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Conflict Archaeology: Materialities of Collective Violence from Prehistory to Late Antiquity

Conflict Archaeology: Materialities of Collective Violence from Prehistory to Late Antiquity

Edited by Manuel Fernández-Götz and Nico Roymans (Themes in Contemporary Archaeology 5). Pp. xiv + 236. Routledge, Oxford and New York 2018. $140. ISBN 978-1-138-50211-6 (cloth).

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The aim of this attractive new volume is to present results of ongoing studies of the archaeological evidence for violence and warfare in the past and to contribute to the development of method and theory for future work on the subject. The 19 papers are disparate, ranging from a study of wounds on bones of the Neolithic period to details of the distribution of Roman weapons on historically documented battle sites. As the editors note in the introductory chapter, the papers draw on a wide range of different kinds of evidence, including analysis of the character of landscapes in which military action took place; surface survey involving both pedestrian observation and use of metal detectors; excavations on battlefield sites; technical analysis of weapons, such as that of use wear; study of hillforts and other kinds of fortifications; investigation of weapon deposits and mass graves; analysis of images relating to warfare; examination of DNA and isotopic evidence from human bones; and textual (historical) accounts. The study of violence and warfare is highly interdisciplinary.

All the papers concern Europe, and three main topics emerge. The first is the extent of violence among societies of the past. Much recent archaeological study of prehistory and of early historical contexts focuses on topics such as settlement locations, burial practice, subsistence, craft production, trade, and social organization, without systematic consideration of the role of organized violence, including warfare, in the lives of the people being studied. In the introductory chapter, the editors cite Keeley’s important book War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage (Oxford 1996), which had caused archaeologists to examine evidence for violence more systematically. From the earliest period considered here, the Neolithic, analysis of human bones shows that a substantial number of people suffered severe wounds delivered by other persons. Neolithic rock art includes representations of combat. The evidence of weapons, especially swords, spears, and axes, in the Bronze Age, together with the increasingly frequent construction of fortified hilltop settlements, reflects the violence of that period. The evidence for conflict is even more abundant in the Iron Age, with large quantities of weapons placed in graves, larger and more complex hillforts, and ritual sites commemorating major battles. A principal theme of this volume is the violence of the Roman conquests.

The second main topic is the recent and ongoing excavation, analysis, and interpretation of the sites of ancient battles and of the associated military camps. The editors credit Scott and his colleagues with the beginning of systematic archaeological analysis of battlefields (D. Scott et al., Archaeological Perspectives on the Battle of the Little Bighorn [Norman, Okla. 1989]). The Bronze Age battlefield at Tollense in northeastern Germany, dating to ca. 1300–1250 B.C.E., is the earliest presented here. All nine of the other papers that deal with specific battlefields pertain to Roman conquests, ranging from the end of the third century B.C.E. to the early third century C.E. For all these, written records play an important part in both the discovery of the sites and the interpretation of the archaeological materials recovered. As Roymans explains, (p. 167) with the increasing popularity of postcolonial studies in the field of archaeology, this academic trend focuses on the material evidence for the extreme violence with which Rome conquered and controlled its adversaries.

The papers in the two sections of the volume (out of four) that concern Roman conquests often make reference to Roman texts pertaining to the history of those conquests and use these texts as aids in finding and interpreting the evidence at the sites. While the texts often help archaeologists identify sites, date them, and interpret the earthworks encountered and weapons recovered, a major task in the archaeological study of sites that are mentioned in written sources is to “test” the texts against the archaeology. Critical reading of Roman texts always involves seeking to identify misinformation and to consider bias on the part of the writers. When the texts are about battles, archaeology offers the possibility of revising the picture presented by the Roman writers. An example concerns the numbers of troops involved in Caesar’s campaigns in Gaul. Studying the landscapes in which battles took place and the character and distribution of weapons recovered through archaeological excavation leads many researchers to doubt the figures provided by Caesar.

