You are here

Warfare in Bronze Age Society

Warfare in Bronze Age Society

Edited by Christian Horn and Kristian Kristiansen. Pp. x + 253. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2018. $99.99. ISBN 978-1-107-18556-2 (cloth).

Reviewed by

Horn and Kristiansen’s volume Warfare in Bronze Age Society presents the revised contributions to a conference held at the University of Gothenburg in 2012. The book has 15 chapters, including an introduction by the editors, a short scene-setting chapter, and a conclusion. The chapters vary in their geographical focus and in the types of evidence they interrogate, achieving impressive coverage. Six focus on Northern Europe, two on the Aegean, one on Spain, one on the southern Trans Urals, one on the Levant, and others consider Europe as a whole or particular issues in warfare.

Harding’s contribution offers a brief discussion of the context of Bronze Age encounters—peaceful or violent—and raises the issue of how we interpret types of evidence and specific “events” represented by archaeological contexts. For example, at Velim, in the Czech Republic (ca. 1400 B.C.E.), numerous bronze arrowheads were found as well as bodies (male, female, young, and old) with evidence of trauma, disarticulated remains, and collections of crania in pits, in a setting enclosed by ditches; should we consider this a site of possible “war-related violence” (18)?  In particular, Harding raises two recurring themes: the occurrence of weapons does not necessarily indicate a warrior, if by warrior we mean someone whose identity and life was defined by frequent fighting; and an increase in the number of weapons found over time does not necessarily mean an increase in actual instances of violence or warfare. These are themes taken up by many of the other authors.

Kristiansen also cites large numbers of human remains as evidence of possible large-scale battles at Velim, Sund (Norway), and Tollense (Germany). He argues, through a series of calculations, for a heavily armed Bronze Age, with some “tens or even hundreds of thousands” of weapons in circulation (29). He reconstructs a Bronze Age Europe with many similarities to the Iron Age and Viking Age, suggesting an early plateau of European political economies at a “military democracy” or “chiefdom” level (30, 42) after a transformation in weapons, warriors, and warfare, embodied in a new mobile “Warrior Aristocracy” (24).

Some of this new “aristocracy” or “semi-professional warrior” class traveled, sometimes as war bands, to serve “foreign” chiefs, work as mercenaries, or take on the role of raiders (24). Kristiansen argues this travel spread technologies (the flange-hilted sword [25]) and ideas, including social organization (34), throughout Europe, from Greece to Scandinavia, driving various kinds of change. Such mobility, on some scale at least, seems confirmed by strontium isotope analysis of remains in a male cemetery at Neckarsulm (Germany), which demonstrated that about a third of those buried had nonlocal origins, coming from diverse locations. From this along with evidence they all were tall and well-fed, Kristiansen infers these were foreign warriors in service (26). Inevitably, one is reminded of the traveling bands of warriors described in Beowulf.

The appearance of this warrior class had a number of impacts on society, argues Kristiansen. It became necessary, for example, to engage in regular and secure trade to acquire the necessary metals and resources to manufacture weapons and produce agricultural surpluses, to support these activities. More and better armed warriors made larger battles and conflicts possible. All of this required new and effective forms of sociopolitical organization. Kristiansen thus suggests (39) that the 14th and 13th centuries B.C.E. saw a transformation of heterarchical chiefdoms and confederacies to more centralized chiefdoms or archaic states (not necessarily successfully), as potentially occurred at Corneşti Iarcuri (Romania). This echoes explanations of state formation that draw on warfare as a prime mover.

Studying swords from Early Bronze Age Scandinavia and northern Germany, Bunnefeld (198) questions the received wisdom of attributing these solely to chiefs. Through analysis of different types of swords (identified by hilt type), find contexts, and estimates of the number of sword bearers, he argues that swords were possessed by “free and independent men, likely peasants with their own farmstead who were patriarchs of their kin,” as well as chiefs (207). This is not to say that society was egalitarian; he suggests the varying quality of swords, amount and type of grave goods, and house and burial mound sizes indicate “gradual differences in status” (208). The conclusions here are interesting, though the technical detail will be difficult for nonspecialists.

