Warriors and Weapons in Bronze Age Europe, by Anthony Harding
This book from the start promises to impress, stimulate and challenge the reader, and delivers on all three counts in more or less equal measure. It is strongest in its descriptive syntheses of the evidence, demonstrating a mastery of the exceptionally rich and complex archaeology of warfare (or fighting) in later European prehistory from the 4th to the 1st millennia BC. In this regard, Anthony Hardings book provides accessible and succinct reviews of all aspects of the subject in a way that that can only inspire and enthuse. At the same time, however, some readers may well question the assumptions that are made about how material evidence should be read interpretatively, and whether the interpretations that result can be used to construct a general explanatory account of cultural life in Bronze Age Europe.
The author is quite explicit that the primary aim of this book is to take debate forward along a specific path: detailed examination of the material evidence for fighting in the Bronze Age. This central theme is elaborated at several points, and it is clear that the overall purpose of the study is to establish a new descriptive and analytical basis for the study of armed violence in the Bronze Age, the weapons involved, and the warriors who used them. There is no question that in these empirical terms it succeeds in great measure, not least because of the truly continental range of synthesis and comparison, transcending previous attempts to summarise and characterise the evidence at a European scale (other recent studies that focus on warfare, warriors and/or warrior society in this period are: Osgood et al. 1999 and Harrison 2004, both of which are cited, and Kristiansen & Larsen 2005, which is not).
The main aim of the volume is realised through a well-crafted structure that develops and reinforces the central arguments as it proceeds, supported by well-chosen illustrations and helpful tables. It does, however, have one major weakness in terms of usability—the lack of an index: this is a serious failing for a book so rich in detailed information drawn from many different sites, regions and periods. The book begins with reviews of the recent theoretical and interpretative literature concerned with warfare generally, and prehistoric warfare in particular (Chapter 1 and 2). This is followed by a chronologically ordered survey of the evidence for weapons and their use, body trauma, defence architecture, figurative depictions of warriors and the social organisation of armed violence from the Mesolithic to the later Bronze Age (Chapters 3 to 6). The book then turns to more thematic considerations of weapon use and symbolism, the ritual dimension of weapon deposition and fighting, warrior identity and ethos, and the social organisation and purpose of group violence, focussing on the Middle and Late Bronze Age evidence (Chapters 7 to 10). The study culminates with brief discussions of the legacy of Bronze Age warriors in Iron Age cultural life, and the long-term evolutionary significance of Bronze Age warfare (Chapters 11 and 12). At every point the information presented is up-to-date and detailed without being over-complicated, and the book includes precise critical appraisals of important site data (such as the massacre sites of Velim and Blučina) alongside comprehensive overviews of the wider interpretative literature (albeit with occasional gaps, most notably the lack of any mention of Richard Bradleys The Passage of Arms (1998) in the discussion of weapon deposition).
The theoretical approach that pervades analysis and interpretation of the evidence is, however, likely to evoke strong negative reactions in some readers. It is essentially reflectionist in character, despite mention of ritual and the selection of objects for deposition in contexts such as graves and watery places. Anthony Harding argues that archaeological evidence has particular value in that it does not lie and thus offers a direct encounter with past materiality and cultural categories, in some circumstances allowing for relatively straightforward interpretations of the evidence in social terms—for example, in the reading of some aspects of social organisation from cemetery sites (Chapter 4). This is arguable to say the least, seemingly ignoring recent material culture studies in archaeology that favour constructivist and structurationist (ie, agency-based) approaches to material evidence (eg, see Hodder & Hutson 2003). From these perspectives, deposits of weapons in graves, hoards and wet places, and the types represented, were always culturally constituted—in ways mediated by particular beliefs, ideals, value systems and social dispositions. In other words, patterns of material deposition are never neutral reflections of past behaviour. For example, the apparent presence or absence of swords in parts of Europe at various periods in the Bronze Age, and the numbers found, are likely to bear no simple relation to their original frequency in material culture repertoires, or the prevalence of armed violence involving swords. Instead, their presence relates to metal supply, exchange cycles, metal recycling practices (cf. Needham 1993) and above all to the specific ways in which swords (perhaps specific kinds of swords) were deemed appropriate or inappropriate to depositional acts, selected or not selected because of the meanings they had for actors in particular social and cultural contexts.
In wider interpretative terms, as the final chapter emphasizes, the driving force of Hardings argument is a profoundly processual outlook on the nature of social change and how it should be characterised and explained. Here, the focus is on the transformation from hunter to warrior (essentially as ideal types embedded in distinctive social structures), leading eventually in the mid-2nd millennium BC to the formalisation and idealisation of elite groups that specialised in the use of armed violence—that is, the creation of a warrior society. Although the cultural evolutionist rationales that infuse this story may in theoretical terms be acceptable to some and not to others, there is no question that a long-term, geographically-extensive analysis of change in the material expression and social organisation of warfare has much to recommend it. It is the particular form that this framework takes that is questionable. The evolutionary process described is essentially gradualist, progressive (ie, leading to greater social complexity) and materialist: As tools turned into weapons, population increased, settlements became more numerous and more complex, and the social order changed. In this context, there was parallel evolution of a warrior persona, which according to Harding developed with each passing century and each new technological invention in the field of arms and armour. This account implies an inevitable trajectory of social transformation and clearly gives little consideration to uneven or changing tempos of social and cultural change in the course of the Bronze Age, either generally or regionally.
