How to kill with a Neolithic club

University of Edinburgh researchers have gone full CSI to discover how a Neolithic artifact could have been used to inflict fatal damage on a human skull. We don’t know much about what kind of weapons Neolithic people deployed to kill each other. Skulls have been found bearing the tell-tale signs of blunt force trauma, but objects that are clearly identifiable as weapons are thin on the ground. There are all kinds of weapons in the archaeological record from the Bronze and Iron Age periods — daggers, swords, pointy things made for the express purpose of person-to-person combat — but Stone Age objects like bows and arrows, clubs and axes are more ambiguous. They could be hunting tools, intended to injure or kill animals, or work tools.

There hasn’t been a great deal of research into what implements might have inflicted the cranial blunt force trauma wounds seen in the Neolithic osteological record, so the UoE’s Meaghan Dyer and Linda Fibiger turned to experimental forensic testing not unlike the methods dramatized in more or less ludicrous ways on TV shows like CSI. They chose not to opt for animal carcasses (of questionable accuracy) and human cadavers (of questionable medical ethics). They took a more cutting edge approach, employing a synthetic polyurethane “skin-skull-brain” model which unlike the animal carcasses accurately replicates human cranial morphology and unlike the cadavers does not require the violent treatment of human remains. This is the first use of the synthetic model in an experimental investigation of Neolithic blunt force trauma.

The weapon of choice for this test was a replica of the Thames Beater, an alder club recovered from the River Thames near London’s Chelsea neighborhood that was radiocarbon dated to 4660 ± 50 before the present, towards the end of the Neolithic period (about 7000 to 2000 B.C.). It was a very rare find, one of only a small number of Neolithic clubs to survive in Britain until the present, and is now in the Museum of London. Cracked and chipped from its advanced age, the Thames Beater is reminiscent of a busted cricket bat with an angled wooden blade tapering down to a thinner barrel and capped with a round pommel. It was more than two feet long when it was made.

The research team commissioned master carpenter David Lewis of Pelynt, Cornwall, to recreate the piece as it was 4600 years ago. He used alder wood and reproduced the weight, shape, dimensions and every other known aspect of the object to make the experiment as accurate as possible. Two skin-skull-brain models of different thicknesses to account for human variance (one 5mm thick, one 7mm) were created in Switzerland from polyurethane spheres coated in rubber skin. They left a hole open in the bottom for the researchers to introduce brain-simulating ballistics gelatin.

Then it was show time. One of the research assistants was the lucky wielder of the replica Thames Beater.

Once constructed the skin-skull-brain spheres were placed on an elevated platform 108.0cm high, supported on a cork ring 3.1cm tall and 13.8cm in diameter. The hole in the sphere was placed facing down. A right-handed adult male, 30 years old, 193.0cm tall and 88.5kg carried out the strikes.

Two types of blows were used to investigate any variable fracture patterns produced by different areas of the club. Figure four shows the hand positions for the pommel blow and the double-handed blade strike. For the doubled handed strikes with the blade, the club was swung into the air and down onto the skin-skull-brain model, contacting at the end of the blade. The blows with the pommel end of the club, had the club drawn up and the pommel aimed at the skin-skull-brain model. The strikes with the pommel had a notable decrease in force.

The skin-skull-brain models amply proved their worth, producing depression fractures deep enough to displace bone and radiating fractures that spread around the spheres. These are the wounds you’d expect to see in blunt force trauma. The pommel blows were particularly effective, creating large linear fractures extending outwards from the impact point. When the results were compared with the trauma evident on Neolithic skulls, they matched, in one case all but perfectly.

The depression fractures formed by the double-handed blade strikes to the skin-skull-brain models have significant resemblance to examples of diagnosed intentional blunt force trauma in the Neolithic osteological record. The fracture morphology, shape of displaced fragments and the beveled fracture edges produced in both spheres match very closely with trauma hypothetically linked to wooden club weapons (Teschler-Nicola et al. 1996; Schulting and Wysocki 2005: 125; Teschler-Nicola 2012: 108). This experimental study successfully demonstrates the accuracy of this summation, most notably with the remarkable match found in the 7mm thick sphere.

