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Ancient Warfare

Ancient Warfare

by John Carmen

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This ambitious and innovative book sets out to establish a new understanding of human aggression and conflict in the distant past. Examining the evidence of warfare in prehistoric times and in the early historical period, John Carman and Anthony Harding throw fresh light on the motives and methods of the combatants. This study marks a significant new step in this


This ambitious and innovative book sets out to establish a new understanding of human aggression and conflict in the distant past. Examining the evidence of warfare in prehistoric times and in the early historical period, John Carman and Anthony Harding throw fresh light on the motives and methods of the combatants. This study marks a significant new step in this fascinating and neglected subject, and sets the agenda for many years to come. By integrating archaeological and documentary research, the contributors seek to explain why some sides gained and others lost in battle and examine the impact of warfare on the social and political developments of early chiefdoms and states. Their conclusions suggest a new interpretation of the evolution of warfare from the Stone Age and the Bronze Age, through the military practice of the Ancient Greeks and the Romans, to the conflicts of the Anglo-Saxons and of medieval Europe.

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"A significant review of the current evidence."  —Cambridge Archaeological Journal

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Ancient Warfare

Archaeological Perspectives

By John Carman, Anthony Harding

The History Press

Copyright © 2013 John Carman and Anthony Harding
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-9521-7



John Carman and Anthony Harding

This book is about warfare in the ancient past. More specifically, it is about how archaeologists can address issues that are of contemporary interest and concern to students of mass violence as a part of human existence.

The book derives in part from a conference on the theme of ancient warfare held in Durham, England, in 1996, at which some of the contributions had their origins. Other contributors were specifically invited to address issues not otherwise covered. The contributions as a whole attempt to provide the most complete coverage of the archaeological study of ancient warfare (excluding other forms of human violence) currently available.

We are concerned with five principal themes, each of which can be expressed in the form of questions:

• What general lessons applicable to archaeology are to be learnt from a study of warfare in ethnographic and historical situations? Why do so many societies engage in warfare? What advantages does it bring, and what risks does it involve?

• In what ways can archaeological evidence be used to tell us about warfare in the past, before (or without) writing? Is artefactual material with warlike associations (weaponry, defensive structures) necessarily to be seen in itself as evidence for warfare? If not, what is?

• In what ways was warfare a structural part of the development of early Europe? How did it relate to social and political development – for instance, the emergence of chiefdoms or state-formation?

• Can general statements be made cross-culturally about ancient warfare in archaeological terms? Can the study of, for instance, Egyptian or Roman warfare contribute to the study of prehistoric or early Medieval warfare?

• What can archaeology contribute to studies of warfare? Is a distinctively archaeological contribution to the study of warfare a valid objective?

Anyone who has considered the nature and importance of ancient warfare will have come across a number of key texts. All students of war realise the pervasive importance of the great work of Carl von Clausewitz, On War (1976 [1832]), which sets out many of the fundamental concepts that underlie the modern study of the subject. Von Clausewitz's concerns were partly with warfare as he knew it (see Keegan 1993, 12ff. for an account of von Clausewitz's career in so far as it affected his thought) and partly with what he saw as the universals of warfare. At the time, neither archaeology nor anthropology existed as recognised disciplines with a body of theory and data of their own, and as a consequence von Clausewitz could not know much about forms of warfare outside his direct experience, or beyond available texts.

For writers of the present day, a couple of works are key – one might say required – reading. The first is H.H. Turney-High's compellingly written Primitive War: Its Practice and Concepts (1949). Though much has changed since then, and current ethnographers would not today adopt (or even accept as valid) his cross-cultural approach, this remains one of the most far-reaching, and certainly the best-written, anthropological texts on the subject, reaching also into archaeology – at least into the archaeology that was being written before the Second World War. Especially for present-day students, the first couple of chapters are crucial, the first dealing with weapons, and the second with the general practices of war. It is salutary, on reading Chapter 1 of Primitive War, to find how many of the statements in this present volume are foreshadowed there.

