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Bioarchaeological and Forensic Perspectives on Violence: How Violent Death Is Interpreted from Skeletal Remains

April 2016 (120.2)

Book Review

Bioarchaeological and Forensic Perspectives on Violence: How Violent Death Is Interpreted from Skeletal Remains

Edited by Debra L. Martin and Cheryl P. Anderson (Cambridge Studies in Biological and Evolutionary Anthropology 67). Pp. xii + 329, figs. 61, tables 17. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2014. $99. ISBN 978-1-107-04544-6 (cloth).

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Interpersonal violence, one of the darker facets of human society, is pervasive, and its vestiges have been observed in skeletal remains dating as early as 36,000 years ago. Traditionally, there have been two approaches to the study of violence in human remains, that of bioarchaeology and that of forensic anthropology. Both are subdisciplines of biological anthropology: bioarchaeology combines the analysis of human bones with the reconstruction of the archaeological context, while forensic anthropology analyzes human bones within a recent historical or contemporary setting. Despite the similarities of these subdisciplines and their ability to inform each other, they are often separated within academic departments, professional conferences, and edited volumes (3).

Although violence has long been the subject of forensic anthropological studies (e.g., E. Kimmerle and J. Baraybar, eds., Skeletal Trauma: Identification of Injuries Resulting from Human Rights Abuse and Armed Conflict [Boca Raton, Fla. 2008]; N. Passalacqua and C. Rainwater, eds., Skeletal Trauma Analysis: Case Studies in Context [Chichester 2015]), bioarchaeological approaches to the topic are gaining traction (e.g., D. Martin, R. Harrod, and V. Pérez, eds., The Bioarchaeology of Violence [Gainesville, Fla. 2012]; C. Knüsel and M. Smith, eds., The Routledge Handbook of the Bioarchaeology of Human Conflict [New York 2014]). This volume takes the logical next step and weds the two approaches to provide examples of methods and theories used to interpret incidences of interpersonal violence. As such, it is the first compilation of case studies from both subdisciplines.

The volume is divided thematically into five parts. The first, “Introduction,” consists solely of the introductory essay written by the editors, Martin and Anderson. This chapter serves as a roadmap for the book, as it presents the intellectual genesis of the work, briefly discusses the state of the field, then shifts to describe the organization of the volume and provide summaries of its chapters. Part 2, “Overview and Innovative Methodologies,” is a collection of case studies that focus on new approaches and methods for the analysis of human remains. To ascertain the ages and sexes of the deceased individuals, Flohr et al. (ch. 2) examine adult femora from a purported battlefield (Middle Bronze Age, ca. 1200 B.C.E.) at the site of Weltzin 20 in the valley of the Tollense in northeastern Germany. Although the majority of the victims were young to middle-aged adult males, some females were also among the dead, suggesting that females were present either on or near the battlefield. The discovery of these female casualties prompts further discussion of gender roles in violent events and illustrates the utility of the femur, a robust and often well-preserved bone, in the determination of demographic attributes. In chapter 3, Kjellström and Hamilton study incidences of trauma on human remains recovered from the 1676 wreck of the Royal Swedish warship Kronan. Using standard forensic anthropological protocols, the authors examine skeletal elements that display evidence of trauma and conclude that the defects were unassociated with the events surrounding the sinking of the ship. Rather, they were postmortem injuries that were likely sustained during cannon recovery efforts that occurred six years after the loss of the ship—ultimately illustrating the importance of the careful consideration of defect patterning, historical context, and taphonomic factors.

Chapters 4 and 5 also employ forensic methodology, while chapter 6 is bioarchaeological. Stefan (ch. 4) closely examines gunshot wounds in order to determine whether they were inflicted by homicide or suicide and provides a detailed method for differentiating between the two. Seidel and Fulginiti (ch. 5) focus on the perpetrators and victims of dismemberment, revealing distinct commonalities in behavioral patterns. For example, most aggressors are male, know their victims, and dispatch them by strangulation, or occasionally through the use of firearms. Furthermore, by analyzing ethnographic and ethnohistoric information together with bioarchaeological data, Anderson (ch. 6) discerns that signs of trauma visible on some of the individuals buried in a cave in northern Mexico (ca. 1280–1400 C.E.) were caused by interpersonal violence, rather than disruptive taphonomic events (e.g., burial processes, ancestor veneration).

