Warfare and Society: Archaeological and Social Anthropological Perspectives

By Ton Otto; Henrik Thrane et al. | Go to book overview

In considering the nature and significance of warfare in the Bronze Age, we are inevitably drawn to a discussion of the topic in the light of the archaeological evidence as we find it. True, analogies drawn from ethnography, and comparison with what Homer tells us of warfare practices in the heroic age of Greece, are tempting and possibly enlightening – if we could only be sure that they are apt. One of the many things that recent debates on warfare have taught us is the range of possible material that one could bring in to any discussion of prehistoric warfare and its significance for ancient society. But they also show how uncertain one must remain about the relevance of this material. If we are to use analogy in the study of warfare, we need to find a methodology that reassures us that our analogies are appropriate ones.

The various categories of evidence that bear on Bronze Age warfare have been discussed many times before. Apart from the weaponry itself, there are the very familiar Scandinavian rock art depictions that appear to show people brandishing various items of weaponry – axes, swords, spears – sometimes placed in pairs as if duelling is taking place. The significance of sword wear has often been stressed, apparently eloquent testimony to the way in which these weapons were intensively used, at least in some places at some times (Kristiansen 1984). Others have devoted studies to other categories of weaponry, for instance the Early Bronze Age daggers of copper and their flint imitations (Lomborg 1973; Vandkilde 1996). Here I propose to concentrate on aspects of the material that have not received the attention they deserve: the context of deposition of the weaponry, and what it can tell us about the function of the weapons, in warfare or other aspects of Bronze Age life.

Assuming that we have correctly identified the purpose of the items in question, we are dealing with the following offensive weapons: bows and arrows; daggers and related items; swords and rapiers; spears and lances; battle-axes; and perhaps slings or other equipment designed to hurl projectiles, such as catapults. In terms of defensive weaponry, helmets, corslets, greaves, and shields are involved. There is a lot of such material in the Bronze Age, though much more offensive than defensive weaponry. But, and this is an important but, it is not evenly distributed in time and space. Some places at some periods have much more of it than others, so whatever it was for, its role was not constant, and people either had differential access to it, or used it in different ways. In other words, there is no one story to be told about Bronze Age warfare and warriors, at least on the evidence of weaponry.

In studying all this material, we have at our disposal a rich resource in the form of the Prähistorische Bronzefunde series, while many individual studies of weapon types have appeared in other places. Not all classes of object are equally well served: swords and daggers have occupied pride of place, while spearheads and arrowheads are relatively poorly provided for. I want to take as my starting-point, therefore, the information to be derived from a study of selected classes in particular areas. I intend to make use of the term ‘warrior’ to indicate the person who used the weaponry, without embarking on an analysis of the appropriateness of the term. I am conscious, however, that the production, availability and use of weapons need not necessarily lead one directly to the conclusion that they were inevitably and invariably associated with a warrior caste or a mode of action that presupposes the existence of warrior elites. Other modes are possible (associations with hunting; ritual; emblemic use) if less likely, but for present purposes the designation ‘warrior’ will continue to be used. Furthermore, the assumption that the warrior was male will also be made, though there are interesting discussions which consider the possible role of women in weapon use and fighting, and it is certain that not all instances of weapon burials were those associated with men. This female role is notable, but beyond my present scope.


Early Bronze Age:
bow-and-arrow, dagger, halberd

The Early Bronze Age warrior possessed two main forms of offensive weapon: the arrow and the dagger. Another utilised form was the halberd, which bears some formal similarity to the dagger but was hafted and used in a quite different manner. In the latter part of the period, the spearhead made its appearance. Deposition is usually in burials, though hoarding started to become common in the period, and a number of well-known hoards from the latter part contain daggers (though not normally arrows). There are also a number of well-known depictions of bowand dagger-bearing warriors, for instance on the stelae at Petit Chasseur, Sion (see below).

I do not attempt here to quantify the distribution

-505-

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