The second work is more recent: John Keegan's A History of Warfare (1993). Keegan is a military historian, and neither an anthropologist nor an archaeologist, but his panoramic knowledge of the theoretical as well as the historical literature means that he can range across these as well as his home disciplines. The book is not really a history of warfare at all, but a review of most aspects of the study of warfare, illustrated with historical examples.

More recently still, Lawrence H. Keeley has published his War Before Civilization (1996) which has a particular message to press home: that the past was not a peaceful place. According to Keeley, the past has been 'pacified': that is to say, scholars have allegedly not attributed to it the warlike qualities he believes it possessed. War in the ancient past was, in his view, frequent and deadly: even if particular periods do not appear to possess many weapons, fortifications or much evidence of slaughter, that does not mean they were not prone to constant wars. We have read Keeley's work with interest and profit, which is not to say we agree with everything he says, as the contents of this book will make clear.

Other recent authors who have dealt with war in the anthropological literature include Robert L. Carneiro, R. Brian Ferguson and Jonathan Haas. We are glad to acknowledge here their many insights. An archaeologist who has brought the study of warfare into many of his writings is Timothy Earle, well known for his studies of chiefdoms. His most recent book on this subject, How Chiefs Come to Power (1997), explicitly devotes a chapter to 'Military Power: The Strategic Use of Naked Force' in his consideration of the long-term development of 'chiefdoms' in Denmark, Hawaii and the Andes. Among the issues Earle raises are the ways warfare relates to the establishment and maintenance of political power, comparing approaches such as the cultural-ecological or political-ecological (e.g., the 'circumscription' theory of Carneiro) with those placing greater importance on economic or ideological factors. Earle concludes that 'warfare was critical in all three cases', though it differed greatly in its nature and effectiveness in each.

Several authors have pointed out – though until now, perhaps not clearly enough – that for an archaeologist, what is crucial is a conjunction between observed archaeological data (artefacts in the wide sense) and the material remains of known violent encounters in the historical or ethnographic record. Archaeologically, what survive are three potential categories of data (cf. Chapter 5): artefacts used with aggressive intent ('weapons'), damage inflicted on other humans in the form of pathological marks on human skeletons (or rarely, soft tissue) and site evidence in the form of constructions for defence or, more rarely, offence. What do not survive are the motives, causes, courses and outcomes of the aggression, at least not in directly observable form. On the other hand, it is a reasonable presumption that at least some weapons – perhaps the majority – and at least some fortifications were the result of the causes and courses of ancient wars. Archaeologists seeking to understand the nature of the societies they are studying want to be able to specify how and why these evidences of conflict occurred, and how they affected the development of the societies in question. But in warfare as in so many other things, recent practice may be a poor guide to what happened in ancient times, so help is needed from other sources.

Defining ancient warfare: anthropological influence

The theme of warfare has been much debated by anthropologists since Malinowski (1941) and before. In recent times, Fried et al. (1968), Ferguson (1984; 1990; Ferguson & Whitehead 1992), Haas (1990b) and Carneiro (1990) have made notable contributions, as have historians, sociologists, psychologists and (bringing up the rear) archaeologists (cf. other chapters in this volume; Escalon de Fonton 1964; Behrens 1978; Vencl 1983; 1984a; 1984b; 1984c; Goldberg & Findlow 1984).

Almost inevitably, archaeologists of warfare are bound to notions about war derived from the sister-disciplines of history and anthropology (especially Keeley 1996; Carman 1997a), while others (e.g., Haas 1990b; Goldberg & Findlow 1984) locate themselves within the anthropological discourse about war. From these associations come a confusing number of terms applied to periods and types of warfare. In general, the term 'ancient warfare' as used in this book, means warfare in the past, from the first (unrecorded) instance of war up to the first millennium ad. Some references which derive from anthropological sources may apply to the kind of warfare we generally expect to have been experienced over a thousand years ago, even though they were learned from societies contemporary with our own. Terms for this kind of low-technology, limited war fought by traditional societies may include 'ritual war' (Chaliand 1994, 7) or (although we very much prefer to avoid these terms' pejorative overtones) 'wars by primitive societies' (Chaliand 1994, 7) and 'primitive war' (Turney-High 1949; Keegan 1993).

