Archaeology Of Conflict And War Research Paper

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Archaeology is the study of patterns of effects; repetitions of human behavior that leave an enduring mark on the physical world. War, the armed conflict between social units, is such a pattern and leaves very enduring effects. Such effects include the remains of victims of homicide and warfare, fortifications, specialized weapons, destroyed settlements, and depictions of combat. Ancient violent conflicts also had important consequences, correlates, and causes involving human ecology, the distribution of settlements, production and exchange, social organization, ideology, and symbolism.

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The definitions of ‘war’ used by social scientists and historians can be grouped into two extreme categories: broad and narrow. Broad definitions, like that used in the introductory paragraph, classify violent and lethal conflicts between all social or political units as war. Broad definitions allow the survey and analysis of the widest range of deadly conflicts between human groups. They permit anthropologists studying pre-historic and recent small-scale societies to contribute to scholarly and popular debates about warfare. Narrow definitions restrict the term ‘war’ just to societies organized as states. States being political organizations that are hierarchically organized, centrally directed, class-stratified with a high degree of occupational specialization (especially, full-time military specialists) and which maintain a monopoly of deadly force. Narrow definitions restrict analysis of warfare only to societies roughly similar in scale and complexity to modern nations. They excuse ignorance about violent conflicts between nonstate societies. Broad definitions imply that warfare is a human universal while narrow definitions claim that collective violence is a scourge peculiar to states.

Until the development of scientific dating methods around 1950, the primary concern of archaeologists was establishing sequences of cultural changes for their respective regions. Their interpretations of social phenomenon, such as warfare, when they made any at all, tended to be off-hand with little basis in analysis or argument. Their attitudes toward prehistoric warfare were also affected by the Social Darwinist attitudes that characterized the heyday of Western Imperialism. Many kinds of implements and constructions were blithely assumed to be weapons of war or fortifications. Many cultural changes were declared to be the result of prehistoric conquests. The shocks of World War II’s savagery, postwar decolonization, and the ‘atomic fear’ of the Cold War fostered a severe aversion to war and conquest in the Western intellectual and popular cultures. Q. Wright (A Study of War, 1942, University of Chicago Press) and H. Turney-High (Primitive War, 1949, University of South Carolina Press) persuaded most postwar social scientists and historians that the fighting of prestate societies was ritualized, undangerous, and ineffective, a game or sport rather than a serious business. Both argued that fighting only became dangerous, terrible, and effective when societies became politically centralized and socially complex, especially as civilized states. ‘Ethnographic analogy’ based on these generalizations implied that prehistoric ‘combat,’ like games or sports, was politically, economically, and ecologically ineffective, unimportant, and frivolous. While archaeologists continued to record evidence of prehistoric conflicts, analysis or discussion of these traces became less and less common in the post-War era.

The development of radiometric dating after the war freed archaeologists to focus upon the actual functioning of the societies they studied as well as how and why they changed. For any number of reasons, since around 1950, the many theoretical currents among archaeologists have eschewed war and con-quests as interpretations or explanations in favor of ecological, economic, and indigenous social evolutionary processes. Increasingly, fortifications were re-interpreted as ritual enclosures, and many obvious weapons were seen as merely symbols of wealth and status. Post-War archaeologists, through disregard or reinterpretation, pacified the past.

However, since around 1985 archaeologists around the world have uncovered some obvious, even shocking, remains left by ancient armed conflicts (see Sect. 1). These have led to a revival of interest by many archaeologists in ancient warfare. The relatively small-scale but horrific conflicts between ethnic groups and small nations that have appeared in many places after the end of the Cold War may also have encouraged this change. Discussions of methodologies for documenting prehistoric warfare as well as war’s possible significance in prehistory have begun appearing in major archaeological journals and books.