There is, indeed, no reason to assume that social change in the European Bronze Age was either smooth or continuous, or that social forms were similar across wide areas even for short periods. It is possible, instead, to recognise profound changes in the constitution of chiefly power, for example in shifts of emphasis between staple finance and wealth finance political economies (as Kristiansen (1998), amongst others, has proposed), or through changes in long-distance corridors of social interaction that led to transformations in the political circumstances of local elites (eg, through new articulations of trans-continental trade routes; Sherratt 1994). In this light, we should expect quite different motives and aims being attached to the actions of warriors within different social structures, with different social organisations of armed groups (whether raiding parties, war bands, or armies) and different kinds of violent actions to achieve specific ends. To defend or acquire territory in order to ensure the continued or greater supply of essential resources, such as agricultural products—which might be a dominant rationale in chiefly societies with a particular commitment to a staple finance economy—surely demands quite different kinds of military organisation and practical forms of armed action in comparison with chiefdoms founded on wealth finance principles.
Defended sites, for instance, while they may appear superficially similar, may have served quite different strategic and tactical purposes depending on the nature of perceived threats or intended gain in different social contexts. For example, in a predominantly staple finance-based chiefly polity, particular emphasis might be placed on creating defended places for the protection of core social or moral resources such as productive farming communities and their lands, grain stores, shrines and the royal court. In contrast, in a more wealth finance-based chiefdom, greater emphasis might be placed on forts as platforms for offensive action in contested or foreign lands (for example, as bases for raiding enemies to acquire valued commodities, or for projecting political authority and military capabilities to control the passage of prestige goods along exchange routes). Different kinds of chiefdom structure may thus give rise not only to different construction strategies and defence architectures but also radically different geographies of violence. Even the forms and personal handling of weapons escape simple functional generalization: these must relate to particular technologies of violence that were constituted socially. Weapons were manufactured and fighting techniques learnt within particular skill-reproducing groups embedded in wider social organisations (cf. Pfaffenberger 1988, Sigaut 1994), and they were infused with stylistic and aesthetic qualities that are best understood in specific cultural and political contexts rather than according to some generic model of warrior behaviour or symbolic representation. The great diversity of the Bronze Age evidence in material culture terms, and the distinctive spatial and temporal distributions of artefacts and practices which Anthony Harding charts in his book, do not therefore represent simple variations on a unified theme but rather point to an archaeology of cultural difference. In this, we should seek an understanding of the Bronze Age evidence as much in particular kinds of social agency and representation as in sweeping social norms.
It is especially surprising, in this context, that despite frequent reference to geographical variation in the presence and types of weaponry, fortifications and depictions of warriors at each stage during the Bronze Age (and the evidence for diversity in every other area of social life), the whole of Europe is treated as a single cultural entity as if warriors and warrior society were the same everywhere. This extends to the characterisation of a shared ethos, a kind of Bronze Age zeitgeist of prestige, honour and violence that lasted for two thousand years or more. We should, however, be deeply suspicious of such a representation because it again conflates cultural difference to produce a generic characterization of elite personhood, behaviour and social structure. Even if we imagine that such an ethos was indeed pervasive, its articulation among Bronze Age societies may well have been extremely diverse, with varied expression both in practical and material terms from one group to another. To take a comparative example, historical ethnographies and archaeologies of native North American societies in the 2nd millennium AD point to huge cultural variation in the nature of warfare across both space and time. In every aspect—the religious and political beliefs that sanctioned group violence, ideal or moral conduct in peace and war, the constitution of armed groups, weaponry and modes of fighting, defence architecture, geographies of conflict and the treatment of enemies in life and death—it is possible to discern only fleeting patterns, rarely spanning more than a century or two and usually only at a regional scale (Ames & Mischner 1999; Milner 1999; Zimmerman 1997). To characterise all this variation with reference to one set of ideal-type qualities, invested in the notion of a warrior society, effectively denies the possibility of a real understanding of past cultural lives even in this relatively recent part-historical context—as it surely does in the case of the European Bronze Age as well.
At one level, there is no question that Warriors and Weapons in Bronze Age Europe is a thorough and detailed book that makes a valuable contribution to our study of Bronze Age warfare, warriors and fighting. Just as important, perhaps, is that it is a good read, which is not only a rare feat in archaeological academia but of course opens a door to the subject for a wide potential readership. In other respects, certainly from some theoretical perspectives, the book can be criticised in terms of the approaches adopted and the interpretations presented. Yet the grounds for criticism discussed above should certainly not put anyone off acquiring this book, because its virtues are considerable and the debates it should generate, whether critical or not, can only advance our understanding of the material evidence for fighting, weaponry and the cultural significance of warfare in the European Bronze Age—and this, of course, is precisely the outcome that the author aimed to achieve.
Ames, K. & Maschner, H. 1999. Peoples of the Northwest Coast: their archaeology and prehistory. London: Thames & Hudson
Review submitted: June 2008
The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews Editor.
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