War dead from 13,000 years ago go on display at British Museum

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 July, 2014, 8:54pm
UPDATED : Monday, 14 July, 2014, 8:54pm


Lying on their left sides, curled together, the two skeletons on display for the first time at the British Museum look peacefully laid to rest. But the razor-sharp stone flakes among the bones are the remains of ancient weapons. The two are among the oldest known war dead in the world, men who died 13,000 years ago.

The cemetery they came from, on the banks of the Nile in what is now northern Sudan, is famous among archaeologists: dating from about 11,000 BC, it is among the oldest organised burial grounds in the world. However, the finds have never been exhibited before.

"These were tribes mounting regular and ferocious raids amongst themselves for scarce resources," curator Renee Friedman said. "There were many women and children among the dead, a very unusual composition for any cemetery, and almost half bore the marks of violent death. These people lived in extraordinarily violent times."

The bodies were laid on their left sides, heads to the south and looking east - towards the source of the river and the rising sun, on which survival depended.

"Before this date we find isolated burials of bodies just placed in holes in the ground," Friedman said. "These come from a time when the hunter gatherers are starting to put down roots, and burying their ancestors is a very powerful way of laying claim to the land. But clearly they had to defend it, not once but many times, at terrible cost."

The cemetery at Jebel Sahaba now lies deep under the waters of the Aswan dam. They were excavated in the 1960s by the American archaeologist Professor Fred Wendorf, in one of the Unesco-funded rescue digs to save as much history as possible before the waters rose. Wendorf recovered the remains of 61 individuals, with weapons. When he retired from the Southern Methodist University of Texas in 2001 he presented his collection to the British Museum in London.

"Often with remains from such an ancient time, we will never know what happened to them," Friedman said. "With these skeletons there is no question: we found arrow heads lodged in spines, spear points that had pierced eye sockets … The lives and deaths of these people were not nice."