Warfare and Society: Archaeological and Social Anthropological Perspectives

By Ton Otto; Henrik Thrane et al. | Go to book overview
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5 Archaeology and War: Presentations of Warriors
and Peasants in Archaeological Interpretations

The horse-mounted and axe-wielding pastoral tribes migrated into Jutland from the south,
rapidly making themselves rulers of the central and western half of the peninsula. Up
through southern Jutland the burial mounds mark the routes of colonization, which can only
be loosely followed. The oldest occurrences of axes show how comprehensive this first influx
was. The wide and leafy river-valleys of central and western Jutland became the first resort of
these foreigners, since here was abundant food for their beasts. The old fishing and hunting
folk who lived close to lakes and streams was rapidly subdued in most places, and the same
destiny undoubtedly stroke the dispersed farming communities, unless they succeeded in
reaching eastern Jutland, where their kinsfolk, the megalithic people, was densely situated.
(Glob 1945: 242, author’s translation from Danish)


This article critically examines archaeologies of the Stone and Bronze Ages by looking at them through a broad contemporary framework. Although clearly including warriors in explanations of material transitions from one culture to another, the academic discourse of archaeology has strangely ignored warfare and violence as relevant aspects of past human activity, an apparent contradiction that this article will examine and debate.1

Power, dominance and coercion are almost inevitably connected to warfare and its principal actors, soldiers and warriors, brutally interfering with human existence almost everywhere in our late modern world. These factors, embedded in a 21st century setting, make it obvious that warfare should be an object of archaeological study. More generally, war seems to be a central ingredient in social reproduction and change, which constitutes another reason for engaging in the study of war, warfare and warriors. However, looking back at the Stone and Bronze Age archaeology of the 20th century, it becomes clear that archaeologists have studied weaponry, and in some measure warriors, but not war. There are notable exceptions, but possible reasons for the general absence of an interest in violence need to be outlined and debated. Warfare and violence began to enter the archaeological discourse only after c. 1995. Compared to the general implementation of anthropological and sociological theories in archaeology (late 1960s and early 1970s), war studies thus arrive on the scene much delayed. Even after this date the theme is quite often embarked upon as something set aside from the rest of social practice.

Vencl (1984) has argued that the absence of warfare studies in prehistoric archaeology is linked to the inadequacy of archaeological sources. It is undoubtedly true that archaeological data do not reflect the ratio of war in prehistory. Trauma is probably underrepresented, and so are weapons of organic materials (Capelle 1982). However, direct and indirect evidence of war-related violence is by no means non-existent (Figs. 1–4). The number of prehistoric weapons, including fortifications, is huge, and iconographic presentations of war and warriors in art and rituals supplement the picture, as do examinations of patterns of wear and damage on swords (cf. Bridgford 1997; Kristiansen 2002). Skeletal traumata are, in fact, relatively frequent in European prehistory when it is taken into account that skeletons are often not well preserved, they are not routinely examined for marks of violence and that much physical violence does not leave visible traces on the skeleton. The evidence is most certainly adequate as a basis for studies of violence and war.


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Warfare and Society: Archaeological and Social Anthropological Perspectives
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