Conventional military history chooses to define warfare by a mixture of Western historical periods ('Ancient', 'Medieval', 'Modern'), geographical region ('Eastern') and description of the style of war ('Total' or 'Nuclear') (Montgomery 1968). A newer breed of military historian (especially Keegan 1993) chooses to use terms applicable universally to define types of warfare: 'primitive' for occasional small-scale wars fought by traditional societies, 'determined by subsistence and demography and ... not very costly in lives' (Chaliand 1994, 7); 'Oriental' for wars distinguished by 'evasion, delay and indirectness' (Keegan 1993, 387), often by the application of defensive strategies, and deemed to be the kind of wars fought by the complex cultures of Asia (Chaliand 1994, 21), and finally, 'Western' for the fierce wars of annihilation in battle we inflict upon ourselves (cf. Hanson 1989; Keegan 1993). The majority of the authors in this book are concerned with the earliest kind of war fought by anatomically modern humans – the kinds still fought by some societies which are dubbed by some writers as 'primitive'. Others cross the 'military horizon' (Turney-High 1949; Keegan 1993) to consider the violence of more 'civilised' warfare.

Confusion of terminology can arise where a term is appropriated as part of a different scheme from our own. Thus, Gray (1997) locates 'ancient' warfare in a continuum with modern war and postmodern war, as part of a discourse whereby war became an activity subject to 'rules, order, and form' (Gray 1997, 107) akin to Turney-High's non-'primitive' 'true war' (Turney-High 1949). This organised war is intended to be clearly distinguished from 'primitive, heroic, unorganised, ritual war' (Gray 1997, 106), which is a form of ongoing discourse between the human and 'the other' in which the conservation of the enemy is as important as, or even more so than their destruction (Gray 1997, 97). Gray's ancient, modern and postmodern wars fall into Chaliand's rationally ordered categories of 'wars with limited objectives', 'conventional wars of conquest' and 'mass wars' (Chaliand 1994, 7). Unorganised wars are designated by him as either 'ritual wars', defined as those which are 'not to the death. Generally they are the mark of societies that are still archaic or traditional' (Chaliand 1994, 7), or they may fall into the category of 'wars without quarter' – either wars of ideas (about religion or identity) or wars against those seen as radically different (Chaliand 1994, 7–8). In general, the kind of warfare indulged in by early societies has been held to be limited, having 'recourse to all sorts of devices which spare [combatant and non-combatant alike] from the worst of what might be inflicted' (Keegan 1993, 387). This is the view put forward by Turney-High: 'Many of the slayers of consanguine society were [natural] ... But there is certainly one which has been consistently neglected. This is the rise of the army with officers' (Turney-High 1949, 253). This view has been taken up by his successors. For Ferguson & Whitehead and their contributors, it is the contact zone between civilisation and indigenous peoples which is the location of the most violent forms of warfare: 'a tribal zone can be a very violent place. At its worst it can consume a population' (Ferguson & Whitehead 1992, 27).

The work of those such as Turney-High (1949) and Ferguson & Whitehead (1992), and the results they have achieved, derive from efforts to understand how and why the kinds of traditional societies studied by anthropologists fight, putting the focus on the formal aspects of their warfare. Keeley (1996) challenges archaeologists and anthropologists to look again at their evidence and he is concerned to understand how what he considers to be the conventional view of a 'pacified past' came about. Like Carman (1997a), he locates this in a review of the history of anthropologies of war. Carman (1993; 1997a, 6–10) links the concerns of anthropologists in this area with events beyond academic anthropology, in an effort to explain how and why certain styles of approach were adopted in anthropology at particular times since the end of the Second World War. By contrast, Keeley – perhaps more fairly to anthropological students of warfare – considers anthropological developments independently from broader social and political ones (Keeley 1996, 5–17, 164–70).