Lidke and colleagues return to a discussion of the Tollense Valley, which has been under investigation since human remains were found at Weltzin and at other locations. Finds were located along a 2.5 km stretch of the Tollense River and include bronze and flint arrowheads as well as two wooden clubs. It is argued that the site should be interpreted as the scene of a conflict, with bodies (and animal remains) ending up in the river and on the shores, then repositioned through taphonomic processes. Osteoarchaeological study suggests at least 91 individuals were present, with a predominance of young males (163). Other small finds include presumed personal items, including a gold ring and two tin rings, as well as four bronze spiral rolls, which associate the people with “metal production and/or an exchange or trade network” (158–59).

The notion of what exactly is meant by “warrior” and what is signified by weapons burials is addressed by a number of the contributors. Anderson, basing his chapter on Late Bronze Age Britain, discusses the representation of warriors by archaeologists and the multiple possible identities and roles of warriors and combatants, whether in combat or in society generally. The widespread assumptions that warriors were male and the issue of sexing remains from martial grave goods are two of the gender-related issues. Variations in sword length, he suggests, might relate to the sex of the combatant or their other physical characteristics (216). Another interesting observation is that swords need not have been the highest status weapons, with spears, sometimes as difficult to make, being almost as well represented.

Georganas (189–97) clearly demonstrates that not all burials with weapons in the Late Bronze Age Aegean are “warrior burials,” as some of the deceased were too young to have used the weapons they were buried with. Looking at osteological data, some bodies buried without weapons seem to have suffered combat trauma, such as the young man of Armenoi, who suffered arm and leg wounds perhaps from an axe and whose right hand was severed. This pattern, Georganas points out, is also found in Anglo-Saxon England (194–95). The conclusion is that weapons burials may signify social status but do not necessarily indicate actual warriors (though sometimes they may indicate warrior-status potential). Real warriors, or men levied from smaller communities to fight, may have had no weapons buried with them. Georganas rightly notes the importance of blade use-wear studies and osteological analysis in revealing potential combat injuries.

Molloy and Klimscha both reference the concept of châine opératoire in their discussions of weapons. Molloy’s focus is on Naue II swords and a close study of regional differences apparent in southeastern Europe, such as the alloys used, rivet holes, blade design, and use-wear. Putting a new spin on the old Dorian migration myth, he suggests that such myths represent not directional migration events but a period of fluidity in which “the process of actual or abortive ethnogenesis was under way” (83). Klimscha discusses the development of weapons in the southern Levant from copper daggers through axes and swords, suggesting that a long period of experimentation with the former resulted eventually in the latter (112). Early swords may have been more for ritual use, but their development is also linked with increasing exchange and sociopolitical changes, including the potential for larger groups of more regulated fighters or armies in more complex societies.

The book ends with Vandkilde’s chapter, which offers a review of the 12 main contributions. He highlights in particular the need to further elucidate the role of “warfare and its agents” (229) in driving social and historical change, and he refreshingly emphasizes human agency in this: “It was the warriors who made the wars” (239). Rather than impersonal forces, warfare as peopled “cultural encounters” (239) is seen as central.

Overall, Horn and Kristiansen’s book has much of interest to offer, ranging from discussion of individual sites and specific types of artifacts to warriors, warfare, and sociopolitical change. It raises important caveats to simple equations of weapons in a grave = warriors/men/elites and no weapons = nonwarriors/nonelites, referring to the social roles of weapons. It raises important caveats to simple interpretations of the social roles of weapons in which weapons in a grave is equated with warriors/men/elites and no weapons is equated with nonwarriors/nonelites. The book will provide an important entry point to those seeking up-to-date discussion of these areas of inquiry regarding Bronze Age Europe.

Guy D. Middleton
Czech Institute of Egyptology
Charles University

Book Review of Warfare in Bronze Age Society, edited by Christian Horn and Kristian Kristiansen

Reviewed by Guy D. Middleton

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 123, No. 4 (October 2019)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1234.Middleton

Add new comment

Plain text

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.