In the papers on military sites of the Roman period, both battlefields and legionary camps, the authors describe the survey techniques used to identify the sites and their layouts, sampling strategies used to gather initial data, excavation techniques applied to larger areas, and the kinds of objects recovered. These objects include weapons, tools, coins, hobnails from boots, and ornaments from soldiers’ military outfits. Among the sites discussed are Baecula and Iliturgi, Numantia, and Monte Bernorio in Iberia; Lampourdier and Alesia in Gaul; Rossum and Kessel in the Netherlands; and Hermeskeil, Kalkriese, and Harzhorn in Germany. Treatment of these includes excellent maps, site plans, and photographs and drawings of artifacts recovered.   

The battle at Alesia in 52 B.C.E. receives the most attention of any of the battles in Caesar’s commentaries. It was the site of the final major confrontation between Roman troops and Gauls. The site was explored under Napoleon III in the middle of the 19th century and more recently and systematically by interdisciplinary French and German teams in the 1990s. Although the results of the modern excavations have been published extensively in French and German, the paper by Reddé in this volume is the first account in English.

Kalkriese, near the northern German city of Osnabrück, is thought to be the site of the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest named by the Roman historian Tacitus, in which three legions under the command of Publius Quinctilius Varus were overwhelmed by “Germanic” troops led by Arminius in 9 C.E. After hundreds of years of searching, the putative site was discovered in 1987. Extensive excavations have recovered quantities of Roman military objects and coins, as well as bones of horses and mules that were part of the Roman baggage train. It has been argued that this battle ended Roman ambitions to conquer the lands east of the lower Rhine.

The third main topic of the papers is the subsequent impact of military conflicts on the societies involved. In a paper on the memory of battle in Late Iron Age Gaul and Iberia, Pérez Rubio, adopting theories of collective memory and the concept of post-traumatic stress disorder, examines the Late Iron Age “sanctuary sites”—such as Gournay-sur-Aronde, Ribemont, and La Tène, as well as stele in the Ebro valley bearing representations of warriors and weapons—as serving to preserve the memories of major battles. The objects and the places at which they were deposited, and the performances involved, played roles in shaping and preserving the memories of the events, and these in turn contributed to the formation of identities among the peoples affected. In his paper on Ribemont in northeastern France, Brunaux argues that the site—with its ditched enclosures, carefully arranged human bones representing many hundreds of individuals, and associated iron weapons—was structured as a tropaion to commemorate a battle that took place ca. 260–250 B.C.E.

A site bearing some resemblance to the sanctuaries in northern France and Switzerland is Thorsberg in northern Germany. Thorsberg is one of some 30 weapon deposits in northern Germany, Denmark, and southern Sweden, most of them dating primarily between the second and fifth centuries C.E. Besides weapons, especially swords, spears, and shields, these deposits contain metal vessels and personal ornaments, many purposely damaged. Interpretation of these deposits is much debated. Do they represent the military equipment of a defeated army, offered to supernatural powers in gratitude for victory? Or could they be equipment of victorious armies, offered in thanks?  Who were the combatants, and where did they come from? Whatever the specific interpretation, these weapon deposits represent the celebration of the results of confrontations that included relatively large-scale military activity during the Roman Iron Age in a part of Europe unfamiliar to the Roman world.

This book is a major contribution to the growing body of literature on the archaeology of warfare. It contributes to the development of method and theory in the analysis of sites of violence, and it presents illuminating case studies from different times and places in temperate Europe. It is especially strong on the Late Iron Age and the Roman period in Gaul and Iberia. Of particular interest are the discussions in many papers of the interplay between information gleaned from Roman texts and that acquired through archaeological excavation and analysis.

The 122 illustrations—maps, plans, photographs, and drawings—are excellent throughout. All the papers are in English. Each paper has its own list of references cited, and the volume includes an index. This book will be very useful to professional archaeologists researching issues related to the archaeology of violence and warfare and to students preparing papers on the subject.

Peter S. Wells
Department of Anthropology
University of Minnesota

Book Review of Conflict Archaeology: Materialities of Collective Violence from Prehistory to Late Antiquity, edited by Manuel Fernández-Götz and Nico Roymans

Reviewed by Peter S. Wells

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 123, No. 1 (January 2019)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1231.wells

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