1. Human Remains

The most unequivocal evidence of ancient homicides are human remains bearing traumas caused by weapons, for example, sword cuts, dents made by axes, and depressed fractures made by maces, etc. However, the most commonly noted weapons traumas, worldwide, involve projectile points of bone or stone embedded in the skeletons of victims. The absence of any healing or inflammation around such traumas indicates that the victim did not long survive them. The bones of early hominids do show healed and unhealed traumas (e.g., Neanderthals seemed to have been particularly accident-prone). But before the widespread use of stone and bone projectile tips (around 40 000 BP), it is impossible to determine whether these traumas were effected by human violence or by other more prosaic causes. Evidence of homicide (not necessarily warfare) appears as soon as modern humans appear on the scene. At Grimaldi, Italy, (around 32 000 BP), the skeleton of a child was found with a bone projectile point embedded in its spine. In the Nile Valley, Egypt, a male skeleton (around 20 000 BP) had several projectile points in his abdomen and a partially healed one embedded in his arm. The earliest clear evidence for warfare also comes from the Nile Valley from the Late Paleolithic (around 13 000 BP) cemetery at Gebel Sahaba. Over 40 percent of the 59 people buried there had clearly died from arrow wounds, often multiple. The victims included men, women, and children and were sometimes buried in small groups indicating that several were killed simultaneously. This gruesome evidence as well as many other examples from around the world (for example, Kennewick Man, around 9600 BP, from Washington State and the frequent homicide victims found in Late Mesolithic cemeteries in Europe) indicate that hunter-gatherers, even early ones, were anything but pacific. Homicide, then, is at least as old as modern humanity (i.e., Homo sapiens sapiens) while warfare appears in the archaeological record as soon as there are sufficiently large burial populations, concentrated in cemeteries, which allow its detection.

Such weapons traumas are sometimes accompanied by other traumas from perimortem (i.e., at the time of death) mutilations and/or trophy taking. One of the most common mutilations was ‘overkill’ with the victim struck several times with blows or projectiles, any one of which would have been sufficient to have caused death. Some of the men buried at Gebel Sahaba had been struck by over a dozen arrows. Decapitated corpses and disembodied heads, the result of heads being taken as war trophies, have been found in sites as diverse in time and space as the late prehistoric (around AD 1300) Norris Farm cemetery in Illinois and Mesolithic (5500 BC) skull caches found in Ofnet Cave, Germany. In North America, the practice of scalping was evidenced by characteristic cut-marks left on the skull by the scalping knife. Such cut-marks have been noted on many skulls of several thousand years old. The most complete mutilations suffered by war victims results from cannibalism. However, the thoroughgoing destruction of human remains associated with cannibalism usually removes or obscures any traces of the causes of death, including violence.

Very often corpses bearing weapons and mutilation traumas were interred ‘unceremoniously,’ that is, with-out grave goods or in a manner uncharacteristic of their respective archaeological cultures. For example, the people of the Linear Pottery Culture (around 5000 BC) of central and northwestern Europe usually buried their dead individually in a flexed position in oval plan graves, with the adults often accompanied by grave offerings that included pots, stone adze axes and awls. At Talhiem, Germany, a large pit from this period contained the sprawled skeletons of 34 men, women, and children unaccompanied by any grave goods. They had all been struck on the head, the men always several times (i.e., over-kill), with axes and adzes of characteristically Linear Pottery shape. From the size and shape of the traumas, it was inferred that the wounds were inflicted by at least seven attackers. At Crow Creek in South Dakota the remains of over 500 men, women, and children dating to AD 1325 were found heaped in the fortification ditch of a large village of that period. Over 90 percent of these unceremoniously buried individuals bore scalping marks on their skulls and many showed traumas from axes and ball-headed clubs. The houses (50 ) and the palisade of this village had been burned into the ground and the site was never reoccupied. Occasionally, the remains of war victims were accidentally buried by the collapse of burned housed or fortification walls (see Sect. 2). The large number of simultaneous deaths caused by warfare overwhelmed their compatriots capacity to give the victims a ‘proper’ burial, while enemies seldom give their dead foes even the most cursory burial, if any at all.

