Rules of Engagement

By Carman, John | Antiquity, March 2001 | Go to article overview

Rules of Engagement


Carman, John, Antiquity


Although it is frequently ignored in the general coverage of historical archaeology (cf. Funari et al. 1999), ever since the pioneering work on the site of the so-called `battle' of the Little Bighorn (Scott et al. 1989) battlefield archaeology has grown in interest internationally. A further boost was given by the adoption of historic battlefield sites as part of nations' `official' cultural heritage, and especially in England by the English Heritage Register of Historic Battlefields (English Heritage 1995) and the inclusion of such sites in the planning control process (DoE 1994). Work in the UK (e.g. Newman 1981; Foard 1995) and elsewhere has also excited interest. As a result, battlefield sites are now firmly placed on the archaeological agenda, and the holding of this conference -- the first-ever international conference on this subject -- has marked its growing acceptance as a legitimate area for archaeologists.

The widespread popularity of the conference seemed to have caught the organizers somewhat unaware. Originally planned for a single day with a short lead-time from advertisement to realization, it grew to a two-day affair to be held at a time to give all potential participants a proper opportunity for preparation and travel. In the end, it attracted over 100 participants from the UK, USA, Canada, Australia, South Africa, Finland, Spain and Sweden. Battles covered ranged from Classical Greece through the medieval to the modern, and on to our own era. Geographically, it remained largely limited to the USA and Europe with two notable excursions south of the equator. Thematically, it covered not only land battlefields as such, but also sieges, smaller actions such as skirmishes and indeed small but violent affrays between groups of individuals, civil disorders, the evidence for maritime warfare, and finally extended to include 20th-century warfare which consumes entire nations. A concern with the techniques of battlefield research and how they can change the interpretation of individual events --evident at the start of the conference--gradually gave way to a deeper interest in the policy aspects of preservation and management and how this linked to research programmes.

Not all those present were archaeologists: some were historians and others included geologists, military enthusiasts and wargamers. The latter (or at least a small, noisy group from among them) were apparently surprised at the number of women present: as one loud exchange put it `I thought this was going to be a boys-only weekend!' Thankfully such views were not well represented and the conference retained throughout a serious and scholarly air so that all of us heard much that was new and we made valuable new friends and colleagues. Since this is the real purpose of any conference, it must rank as a great success, and the organizers -- Tony Pollard of Glasgow and Phil Freeman of Liverpool--are to be congratulated on achieving this.

Two broad differences in approach to researching battlefields could be identified as the conference progressed. To adopt a `shorthand' designation, one of these can perhaps be called the `American' approach, being well represented by US participants, although it was not the style adopted by all those present from the USA or Canada and was also represented by contributions from elsewhere. The other main approach can perhaps be called a `British' approach, although not entirely so, being shared by some from the USA and elsewhere in Europe. The `American' approach -- perhaps unsurprisingly -- presented a largely `processual' version of battlefield archaeology, with a rather narrow agenda in terms of results. In general, it lay at the service of military history, providing evidence for the positioning of forces and the sequencing of events at particular battles, leading to the establishment of a `battlefield pattern' for a particular period. The `British' approach tended more towards ideas related to `postprocessual' or `interpretive' archaeologies, where the focus lay much more upon specifically archaeological agendas centred upon battlefields as culturally constructed landscapes with ritual overtones.

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