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Violence in the Neolithic

Violence in the Neolithic

The traditional, ingrained, sometimes even ideal concept of the Central European Neolithic society being easygoing, perhaps even “paradise”, for the early sedentary farmers has been fading during the last two decades. The change in the discourse took place based on the distinct, though solitary evidence of violent behaviour that was reflected in several mass graves at certain specific settlements. We will try here to explain this evidence, which in fact is essential for understanding the level and the extent of the violence that occurs in the Central European Neolithic. The archaeological findings with such a meaningful value include weapons, the evidence of the injuries that have been caused by them and the actual fortifications of the settlements.

Regarded as weapons in Neolithic times could be stone tools (i.e. axes, adzes, coshes and spikes), the primary utilisation of which was mainly for processing timber or for hunting. Therefore they are not specialised weapons that can be additionally be used as a means of aggression, as is illustrated by the signs of injuries that were found on human skeletons in Talheim or in Schletz, for example. As objects for use in combat it is not possible to even rule out the possible use of items made from organic materials that have not survived to the present day. An analysis of the burial sites and the burial equipment of the first farmers indicates a clear tendency to associate stone tools from male graves, for example in Vedrovice, Elsloo and Niedermerz, with their use in combat accepted as a traditionally masculine activity.

In regard to any concept of the end of the Early Neolithic Age representing a period of crisis and conflicts the primary and also unique locations include the walled settlement in Schletz (Austria) where the remains of individuals who were killed violently were left in a ditch in Talheim (this mass grave appears to represent the entire population of a smaller obviously assaulted community) and also the enclosed settlement in Darion. As an example of violent conflict this list was originally complemented by the settlement in Herxheim, though current research clearly attributes this event to the ritual sphere, albeit that an essential part of it was the destruction of human skeletons and of artefacts.

The map of the key sites that are referred to in the text, that is dedicated to war, violence and protection, with the geographic range of the Linear Pottery culture as a background.
The map of the key sites that are referred to in the text, that is dedicated to war, violence and protection, with the geographic range of the Linear Pottery culture as a background.

The evidence of tension and probably also of the hierarchisation of Neolithic society comprises findings from several dozen walled settlements and complexes both in Western Europe (in Germany, France, the Netherlands and Belgium) and, though to a lesser extent, also in Moravia, Austria, Hungary and what is now the Slovak Republic. It seems that the result of continuing change in society at the cusp of the 6th and the 5th millennium BC may also represent examples of somewhat exceptionally enclosed settlements of the Late Neolithic period, in Kolín Šťáralka, for example, and the rare documentation of acts of violence against individuals. For example a woman with a fatal injury to her scalp, apparently after having been hit with the blade of a polished stone axe, who was found in a grave close to Roundel 1 in Kolín.

The first walled settlements were already known during the Pre-Pottery Neolithic period in the Near East that preceded the development of Central Europe by several millennia. These settlements include, for example, Jericho with its monumental castle wall and its stone towers and some very diverse interpretations of them. These range from the defensive function, via flood protection to the interpretation of the fortification as a sacred space. Also potentially considered as a certain form of fortification of the area of the settlement can be the contiguous arrangement of houses as at Catal Hüyük or as in Beidha, for example, where the roofs were used as pathways and the interiors of the houses were accessible by ladders that were hung from the roofs. In Thessaly walled settlements with moats can be found in Sesklo and in Dimini, for example, which, however, are not of a defensive nature. The dividing line between the different cultural traditions and the forms of protection and of architecture is represented by the mountains of the northern Balkans, where, as part of the Vinca culture, it is possible to observe a very different type of protection. There are settlements that are surrounded either by a trench or by a palisade and it is possible to state that this type of enclosure appeared throughout the entire neolithisation process of Europe.

The trenched Neolithic sites of the Linear Pottery culture (LBK) represent the oldest monumental structures in Europe. They preceded the famous Stonehenge and other such structures in the British Isles by more than two millennia and the Late Neolithic roundels by roughly five centuries. At their core the Neolithic protections are analogous, i.e. they define the position spatially by means of a trench or a palisade or a combination of both. In their details, however, they differ in the number of interruptions of the trenches (which are interpreted as being entrances), in the nature of their interior surfaces (even in regard to the individual sites and the stage of the settlement) and in the size and the shape of the groundplan, ranging from an almost regular circle via an oval and an almost rectangular structure. The protection of settlements already commenced during the early stage of the LBK (e.g. Eitzum, Eisleben), but the number of walled settlements increased and culminated in the late stage and then the terminal stage. The walled settlements can be found not just in the peripheral zones of the LBK area, but also in the central regions, in particular in the Rhineland.

These examples suggest that the significance of the Neolithic circular protective enclosures was not identical and therefore it is not possible to find a single generalising interpretive model. Their function varies not only in accordance with the geographic location, but also based on the degree of significance of the settlement or on the nature of the community, while the finding context enables explaining the Neolithic enclosures on the basis of various differing hypotheses.


Want to learn more?

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