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Violence less widespread in ancient Mesopotamia than previously believed


Analysis of the bone remains in ancient Mesopotamia suggests that physical violence in the area was less common than suggested by historical sources, argues bioarchaeologist Dr. Arkadiusz Sołtysiak.

Violence less widespread in ancient Mesopotamia than previously believed
Skull with traces of healed trauma (the arrow) from Tell Majnuna, Syria, late Chalcolithic (c. 3,500 BC)
[Credit: A. Sołtysiak]
Dr. Sołtysiak from the Institute of Archaeology, University of Warsaw, reviewed all publications concerning the burial grounds in Mesopotamia, the ancient land in the Middle East, located in the basin of the Tigris and Euphrates (mainly present territory of Iraq and Syria).

Analysed skeletons come from the period covering 10 thousand years, from the Neolithic, i.e. the introduction of agriculture - to the present day, the beginning of the 20th century.

The publications collected by Sołtysiak contain information on more than 1,200 skeletons. The scientist focused on descriptions of traces of healed skull injuries - injuries that did not directly lead to death. Traces of such injuries followed by recovery are much easier to identify than traces of a fatal injury (which are often very similar to the changes occurring after death, for example due to a specific funerary ritual or damage to the bones in the tomb).

"The incidence of such injuries in Mesopotamia is clearly lower than in other parts of the Middle East, and clearly decreases with the formation of the first states" - Arkadiusz Sołtysiak said in an interview with PAP. The scientist also found that most of the healed head injuries occured in the outskirts of Mesopotamia, with almost no such cases in the central part. Historically, the risk of skull injury for the average inhabitant of Mesopotamia was therefore low, significantly lower than in Armenia and the Levant, the scientist believes.

Violence less widespread in ancient Mesopotamia than previously believed
Map of Mesopotamia showing location of sites mentioned in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology paper 
[Credit: A. Sołtysiak]
This fact - according to the researcher - may be the result of the existence of a strong, centralized state authority. "The authorities were able to effectively minimize violence within a single state organism. The rulers had the right to administer justice, and ensured that any conflicts between the subjects would not lead to violence". suggested the bioarchaeologist.

"Many texts from ancient Mesopotamia contain colourful descriptions of wars and other physical atrocities, such as mass beheadings or stripping the skin. Meanwhile, bioarchaeology research paints the picture of a community, in which physical violence appeared to be rather uncommon", noted the researcher .

The number of cemeteries from the last 10 thousand years that had been studied and described by scientists, proved to be surprisingly small. To date, researchers have published data on the bone remains from only 25 cemeteries.

"This shows that the degree of development of bioarchaeology in Mesopotamia is quite low, especially when compared to Europe or North America", commented Sołtysiak. There are several reasons for this situation, the main one being that Syria and Iraq are politically unstable. "The work of archaeologists in these countries is often impossible due to armed conflicts", he added.

The results of Arkadiusz Sołtysiak's research have been published in a special issue of International Journal of Osteoarchaeology dedicated to violence.

Source: PAP - Science and Scholarship in Poland [April 06, 2017]
TANN

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