Keeley's work owes much to Turney-High (1949) and Keegan (1976), not least because he chooses to structure the book in terms of the kinds of evidence they each consider, and he shares with them a preparedness not to be squeamish. Where he differs from both is in the conclusion reached: 'civilised' warfare is not more terrible than other forms, for after 'exploring war before civilisation in search of something less terrible than the wars we know, we merely arrive where we started with an all-too familiar catalog [sic] of deaths, rapes, pillage, destruction, and terror' (Keeley 1996, 174):

Primitive war was not a puerile or deficient form of warfare, but war reduced to its essentials: killing enemies with a minimum of risk, denying them the means of life via vandalism and theft ... terrorising them into either yielding territory or desisting from their encroachments and aggressions ... It is civilised war that is stylised, ritualised and relatively less dangerous. When soldiers clash with warriors ... it is precisely these 'decorative' civilised tactics and paraphernalia that must be abandoned. (Keeley 1996, 175)

Keeley draws very largely on surveys of the anthropological literature to provide quantified cross-cultural comparisons which support his contention that 'The facts recovered ... indicate unequivocally that primitive and prehistoric warfare was just as terrible and effective as the historic and civilised version' (Keeley 1996, 174). Moreover, whereas 'the modern nation-state goes to war once in a generation ... [and after adjusting for the duration of such wars, being] at war only about one year in every five ... 65 percent [of a sample of non-state societies were] at war continuously' (Keeley 1996, 33). In addition, 'by the measure of ... mobilisation ... war is no less important to tribes than to nations' (Keeley 1996, 35–6). A valuable insight of Keeley's is that there is more to warfare than the formal battle. In a battle between warriors and other warriors, formal limiting rules apply (cf. Chapters 4, 12 and 13, this volume), 'but unrestricted warfare, without rules and aimed at annihilation, was practised against outsiders' (Keeley 1996, 65). Here he turns the anthropological and archaeological focus away from mutually-agreed modes of combat towards rather less 'honourable' kinds: the raid, the ambush and particularly the massacre of non-combatants. Keeley finds all war – 'civilised', 'tribal', 'primitive' or 'prehistoric' – to be always total and unlimited war.

Keeley's argument forces anthropologists and archaeologists to rethink their approach to warfare. In particular, it presents us with a challenge: either to continue to believe – despite the presence of arguments and evidence to the contrary – that the distant past was relatively peaceful and such warfare as took place was characterised by restraint and ritual controls on violence, or to face the possibility that the concept of 'limited' war (at least in the past) is an oxymoron. The idea that war is either 'real' and unlimited in its violence or 'ritual' and thus limited is rooted deep in our thinking: Turney-High (1949) drew the distinction between 'primitive' war and 'true' war, which his successors have followed. But even before anthropologists began to study the warfare of non-literate traditional societies, the great philosopher of war, von Clausewitz (1976 [1832]), had pointed out that war is inevitably a province of violence, and the limitation of that violence is only the product of other factors external to the combatants – what he terms 'friction' (von Clausewitz 1976 [1832], 119–21):

Kind hearted people might of course think there was some ... way to disarm or defeat an enemy without too much bloodshed ... [But] it is a fallacy that must be exposed ... If one side uses force without compunction, undeterred by the bloodshed it involves, while the other side refrains ... [t]hat [first] side will force the other to follow suit; each will drive its opponent toward extremes ... This is how [war] must be seen. It would be futile – even wrong – to try and shut one's eyes to what war really is from sheer distress at its brutality. (von Clausewitz 1976 [1832], 75–6)


Excerpted from Ancient Warfare by John Carman, Anthony Harding. Copyright © 2013 John Carman and Anthony Harding. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Meet the Author

John Carman is a research fellow at Birmingham University who has made a special study of the archaeology of violence. Anthony Harding is professor of archaeology at Exeter University and an expert on the archaeological evidence for warfare.

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