
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What, Ancient, Warfare
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Holger Skorupa (Author), 2008, What were the major causes of death and injuries during and after ancient battles?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/121082


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