Researchers Whack Fake Skulls to Learn About Neolithic Weapons

Was the ‘Thames Beater’ used to kill? Four crushed model skulls say yes

Thames beater
The original Thames beater (top) compared to the replica made by a carpenter (bottom). Meaghan Dyer/Antiquity

Skeletal remains dating to the Neolithic period suggest that our ancient predecessors engaged in many a fight—and they were sometimes quite brutal. But exactly how weapons were used to inflict trauma remains largely unknown. So two archaeologists at the University of Edinburgh set out to figure it out, conducting an experiment that involved whacking a fake skull with a replica of a Neolithic weapon.

As George Dvorsky reports for Gizmodo, Meaghan Dyer and Linda Fibiger sought to find out if a Neolithic club known as the “Thames Beater” could be linked to patterns of skull injuries seen in centuries-old remains. The wooden club, which dates to around 3,500 BC, was found near the Thames River in the 1990s. Few wooden clubs from the Neolithic period survive to the present day, but objects like this were probably once widespread, the researchers write in their recent study published in the journal Antiquity, which details their recent work.

The Thames Beater is currently housed at the Museum of London, and according to its website, the object “was possibly a war club or alternatively could have been a flax beater.” Dyer and Fibiger’s experiment suggests that the former may be the more likely explanation.

The researchers relied on four model skulls made from polyurethane material that can replicate the properties of bone. Two of the models were five millimeters thick, and two were seven millimeters thick to account for variations among human skeletons. The “skulls” were covered with a rubber material that simulated skin, and filled with ballistics gelatin to reproduce brain-like matter. As Michelle Starr writes for Science Alert, models like these are a relatively new addition to the field. Other experimental studies into blunt force trauma have relied on animal carcasses or human cadavers—which raises questions of both accuracy and ethics.

Since the actual Thames Beater is now a very delicate artifact, Dyer and Fibiger recruited “master carpenter” David Lewis to reproduce the club from alder wood, the same material used to make the original object, the researchers write in the study. They then brought in a 30-year-old man to go Deadliest Warrior on the fake skulls. He hit one five-millimeter model and one seven-millimeter model using the paddle of the club. Then he whacked the remaining two models with a different type of blow, delivered with the “pommel,” or rounded knob on the handle of the object.

According to the study, the paddle strikes produced fractures consistent with blunt force trauma. What’s more, when researchers compared the models to a skull discovered at a known Neolithic massacre site in Austria, they found that the fracture patterns were nearly identical.

The results establish “a probable connection between what was probably a widespread type of Neolithic weapon and examples of blunt force cranial trauma recorded in the archaeological record,” the authors write in the study. They are currently testing their methodology on other possible Neolithic weapons to see if they can tease out more of the intricacies of ancient battle.

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