Armies in the Early Bronze Age? an Alternative Interpretation of Unetice Culture Axe Hoards

By Meller, Harald | Antiquity, December 2017 | Go to article overview

Armies in the Early Bronze Age? an Alternative Interpretation of Unetice Culture Axe Hoards


Meller, Harald, Antiquity


Introduction

Archaeological research on violence and war rarely addresses questions of army size and military organisation, in part due to the nature of the evidence available to archaeologists.

It is generally assumed that "clan-related feuds with personal motivation" occurred during the Neolithic and Bronze Age, whereas major conflicts are associated with the Late Bronze Age and Iron Age (Peter-Rocher 2007: 187-90). When Early Bronze Age social complexity in many parts of Europe is examined, however, the question of military organisation inevitably arises. Multiple lines of evidence imply some kind of inherent permanent or institutional potential for violence, for reasons of external and internal security. These include settlement patterns, the development of specialised weapons and the accumulation of extreme wealth (represented in particular by weaponry in hoards). This is highlighted by a newly discovered Late Bronze Age battlefield in the Tollense Valley in Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, Germany. The excavators have tentatively estimated that between 2000 and 6000 warriors were involved in the battle in approximately 1300 BC (Terberger et al. 2014). Mediterranean documents provide additional information concerning troop strength and conflicts in the central European Middle and Late Iron Ages. Mediterranean eyewitnesses of such clashes were shocked by the large numbers and strength of the "Barbarians" (Polybius (.Historiae 2.18.2; Labuske 1988); Livy (Ab urbe condita 38.17.6; Johne & Labuske 1988)). Even if we assume that the ancient sources were exaggerated and calculate only 10-50 per cent of the actual troop numbers, the army that took part in the Cimbrian War (105-101 BC) would still have numbered between 40 000 and 200 000 warriors (Diodorus Siculus (Bibliotheca historica 37.1.5; Perl 1988)). Given that the central European Late Bronze and Iron Age economic systems and population sizes remained largely unchanged, the possibility remains that armies containing significant numbers of professional warriors existed as far back as the Early Bronze Age.

Naturally, without supportive written evidence, problems with archaeological interpretation arise. New analyses of extant assemblages from Early Bronze Age central German axe hoards (an important feature of the indigenous Unetice Culture), however, have provided an archaeological approach that strongly suggests the existence of wellorganised armies with standard weaponry and hierarchical chains of command (Meller 2015). This new interpretation offers an alternative explanation to the proposition that hoards served as gifts to the gods (cf. Hansel 1997). New excavations carried out at the monumental 'princely grave' Bornhock, near Dieskau in Saalekreis District (Meller & Schunke 2016), and in-depth examination of the structure of Unetice society have also contributed to this other interpretation (e.g. Schwarz 2014; Knoll & Meller 2016).

The Unetice Culture in central Germany and its socio-political interpretation

The pottery, in particular, of the Early Bronze Age Unetice Culture can be traced back stylistically to Late Neolithic Corded Ware and Bell Beaker Cultures. From approximately 2600 BC onwards, these cultures, coming from the east or west respectively, converged in central Germany (Schwarz 2015). Grave goods and evidence for violence indicate the presence of archers and battle-axe warriors in these communities. Burials containing such evidence of violence (e.g. skeletal trauma from arrow and axe wounds) suggest that it was used both in ambushes and in ritual single combats (Meyer et al. 2009; Meller et al. 2015). Numerous male graves with weapons, along with the erection of commemorative statue menhirs, demonstrate the ideal, lived by some of the men, of the lone warrior, rooted in an 'heroic' way of life (Vandkilde 2006; Schwarz 2015: 699-703).

From these Neolithic predecessors, the Unetice Culture developed from approximately 2200 BC in central Germany, Silesia, Greater Poland, Bohemia, Moravia, Lower Austria and western Slovakia (Figure 1; cf. …

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