It is not always easy from weapon traumas alone, to distinguish between the victims of simple murder and the collective homicide of war. The co-occurrence of weapon traumas with evidence of mutilation, trophy taking, and unceremonious burial (especially in groups), however, distinguish war from simple murder. When such gruesome human remains are re-covered from areas and time periods that yield other indications of warfare, their interpretation as war casualties is more certain. For example, the Early Neolithic (around 5000 BC) village of Herxheim, Germany, was surrounded by two concentric ditches into which had been placed the disembodied skullcaps of at least 300 individuals, some children’s. Given their regular placement in the already excavated portion (about 30 percent) of the ditches, the excavators estimate that the complete ditches contain about 1,000 skulls. The only one of these skullcaps completely studied so far bore two traumas from blows by blunt instruments and one trauma from the blow of an axe. Cut marks on this cranium also indicated that the scalp had been removed. One complete body had been simply thrown into one of the ditches and abandoned. Inside the village seven graves of the usual kind for this culture (Linear Pottery), some with grave offerings, were uncovered, as were the traces of five long-houses. Like Crow Creek, Herxheim produced evidence of weapons traumas, postmortem mutilation, trophy taking, and uncharacteristic or unceremonious treatment of the dead.

Interestingly there were time periods in some regions where, despite large burial populations, we find little or no evidence of weapon traumas, mutilation, or any other evidence of warfare. For example, In the Near East just as the people were becoming farmers during the final Epi-Paleolithic and Early Neolithic (around 11 000 to 7000 BC), life seemed to have been unusually nonviolent. This case and a parallel one involving the Hopewell-Adena period (around 300 BC to AD 500) in the eastern US directly contradict the very popular idea that the origin of warfare is tied to that of agriculture. The corollary that hunter-gatherers were inherently peaceful is belied by the many very homicidal, war ridden foraging societies known to archaeology, ethnography, and history. Indeed, over the ages, the bodies of homicide and war victims show no evidence that foragers, farmers, peasants, or city dwellers, the subjects of bands, chiefdoms or states, Europeans, Africans, Asians, Amerindians, or Oceanians were always, or even generally, more peaceful or warlike than anyone else.

2. Fortifications

The remains of fortifications are obvious traces of warfare. Since they must be collectively constructed by groups and defend a group’s persons and property, fortifications are a symptom of war rather than murder. Such defenses often feature ditches, palisades, ramparts, and walls surrounding a settlement or other desirable locations. These barriers inhibit entry, shield the defenders from the weapons of the attackers, and screen the formers’ numbers and movements from the latter’s sight. Fortifications may also show projecting bastions at intervals which eliminate safe ‘dead zones’ by allowing defenders to direct flanking fire at attackers reaching the wall. Since the gates are the most vulnerable parts of fortifications, they often show special features that make them more dangerous to attackers. The oldest and most common of such entry defenses are ‘baffle gates.’ The simplest form involves having the curtain wall palisades overlap at entry points in such a fashion that attackers can only enter the interior by passing one-by-one down a narrow passage. Often these baffles required attackers to expose their unshielded (i.e., right) side to defenders on the walls. Other gate defenses include towers, deadfall pits with removable bridges, narrow chutes projecting into the interior, etc. Even very ancient fortifications remain visible on the landscape or can be detected in aerial photographs. Nevertheless, excavation is required to assess their date, the details of their construction, and the plan of their gates.

However, fortifications are stationary fixtures and only protect a very small point on the landscape. Even a simple log palisade around a small settlement requires a large amount of labor and time to construct. Thus, peoples with mobile lifestyles, portable possessions, or small social groupings seldom construct fortifications. Because of their high labor demands, even sedentary peoples may only build them when the attacks are very frequent and/or costly. Probably for all these reasons, no examples of fortifications have been found dating to the Paleolithic when even the most sedentary hunter-gatherers were mobile during part of the year. Only settled farmers and, later, very sedentary hunter-gatherers have constructed fortifications. The earliest possible fortifications (around 8000 BC), consisting of a mud brick wall and tower, were found at Jericho in the Near East. However, some archaeologists interpret the wall as for flood control and the tower as a temple. During the Early Neolithic period (around 5000 BC) in northwest Europe many villages of early farmers were defended by ditches backed by palisades (which apparently were wattle-and-daubed) and had complicated (often ‘baffled’) gates. Somewhat later (around 4000 BC) exactly similar features in England, UK, were in at least two instances attacked by archers, stormed, and burned. In one instance, the body of a young man was found sprawled in the ditch under the debris of the collapsed burned palisade. He had been struck in the back by an arrow and had crushed the infant under him when he fell. Similar fortifications have been found surrounding late prehistoric settlements in the Eastern US and were observed by the first European explorers and invaders (e.g. De Soto’s men in the Southeast). During the Bronze and Iron Ages in Asia, Europe, and Africa, walls of stone or brick, often with very elaborate gates, defended towns and chiefly residences.

