Monday, August 7, 2017

"Death by Combat" Page 2. (Needham et al, 2017)

This is page 2 of "Death by Combat" by Needham et al, 2017.
Having now read the paper in its entirety, some interesting questions...

Racton's Dagger.  Fig 17  (Needham et al, 2017, photograph Stuart Needham)

We might carefully assume that the dagger buried with Racton Man (above) was on his person when he died, Racton apparently having lost a dagger fight.  If that were true, it'd be interesting that the victor and his company did not take Racton's dagger having the power to do so, an item that would be very highly coveted for the time.  This potentially tells us about the nature of the encounter.

In his book "Feud in the Icelandic Saga", Jesse Byock (1984) makes a case that certain fundamentals of conflict resolution are woven into the themes of Icelandic (and by extension, IE) sagas.  Every story has woven within it a blood feud, a holmgang or einvigi.

Needham et al seem to view this death in that light, as an einvigi (single combat dual) and they further propose that this was because of a leadership contest.  That may be the case, but it could be as something stupid as a foul remark and a challenge to dual.  Either way, it is reasonable to think that this fight was mano-to-mano.

Milston Hill Dagger of similar riveted style.  From Fig 22 (Needham et al, 2017)

Like most Beakers, Racton Man was buried in a wooden enclosure or container with his head resting on a pillow.  When his body decomposed, his head rolled off the pillow giving its position in the grave.  There was also no perceivable rodent activity, so it would seem the container was fairly well constructed.

In addition to this, it can't be ruled out that he was also beheaded at death.  The attacker very forcefully made a succession of blows, any of which could have caused death.

And finally, to add something concerning high status dagger burials...

"It is intriguing that among these injuries, a high proportion are arm injuries: for example, a forearm parry fracture at Chilbolton, Hampshire; a healed upper arm fracture at Liffs Low (Beaker burial), Derbyshire; healed forearm fractures at Pyecombe, East Sussex, Barnack, Cambridgeshire, and Fordington Farm, Dorset; an extensive wound to the left wrist at Callis Wold 23, East Yorkshire, which the recipient survived; and a possible upper arm injury at Tallington, Lincolnshire. At Court Hill, Somerset, a left humerus chopped right through was interpreted as the probable cause of death, and a burial at Amesbury, Wiltshire, had suffered the same fate, but also lacked its right arm, skull and mandible. Burial 11 at Staxton Beacon, East Yorkshire, had a major weapon injury to the left shoulder.103 Taken together, these begin to look significant, particularly since leg injuries seem to be negligible by comparison. There are also several skull injuries of varied kinds. All but one of the skeletons is sexed and all are males. Thorpe saw such injuries as evidence that recipients were ‘killed in the course of small-scale conflicts, whose bravery was then recognised by a prestigious burial’.104 It may now be possible to venture more on the particular social context of some conflicts."

With all the engraved daggers, what went on at Stonehenge and Mont Bego anyway?
And hat tip to Andrew, see part 1


  1. The cultural continuity this speaks to is pretty impressive. Iceland banned dueling in 1006 CE, which suggests that the practice was in place among IE people more or less continuously for about 3000 years. There also seems to be a distinction made between holmgang and einvigi, with the former being more ritualized and regulated and the latter consisting in Iceland at least, of less structured single combat brawling. Some accounts envision holmgang as a relatively late development, but this evidence would suggest that these accounts are inaccurate "just so" stories, rather than being historically authentic.

    Dueling is a pretty distinctive and anthropologically/culturally/sociologically important marker for cultures of honor, which are usually associated with pastoral economies, weak states, and clan based political organization (which is often also linked to cousin marriage). You don't see them in urban societies, or even in primarily horticulture based societies, because cultures of honor are based on deterrence to prevent people from stealing moveable wealth that doesn't take much cooperation to produce. One can see Christianity as a means by which classical people undermined cultures of honor that no longer made sense in an urbanizing and increasingly horticulturally based society with its central doctrine of forgiveness designed to defuse now dysfunctional blood feuds.

    Wikipedia also notes that while combatants sometimes invoked the gods favor there is not a single instance in all of the Norse and Icelandic sagas of gods actually influencing a duel following such a request, something that may reflect a more secular worldview than much of the world at the time and may presage the Protestant Reformation in Northern Europe among people who were the last to convert to Christianity, as well as the subsequent secularization that came early and to a high degree to the same regions.

    1. These kinds of wounds seem consistent with a man facing (not running from) an enemy and without apparent interference of others.

      I agree that structured combat is highly plausible, maybe a duel. It also looks like there was an established social norm that made Racton's dagger undesirable or unavailable for the victor.

      Maybe personal gear in the BA was viewed as inalienable private property and the assailant did not want to be viewed as a petty thief; or perhaps a dead man's dagger was seen as taboo. It is also possible, as in a duel, there were a limited number of spectators and family members from each side that made taking personal property not an option.

      Maybe a future study will look more closely at dagger fights.

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    3. "Maybe personal gear in the BA was viewed as inalienable private property"

      This is an interesting possibility. In much of the American South there is a distinction in real estate law between "legacy property" such as a plantation inherited from your ancestors, and commercial property that is purchased in an arms length transaction from third parties for fair market value. Commercial property is subject to ordinary inheritance, divorce and debtor-creditor laws, but there are rules that strongly favor causing legacy property to revert to family members, allowing people who are divorced to keep their legacy property, and not making legacy property available to creditors. The distinction no longer exists in the U.S. for property other than real estate, but this deep clan connection to property of any kind of the type you are suggesting is actually quite plausible. The notion that the clan may have had some residual ownership interest in heirlooms used by one of their own actually makes a certain amount of sense in general in addition to explaining why this valuable dagger was left with/in a dead man instead of being used. Other possibilities are an Egyptian-style intent that it be used in the afterlife, or an Italian-style/Balkan-style desire to take extra precautions that a dead man doesn't become an undead man that is observed in some of their burials.

    4. Another interesting aspect of this is the weapons and tools of men deposited in Earth and bogs. I've wondered if that is another expression of private property following the deceased.