Conflicting Evidence? Weapons and Skeletons in the Bronze Age of South-East Iberia

Article excerpt


According to an important body of social theory, the emergence and institutionalisation of violence and warfare are inherent to processes of increasing social complexity. Prehistoric Europe--and most specifically its Bronze Age--has provided a suitable scenario to fuel this belief. The warrior as a new social character appears during this period, progressively expanding across the different landscapes of the European continent.

The Argaric societies in south-east Iberia (corresponding to the Bronze Age in southeastern Spain and spanning from c. 2250 to 1450 cal BC) have traditionally been interpreted as conforming to this general principle. Specialised weaponry such as halberds and swords have been correlated with evidence of the existence of warriors and--more or less implicitly--warfare. But, in common with similar examples throughout Europe, the emergence of warriors and warfare has been pronounced rather than explained.

Despite the leading role accorded to the warrior as a new figure, it seems to us that the necessary connections between the rise of warriors and their social practice and context have remained largely unexplored. In recent years, several archaeological works have concentrated on this remarkable phenomenon (Carman 1997; Martin & Frayer 1997; Carman & Harding 1999; Parker & Thorpe 2005; Arkush & Allen 2006) putting forward different causes for it, such as the need to pacify the past (Keeley 1996; Vankilde 2003; Guilaine & Zammit 2005).

We are also convinced that assertions about the rise of warriors are related to the dominant discourse employed to explain past social dynamics, centered on the construction of grand narratives and abstract social categories and tendencies. In the particular case of warriors and warfare, the emphasis on macro-scale explanations has ironed out fundamental aspects of specific social interactions. That is also why, in the literature on Argaric societies, concepts such as warriors, conflict, instability, warfare and militarism are widely used but poorly theorised.

In this essay, the main lines of archaeological evidence that allegedly illustrate warfare in the Argaric culture will be re-assessed. Up to now, the emergence of specialised weaponry has been deemed conclusive proof of the rise of a new, warlike elite comprised of male warriors. The other main source of empirical support for the prevailing views is supplied by the characteristics of Argaric settlements themselves, in relation to their location and some of their structures, interpreted as defensive (Siret & Siret 1890; Cuadrado 1950; Schubart 1973; Gilman 1976; Molina 1983; Castro et al. 1993-94; Contreras e, al. 1995). While retaining the validity of such lines of evidence, we will show how signs of intentional trauma in human remains can shed new light on the debate. Building from these various sources, we will offer an interpretation that reconciles seemingly conflicting evidence. As applied to the Argaric culture, we will suggest that the campaign linking specialised weaponry with the occurrence of generalised war and institutionalised bodies of warriors deserves an armistice.

Argaric material culture: settlements and defence

Argaric culture is defined by a combination of elements including a specific settlement pattern, the presence of certain kinds of metal tools and ceramic vessels, and a distinctive burial rite. As a general rule, Argaric sites tended to be strategically located in mountains and hills with natural defensive features and a commanding view of the surrounding area. In addition, some of these sites were also fortified by the construction of diverse and complex defence structures such as stone walls, towers, bastions, forts and stone enclosures protecting the higher areas of the settlements, as well as those with easier access. In cases such as Cerro de la Encina (Granada), these enclosures achieved a significant level of monumentality, requiring a considerable effort in their construction and maintenance (Aranda & Molina 2006) (Figure 1). …