3. Weaponry

Weapons of war have often been indistinguishable from those used for hunting or, in the case of axes, from more prosaic implements. Indeed, many implements were used for both military and everyday functions. Weapons specialized for warfare do appear in the archaeological record. Such implements have features that make them less suited for nonhomicidal activities and/or are only found in contexts that indicate that their functions were usually, or only, military. Because of their use in the most terrible and frightening of human activities, weapons of war usually acquire symbolic significance and roles in ritual. Projectile points used primarily for war often have stems and barbs that make them difficult to extract, or increase the likelihood that they will cause an infection. For example, many war points had easily slipped hafts so that when the arrow or spear shaft is pulled out, the head stayed in the body whereas hunting points were tightly hafted. For example, one type of Late Archaic (around 3000 BC) spear point from the US Southeast was found almost exclusively associated with homicide victims’ skeletons. Unlike the more common other Late Archaic point types, this one had a short stem that would have easily slipped its haft. Judging from their food remains, the Early Neolithic (around 5000 BC) farmers of northwest Europe almost never hunted, yet a common find on their sites is a distinctive triangular arrowhead that would have easily slipped from its haft. A few human remains from this period have been recovered bearing traumas from points of this type. There is no profit in killing a prey animal days or weeks later by infection but, alas, the opposite is true regarding an enemy. There is archaeological evidence that some prehistoric people designed their weaponry with this point in mind.

Axes and adzes are common archaeological finds in many regions and time periods over the past 10 000 years. They are always interpreted as woodworking tools even though there is rarely any independent or direct evidence for this assumption except their form. But some prehistoric axes and adzes obviously also had more violent functions. The stone axes and adzes of the early Neolithic people of northwestern Europe and those of the Late Prehistoric Midwestern US were certainly used to kill people as the holes knocked into the heads of the victims at Talheim and Crow Creek (see Sect. 1) attest. More problematic are instances, such as those of the Late Prehistoric (after AD 1000) Great Plains and desert Southwest of North America, where trees were rare and wood-working a necessarily unusual activity yet labor-costly ground-stone axes of ‘expensive’ imported raw materials were nonetheless common. There are many ethnographic instances of such axes and adzes simultaneously serving as wood-working tools, media of exchange, items of wealth, symbols of (adult male) status, and weapons of war. Just because an implement was used as a tool does not preclude it being used as a weapon of war.

Some ancient implements of copper, bronze, and iron, such as swords, halberds, daggers, and broad axes, had no other possible or plausible direct use except as weapons of war. Increasingly since 1950 it has become fashionable to interpret these artifacts as nothing more than symbols of wealth (i.e., primitive monies) or (adult male) socio-political status. The geographic rarity of metal ores and the high labor costs of their reduction to implements would enhance the prehistoric economic and social value of any metal artifacts, even prosaic tools. Metal weapons of war could only be more valuable than the latter because war and warriors were known and valued by the general populace or the ruling elites. Similarly, their symbolic values only arise from their use or possible use in the most fearsome of human activities.

4. Representational Art

Artistic representations of homicide and warfare have been found on rock art, painted pottery, and carved into stone, bone, or ivory. The scenes may represent dreams, myths, or hoped for events rather than real fights. The frequency of depictions of combat in the corpus of a culture’s artwork may bear little relationship with the contemporary frequency of conflict. For example, military scenes became less frequent on Classic Greek vases as combat became more common during the Peloponnesian Wars. However, representations of combat do indicate that the artists were at least familiar with warfare.