Part 3, “Ritual and Performative Violence,” also presents a collection of case studies. Harrod and Martin (ch. 7) explore the physical signs of captivity and slavery in skeletal remains from the southwestern United States (ca. 850–1150 C.E.). In their sample population, they discovered a number of individuals who died young and experienced numerous traumatic and pathological injuries during their lifetimes, providing further insight into expressions of power and the treatment of captives in this cultural context. Chapters 8 and 9 offer glimpses into fascinating societal practices of performative violence. Storey (ch. 8) examines the skull mask, a type of war trophy, and its connection to elite ideology and status in Maya society, while Torres-Rouff and King (ch. 9) consider antemortem nasal fractures from men and women at San Pedro de Atacama, concluding that face-to-face nonlethal combat might have been a socially sanctioned method for adult conflict resolution. Finally, through the analysis of a historical forensic case, Duncan and Stojanowski (ch. 10) explore the role of anthropologists in extrapolating and perpetuating the social lives (or biographies) of past bodies.

Part 4, “Violence and Identity,” examines the relationships between identity, culture, and group violence. Bauer-Clapp and Pérez (ch. 11) study the repatriated remains of Yaqui individuals from Sonora, Mexico, dating to the 19th and 20th centuries. The bodies, victims of violence and deprivation instigated by the Mexican government, displayed signs of trauma and physiological stress. The events surrounding their repatriation and analysis ensure that the sacrifice made by these historic personages remains alive in the social memories of their descendants. Baustian (ch. 12), in her examination of skeletal trauma at Grasshopper Pueblo (1275–1400 C.E.), found many instances of scalping and other forms of nonlethal cranial trauma. She concludes that these violent episodes were likely the result of external, rather than internal, conflicts. Through the examination of victims of a mass grave, DeVisser et al. (ch. 13) consider how government-sanctioned violence affected Chilean national identity and how the efforts of forensic anthropologists have helped the people of Chile recover from the damage the Pinochet regime had caused to the national psyche. Both concerned with Peruvian populations, Kurin (ch. 14) examines shifting practices of violence after the collapse of the Wari empire (600–1000 C.E.), while Murphy et al. (ch. 15) explore the complicated and ambiguous nature of violence during the colonial period (1470–1540 C.E.). Finally, Crandall et al. (ch. 16) thoughtfully reinterpret a historic event on the Kiel ranch in October 1900. Originally labeled a murder-suicide, the authors’ careful reassessment of the gunshot wounds reveals that the event was an ambush attack and a double murder, a grisly illustration of the culture of violence that permeated the American frontier.

An appropriate bookend to part 1, part 5, also consisting of a single chapter, contains concluding thoughts on the impact that the study of death could have on forensic anthropologists and bioarchaeologists. In her commentary, Galloway (ch. 17) explains that individuals who study death are inevitably affected by their macabre material. Specifically, she identifies five key consequences: isolation in professional life, lasting memories of victims and the circumstances of their untimely deaths, adoption of a “gallows” or dark sense of humor, a jaded understanding of human nature, and the potential for developing post-traumatic stress disorder.

Overall, this book is an excellent compendium of advanced, integrative, and effective approaches to the interpretation of interpersonal violence in human skeletal remains. As such, it has wide interdisciplinary appeal for graduate students, professionals (e.g., forensic examiners, osteoarchaeologists), and scholars. Since its target audience is broad, the introductory essay would have benefited from a more lengthy discussion of historiography. Nevertheless, this volume sets a standard for future research and will undoubtedly precipitate fruitful dialogue among anthropological subdisciplines.

Carrie L. Sulosky Weaver
Henry Clay Frick Department of History of Art and Architecture
University of Pittsburgh

Book Review of Bioarchaeological and Forensic Perspectives on Violence: How Violent Death Is Interpreted from Skeletal Remains, edited by Debra L. Martin and Cheryl P. Anderson

Reviewed by Carrie L. Sulosky Weaver

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 120, No. 2 (April 2016)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1202.SuloskyWeaver

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