Monday, February 09, 2015

Ancient Death Counts from Poems

What killed you in an ancient battle? Could we look at ancient epics for clues as to what killed people in fights at the time?

Pinker's better Angels of our Nature talks about how archeologists look at bones to see evidence of violent injuries that lead to death. The book talks about examinations of ancient bones unearthed in peat bogs and on long-forgotten battlefields. This bone examination will not tell us about injuries to people that do not cut bones.

The epic poems include the Iliad, Beowulf and the Táin. They were passed down from Bards who memorised them and travelled from place to place reciting them. Some recent research suggests that these epics may have some basis in history. The social network described for the characters usually resembles one real people would have. The social network between characters in Homer’s Odyssey is remarkably similar to real social networks today. That suggests the story is based, at least in part, on real events, say researchers. 'They discovered that while the networks associated with Beowulf and the Iliad had many of the properties of real social networks, the network associated with Tain was less realistic. That led them to conclude that the societies described in the Iliad and Beowulf are probably based on real ones, whereas the Tain appears more artificial.'

There is a site that examines and lists the deaths in the Iliad here. I extracted from there counts for each mentioned body part killed or wounded someone*.

head 21 
jaw 2 
cheek 1 
ear 1 
eye 1 
mouth 1 
nose 1 
skull 1  

neck 12 
throat 3  
collar 1 
chest 17 
shoulder 7 
collar bone 2 
nipple 1 
ribs 1 1 of these wound
arm 4 3 of these wound
hand 1 1 of these wound
back 11 
buttock 2 
gut 10 1 of these wound
stomach 5 
liver 3 
side 6 
thigh 2 1 of these wound
hip 1 
knee 1 
leg 1 
foot 1 1 of these wound
groin 2 
testicles 1

I totalled these by body region

Head  29
Neck  15
Upper Body 29
Arm  5
Back  13
Lower Body 18
Side  6
Leg  6
Groin  3 
Using Color brewer to pick out colours I made bins of 5
25-30 RGB 153,0,13
20-25 RGB 203,24,29
15-20 RGB 239,59,44
10-15 RGB 251,106,74
5-10  RGB 252,146,114
1-5   RGB 252,187,161
0     RGB 0,0,0
And I made this into this weird picture. I got the drawing from here. And the idea from Greek myth comix.

Any translation will have disagreements so the original source or as close as we can get to it should be used. Ian Johnson's is the basis for these counts.

Upper body counts for 73 of the deaths: arm, back, legs and lower body count for only 51. But gut, liver and stomach (and maybe buttock) do account for 18 deaths which seems like modern archeology could miss. For example many bog bodies seem to have been ritually killed which may have involved more beheading then the standard violent death.

It would be interesting to do a similar count with the other epic poems to see if liver injury is as common in them or whether that relates to Greek culture.

Anyway please comment what you think about this sort of quantitative analysis of stories that are meant to be entertainment. Can they tell us anything about the ancient world?

*Alcmaon's death I left out as no specific part is named.

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