A natural history of war – tracing an evolution

On Friday I was able to join an InstaWalk again with Instagramers Austria and  Instagramers Vienna,  at one of my favorite places, the Vienna Natural History Museum (Naturhistorisches Museum Wien).  The museum has a new exhibition on: War. Tracing an evolution.  War is a somewhat unusual topic for a Natural History Museum, I think.  Is war natural then?  The exhibition is an “archaeological journey” that takes visitors  back through time, to more than 7,000 years ago when we find traces of the earliest origins of violent conflict.  War is, unfortunately, an ever topical subject, and I think it is great that the museum is exploring the evolutionary side of it.

Wars belong in museums

Why war at a Natural History Museum?

This exhibition  is a contribution to the European Heritage Year 2018.  World War I ended 100 years ago, and the Thirty Year´s War began 400 years ago.   But wars began much earlier, and historians and scientists have been asking why. 


Are humans somehow “programmed” to fight wars, is it in our genes?  Where does aggression come from?   There is at least some evidence that chimpansees, our closest primate relatives, also have battles akin to wars among different groups.  So if we have the gene, does it make it inevitable that humans will always fight wars?  Just because we have a genetic predisposition to something does not mean that we HAVE to do it, but  humans sure have spent a lot of resources over time perfecting ways to get at one another´s throats.


Forensic science to discover soldiers´ brutal fates

The exhibition also looks at the fates of people in and after wars, showing objects from civilian life in the post-war period.  Some of these are prosthetic limbs of solders  that are part of the Anatomical Collection at the NHM Vienna.   Archaeological and anthropological research provides important insights into warfare in history.  Battlefields and fortifications  have been excavated by archeologists, countless skeletons with traces of injury have been examined, weapons and pictorial representations and historical texts have been analyzed.

One of these battlefields was right near Vienna, dating to the Napoleonic wars.  Where a new highway, the S8, is being planned,  archeologists have been digging up traces of the Battle of Wagram of 1809 – one of the greatest battles of the Napoleonic era that ended in a costly but decisive victory for Emperor Napoleon I‘s French and allied army against the Austrian imperial army.   Although the excavation works are still ongoing, a lot of interdisciplinary analysis with historians and athroplogists has already yielded important insights.  From  the bones of those soldiers who were killed in that fateful battle,  forensic-anthropological scientists are finding out a lot about the fate of individuals.


The main object of the exhibition is a mass grave from the Thirty Years’ War, which was excavated and removed from the ground in one piece.   From the Battle of Lützen (1632), researchers have reconstructed the story of one individual found in a mass grave containing 47 skeletons. “Individual 13” fell off the infantry attack horse and bled to death. Numerous bioarchaeological investigations on the skeleton of the man tell the story of his brutal death. A Swedish soldier struck him on the forehead with a blunt object, bursting his right metatarsal bones.  Ultimately he died as a result of a sword stab in the abdomen.  Thus, it was finally possible to relate at least some of the personal fate of the nameless soldier.  Brutal and sad stories indeed.

Excavation of a battle field from the 30 years war

Topping it off with views

Rather more uplifting than the exhibition itself were the rooftop views we got to enjoy at the end of our tour.


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

On the way to the roof we passed through a gallery of skulls – part of the museum collection that is not currently on exhibit.


The NHM does occasionally offer rooftop tours to the public, so check their agenda.  The views are well worth it.  If you read this on a laptop you can see a little slideshow of some of the views.


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

If you are into the history of war, there is also another museum in Vienna that illuminates different aspects of it and has a motto I like.  The Museum of Army History (HGM Wien) flies a flag that says “Wars belong in museums”.  That´s something we have to keep hoping and working for.


Sources: Exhibition website, guided tour, exhibition blog

More Info

The exhibition  War. Tracing an evolution runs from 24 October 2018 to 28 April 2019.  Videos at the exhibition give insights into the ongoing excavation at Marchfeld. Using QR codes, the videos can be viewed on visitors devices.  In addition, visitors can themselves pretend to be participating in the excavation via touch screens at the exhibition.

There is also the Instagram photo challenge #NHMLoveNotWar accompanying the exhibition. „Make love, not war“ – using this motto NHM wants to fill the digital world with peace!  Share your individual pictures of peace and love as an antithesis to war – whether in the city, in the nature or in your personal environment!
You can submit your images on Instagram until March 31st, 2019, using the above hashtag.



Instagramers Austria

Instagramers Vienna

NHM Wien


2 thoughts on “A natural history of war – tracing an evolution

  1. well done wrap up of the exhibition! I also was wondering why there is the topic of war in a natural history museum. and as usually great photos that give a good impression of the subjects on display! great work, keep it up!

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: