Archaeology in Structural Violence: The Dangers in the Framework

American anthropologist Paul Farmer defines structural violence as “violence exerted systemically—that is, indirectly—by everyone who belongs to a certain social order: hence the discomfort these ideas provoke in a moral economy still geared to pinning praise or blame on individual actors” (Farmer). Where do we see instances of structural violence take shape in the past, as well as in the present day?

Fans of the popular post-apocalyptic zombie thriller The Walking Dead will recall the scene where Morgan, a significant character in the series, is trapped inside a prison cell in the cabin of a man he has just met. Days pass yet continues to Morgan remain in the cell. Eventually, his benevolent captor reveals that the cell door has been unlocked the whole time and that Morgan could have escaped at a moment’s notice. Why then did Morgan stay?

Morgan sits in silence, believing he is locked in the cell

This scene in popular media illustrates the phenomenon of structural or institutionalized violence. Near Eastern archaeologist Susan Pollock argues that “we experience structures as pre-existing entities, as external objectivities that oppress us by their weight, making us suffer” (Pollock). In this specific situation, Morgan suffers from the environment around him: a world littered with disorder, hostility, and inhumanity. Furthermore, the “pre-existing entity” of the prison cell that contains Morgan overcomes any sense of freedom he might have felt prior to his captivity. Even though the cell door is just metal shaped to the will of humans, it bears a much more significant effect on its inhabitant. While Morgan is in actuality a free man, in the sense that he can walk out at any time, his familiarity with the connotation of a prison cell convinces himself that he is a prisoner.

Structural violence embodied in reality is evident in the case of Nazi Germany. Hitler and his Nazis created a society whose structure oppressed others via government, culture, labor, terror, and propaganda. Most reminiscent of this violence were the Nazi concentration camps. These camps imprisoned “enemies” of the Nazi party, peoples whose very existence were threatened Nazi ideology. Recovered artifacts and features of the site reveal that inmates suffered harsh living conditions and were subjected to forced labor; as a result, several didn’t make out of these camps alive (USHMM). Thus, Nazi Germany committed structural violence through its imposition of the system of concentration camps upon wrongfully accused peoples.

Average household income in the U.S. in 2007 highlights the growing income inequality

What implications does structural violence carry in today’s society? Farmer also states “As the twentieth century draws to a close, the world’s poor are the chief victims of structural violence—a violence which has thus far defied the nature and distribution of extreme suffering. Why might this be so? One answer is that the poor are not only more likely to suffer; they are also more likely to have their suffering silenced” (Farmer). Today’s social order allows for the growing trend of the rich becoming richer and the poor becoming poorer. Therefore, poverty caused by the system is, in itself, a form of inflicting structural violence.


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Flintknapping and Archaeology: Breaking It All Down

Picture it: you belong to a band of early Paleolithic peoples. As a group, you are running low on food stores, and you need to find a way to feed your people. Will you hunt or gather to obtain your food? Assuming the second option isn’t viable, what sort of tools will you need to hunt? How will you make these tools given the resources available to you? These questions can be answered through archaeological evidence of an art known as flintknapping.

Illustration of the flintknapping process

Archaeologically speaking, flintknapping can be defined as “the manufacture of stone tools by the reductive processes of flaking or chipping” (Flenniken). In essence, it involves a process in which stone tools are created by striking a rock at specific points, known as percussion, or by pressure flaking. This practice yields a myriad of tools, such as arrowheads, burins, knives, blades, dart points, spear points, scrapers, drills, and bifaces, among others. Flintknapping enabled people as early as the Paleolithic age to create tools that made aspects of their daily lives easier.

The first evidence of flintknapping comes to us in the form of the Oldowan stone tools from Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. These artifacts date back to about 2.6 million years ago, showing archaeologists that the earliest of humans were capable of fashioning tools, however simple they may have been. The Oldowan tools were composed of choppers and flakes “made by knocking pieces off pebbles to obtain sharp edges” (Renfrew, Bahn, 213). Microwear analysis shows that these choppers and flakes were likely used to cut through plant material and hunted animals. Homo habilis, an ancestral relative of Homo sapiens, produced the Oldowan tools. More likely than not, these early humans wielded the choppers and flakes to shear through the skins of scavenged mammal carcasses, like that of a zebra. Since historical records show that Homo habilis maintained an omnivorous diet, the tools may have also been used to carve fruits or vegetables with tough outside layers.

Choppers found in the Olduvai Gorge

Experimental archaeologists aim to study the past by recreating artifacts and archaeological evidence. In doing so, archaeologists have been able to deduce answers to such questions of when and where early peoples hunted. The study of flintknapping is valuable to archaeologists because stone tool artifacts can be relatively dated according to their craftsmanship. For instance, a breakthrough finding of a stone tool might indicate that humans were using this technology even earlier than recorded or that the first instance of stone technology was at an altogether different region of the world. These kinds of discoveries challenge the ways in which we think of the past, altering our biases and preconceptions of the cultures of antiquity.


  • Flenniken, J. Jeffery. “The Past, Present, and Future of Flintknapping: An Anthropological Perspective.” Washington State University. 1984. Accessed September 30, 2017.               
  • Renfrew, Colin, and Paul Bahn (2015) Archaeology Essentials. 3rd edition. Thames & Hudson, New York.
  • Smithsonian Natural Museum of History. “Behavior: Stone Tools.” Smithsonian Natural Museum of History. March 01, 2010. Accessed September 29, 2017.
  • Whitaker, John C. “Flintknapping: Making and Understanding Stone Tools.” University of Texas Press. 1994. Accessed September 29, 2017.

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  • Making Arrowheads: The Art of Flint Knapping. Alderleaf Wilderness College. Accessed September 29, 2017.         
  • Stone Tools in the Fossil Record. Bradshaw Foundation. Accessed September 29, 2017.  

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