War – Tracing an evolution

24. October 2018 - 28. April 2019

Wars are inextricably linked to human stories, which are, in turn, reflected in archeological finds. Modern forensic research on skeletons has revealed that the history of war dates back as far as the Neolithic period. This exhibition invites visitors to embark on an archeological journey, taking them back more than 7000 years to the earliest origins of military conflict – as expressed by objects found in the Weinviertel region of Lower Austria. A key development in the evolution of war can be seen in the 3200-year-old Bronze Age finds from the Tollense Valley in northern Germany. The weapons used back then to battle for control of a bridge were, for the first time, no longer farming tools, but metal objects made for the sole purpose of fighting.

The exhibition, being held in cooperation with the Sachsen-Anhalt State Museum of Prehistory, uses historical evidence to address many fundamental questions. What is aggression? When did humans start fighting wars? Is war part of human nature and, therefore, inevitable? When were the first organized wars that used purpose-made metal weapons? Since when have the elites led anonymous soldiers into battle?

At the heart of the exhibition is a mass grave from the Thirty Years’ War, which was excavated and removed from the ground in one piece. The great Battle of Lützen 1632, which did not produce a clear victor but cost the life of the Swedish King Gustav II Adolf, left thousands dead and marked the start of modern warfare. Researchers have investigated the 48 bodies found in the mass grave, using state-of-the-art techniques in order to reconstruct as much detail as possible about the victims’ stories and causes of death.

Archeological and anthropological research in Austria has also revealed important insights into the art of warfare and the consequences of war from prehistory and early history all the way through to the modern age. Examples include forensic-anthropological examinations of skeletons of soldiers who fell in the battles of Asparn and Deutsch Wagram during the Napoleonic War of 1809. Their bones tell us about the fate of the individuals who fought in these battles.

Other objects from civilian life in the post-war period show just how far-reaching and destructive the consequences of war can be even for survivors. The exhibition concludes with a collection of prosthetics, which were designed to make the lives of wounded soldiers easier and as part of the Anatomical Collection at the NHM Vienna today serve as a reminder of the end of the First World War in 1918.