Human representations of any kind are extremely rare in the famous Upper Paleolithic (around 15 000 BP) cave paintings of Western Europe. A couple of these paintings depict a man apparently skewered by several spears but whether these represent victims of warfare or murder is unclear. By the Neolithic (around 4500 BC), some cave paintings from Spain clearly show military scenes. The most celebrated is a painting of combat between two small groups, numbering four and three, respectively, fighting with bows. It also depicts ‘tactics’ by showing a simultaneous center advance and flank attack by the larger group. In the prehistoric (so-called ‘Bushman’) rock art of Southern Africa (date unclear) depictions of combat and cattle raiding are not uncommon. Some of these show smaller unshielded, bow-wielding San battling larger Bantu armed with shields, spears, and throwing clubs. In Peru, decorations on Moche (around AD 500) pots show warriors armed with maces carrying trophy heads. The Classic Mayan (around AD 800) wall paintings at Bonampak, Mexico, show a battle be-tween Mayan warriors in one panel, the torture and beheading of prisoners in another, and a victory dance in a third. While rare, many different prehistoric peoples from many different regions of the world have left depictions of warfare and its aftermath. Some of these representations were created by hunter-gatherers, some by farmers, some by tribesmen, and some by subjects of chiefs and kings. Whatever their social and economic circumstances, these ancient artists were familiar enough with warfare that they depicted it so accurately that, even today, we can see that war was hell even when fought with wooden spears or bows.

5. Contexts For Warfare

It has often been argued that only farmers, with their fields and sedentary villages, had territories and resources worth fighting over. However, water-holes, fishing stations, plant gathering patches, hunting territories, and the like were equally essential to hunter-gatherers, as were pasture lands and their herds to nomadic pastoralists. The arguments propounding a close, if not causal, relationship between states and warfare are more complex. The general idea seems to be that political organizations that can concentrate such physical force and economic resources as states, devoted to death and taxes, should be more bellicose than societies in which power and resources are more diffused. Both archaeological and ethnographic data completely contradict both these claims—neither the frequency nor the viciousness of warfare can be correlated with any general type of economy or form of political organization.

Another popular claim is that warfare is somehow part of our genetic code. This idea implies that warfare is a constant feature of all human life. Archaeology, ethnography, and history indicate that warfare has long been a variable condition. Some places and periods show little or no warfare while deadly fighting was frequent and intense in other cases among people of the same genetic stocks. For example, in the eastern part of the central Mississippi drainage basin, warfare was rife just before 1000 BC, almost disappeared by 300 BC, began increasing after AD 500, and peaked between AD 1100 and 1400. The socio-biological argument also implies that the bravest, most regular, and ruthless warriors should have enjoyed a higher status and left behind more descendents (thus, ‘war’ genes) than less bellicose men. Also, it implies that the fiercest warriors should attract or rape more women rather than wealthier, more politically adept or hand-some but less militant men. However, worldwide, prehistoric societies’ most elaborately buried, higher status dead almost never died violently nor bore healed weapon traumas. Conversely, most skeletons with both healed and unhealed weapons traumas have been those of young men. This evidence implies that, for many thousands of years, war’s usual casualties were warriors who had had no or little chance to pass on their genes. Instead, the persons accorded the highest status and having had the longest reproductive careers usually gave little or no evidence of having been warriors. Indeed, ethnography and history indicate that the men and women who have left the most descendents were not warriors but those versed in the arts of peace—craftsman(woman)ship, trade, child-rearing, diplomacy, oratory, generosity, and the like.

With the archaeology of warfare in the early stages of a revival, cases for comparative analysis remain rare. Some archaeologists have observed that periods of intense warfare were correlated with climatic and ecological deteriorations. Such ‘hard times’ include a period of frequent droughts in the American South-west, declining precipitation on the US Great Plains, and a marine die-off along the coast of Southern California. Human remains from these regions and periods often show pathologies caused by inadequate nutrition. For example, the bones of victims of the Crow Creek massacre (see Sect. 1 showed signs of chronic undernourishment, while in the Santa Barbara region signs of anemia were common during the period of frequent warfare. Moving frontiers between different cultures may have been especially war torn. For example, most fortified Linear Pottery settlements were concentrated on the frontiers of the colonist farmers’ settlement zone. Other archaeologists have noted that warfare increases during periods of political consolidation, for example, when tribes were coalescing or being incorporated into chiefdoms, chiefdoms into states, or small states into empires. Conversely, warfare seems to have increased during the dissolution of larger political units, especially states and empires. Which, if any, of these interpretations apply to particular prehistoric situations demands much more excavation and analysis. The question of why some periods in some places were so peaceful has hardly been addressed. However, with the revival of archaeological interest in warfare, the necessary work has begun.


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