The author Martin Smith, is the Principal Academic in Forensic & Biological Anthropology in the Department of Archaeology, Anthropology and Forensic Science at Bournemouth University. Prior to becoming an academic he spent 10 years working as a registered nurse in surgery and accident and emergency departments. He is the author of a number of books and book chapters as well as numerous journal articles focusing primarily on the archaeology of human remains.
The major argument presented in this book is that throughout our history violence has been part of our lives, and idealist approaches that suggest that humanity was peaceful without war or violence prior to “civilisation” are wrong, and have missed (or misinterpreted) the plentiful evidence on the skeletons of our ancestors.
Although there may be some room to debate the definition of war as presented in Mortal Wounds to do so would be unfairly critical and miss the more important point made in this work, that violence is not a recent occurrence.
At times the book paints a grim picture of our past, and demonstrates that violence was not just restricted to those we would normally deem to be combatants. With women and children often demonstrably the victims of violence.
The book is a beautifully presented hardcover totalling 290 pages with many black and white images and illustrations that complement the content. Mortal Wounds is well-written and easily accessible to the non-expert even though it, at times, covers quite technical material. Smith’s introduction to the nature of wounds identifiable in the skeleton in the first few chapters of the book is an invaluable addition for the non-expert, as he provides an easily understood discussion of how bone is damaged and the healing process that takes place after damage is incurred, if the victim is still alive.
It is these first few chapters that provide a solid groundwork for the book, without the basic understanding of how bone functions and reacts to different types of damage the reader would have to rely solely on the author’s account of what happened to the victim in the case-studies that follow. Instead because of the explanation provided the reader is able to engage with the period case-studies that follow more deeply with a solid grasp of why the author is able to suggest the damage evident is the result of violence. The case-studies cover a wide range of periods from an examination Neanderthals and Archaic Homo Sapiens, through Bronze age Europe, Imperial Rome and all the way to the 19th Century.
I particularly liked Smith’s excurses into experimental archaeology in order to prove (to himself) that what he had assumed were wounds resulting from arrow impacts were in fact consistent with arrow wounds, something that other authors had just assumed.
Although it is almost certain that with the gruesome nature of the topics discussed this isn’t a book for everyone, Smith takes great pains to ensure that this book, although focusing on acts of violence, doesn’t glorify it or ignore the likely suffering of the victims of these acts. I highly recommend this book, to anyone interested in forensics, archaeology, warfare or the history of violence. It is a well written accessible book, and the first book of its kind that I have come across that specifically targets a non-expert audience. Smith achieves the difficult task of explaining a complex topic for a general audience.