The fractures present on the 7mm sphere bear remarkable similarity to injuries in Individual 3, a 35-40 year old male from the Neolithic Austrian site of Asparn/Schletz (Teschler-Nicola et al. 1996; Teschler-Nicola 2012: 107). As seen in Figure 8, both skulls have a long thin depression site near the top of the skull, with several radiating fractures. The impact sites on both also have one straight and one slightly curved border. This is a remarkable match between the archaeological record and the experimental results.

The study breaks as much ground as it did polyurethane spheres. It confirms the viability of the models in doing this kind of experimental testing and can be applied to osteological remains from many time periods and contexts.

9 thoughts on “How to kill with a Neolithic club

  1. There are plenty of Neolithic/ Proto-historic First Nations wooden clubs in collections in North America, from “rabbit sticks” to obsidian and chert edged “swords” that could split you from head to crotch.

    In my youth the ash “Louisville Slugger” baseball bat was the preferred collection means of loan sharks and the bag man of the neighborhood bookie. No one paid attention to a guy with a baseball bat walking down the street. It was the preferred kneecapping device of it’s era. Then came the cost saving ultra-light aluminum bat, and it was back to hammers, hunks of pipe, and small caliber pistols to give deadbeats that lifelong limp that makes them easy to spot.

    The upside is there are very few people who meet their death by baseball bat in the U.S. In the hands of someone with bad intentions, a 2 lb. bat in untrained hands can dispatch a man w/ a single blow.

    Give me few hours and I’ll show anyone who is able how handle someone with a 2×2 by 2 feet length of pine framing stock. Half a dollar for a fine close quarters weapon. As the old saying goes, “You can’t beat this deal with a stick.”

  2. There is an Early Bronze Age battle site from 3300 years ago in northern Germany, at the rather boggy Tollense river, where something like the Battle of Stirling Bridge took place -there was a wooden ‘bridge’ construction dated 1700 BC- with an estimated 4000 participants, an estimated victim number of more than 750, and even a fraction of the area revealed already more than 125 bodies, a few wooden clubs and several crashed skulls were discovered.

    Seemingly, millet eating Southerners -at a carefully selected site- met an organized ‘army’ of locals, and the battle seems to have taken several days, as there were victims with apparently healing wounds.

  3. From my days of growing up on the South Side of Chicago I can verify Bruce T’s comments.

    A club or a longer mass weapon like a quarter staff can also quickly inflict disabling, non-lethal injuries e.g. blows to the point of the shoulder, collar bone, side of the knee, etc.. See, e.g. what a trained person with a night stick or baton can do.

  4. George, do you remember when all the thugs switched to golf irons as “walking sticks” when aluminum bats took over the market? That one was tougher to explain to the cops as there wasn’t a golf course within 10 miles of where I lived. The golf club era didn’t last long.

    As you said, a young teenager could disable a grown man with a well placed blow with a hardwood pole. That’s likely one of the reasons quarter and half staffs were used by armies well into the early modern era. You could train young troops w/ a few basic moves and counters in a short period with easily obtained materials. They were all farm boys used to handling hoes, shovels, flails, etc..

  5. “He used alder wood and reproduced the weight, shape, dimensions and every other known aspect of the object to make the experiment as accurate as possible.”

    Well, I am not sure what this “master carpenter” was looking at when replicating the club….but it certainly was not the Thames Beater!
    Of course for purposes of the experiment it was just fine….but a blind third grader could have made a better copy than that.

  6. OK, Rayray, how well would your blind third grader do with no metal wood working tools? A fine finish on everyday wooden artifacts is IMO a much later common condition. Stone can be very sharp but a sharp stone is usually a brittle stone and working something like a hard wood is pretty difficult.

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