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The development of warrior identities in the European Bronze Age

Anthony Harding, University of Exeter

In recent years much attention has been paid to the evidence for warfare in the Bronze
Age, in many parts of Europe and the Near East. This trend seems to have started in
the 1990s, when several scholars were thinking about it: I was doing so myself
throughout the 90s, in preparation for my book published in 2000, in which a chapter
on warfare appeared (Harding 2000); Richard Osgood was working on his thesis on
warfare in the Bronze Age of northern Europe (published as Osgood 1998), and
Sutton Publishing produced several books on the topic of warfare, two of which
(Carman and Harding 1999 and Osgood, Monks and Toms 2000) dealt in whole or in
part with Bronze Age warfare. Many authors had dealt with individual classes of
material, both artefacts (for instance swords) and sites (notably hillforts) for many
years before this, but it has been over the last 15 years that these have been brought
together into a whole that is more than the sum of its parts. At the same time,
ethnographers and cultural anthropologists have written profusely on the topic of
warfare in pre-industrial societies, as a spate of recent volumes indicates: a selection
from the most recent literature includes Keeley 1996; Kelly 2000; Ferguson 1995;
Otterbein 2004; LeBlanc 1999; LeBlanc and Register 2003; Arkush and Allen 2006;
there are many more. Other articles and books recently published by archaeologists
include Otto et al. 2006; Jockenhövel 2004/5; and Harding 2007, a volume in which I
specifically attempted to trace the story of warrior development in Bronze Age
Europe, largely through the study of weaponry. It also contains a substantial
bibliography on the topic of Bronze Age warfare, to which the reader is referred in the
absence of more extensive referencing here. In this article, I use some of the material
assembled there in order to try to paint a picture of warrior development across the
centuries that the Copper and Bronze Age spanned.

A brief outline of the development of warrior status in Bronze Age Europe

At the start, we should consider this question: how do we define warriors in the
archaeological record? The short answer to this question is: by the weapons that
people were buried with, or, on occasion, that they are depicted with. A warrior is
someone who fights; a fighter normally needs implements with which to carry out his
or her aggressive activity; so those implements become known as “weapons”, which
by definition are items for fighting others with. So much is perhaps uncontroversial;
the problem comes with identifying if items really were weapons, and if they were,
whether they were used in an aggressive fashion against other humans, and with intent
to cause physical harm.

The longer answer involves consideration of all the evidence that bears on individual
identity in this, as in other, periods. It would include examination of cemeteries with
good evidence for age and sex, and a well-preserved set of grave-goods; of other
evidence for fighting, for instance in the form of trauma on skeletons; and
examination of site form, location and history, to see whether it is possible to identify
attacks, positioning for defence, and so on.
Up until the Neolithic, it is likely, if not provable, that most objects used as projectiles
or stabbing implements were primarily intended for use in hunting. There are several
well-known instances of skeletal trauma and even mass burial, notably the Talheim
assemblage which is plausibly interpreted as the result of a massacre of some kind.
Arrowheads are common throughout the period, and in some areas flint or stone (or
even metal in later centuries) knife-daggers are present. Ötzi shows us that arrows
could be used against people as well as animals, but we have no idea how often this
might have occurred. I prefer to adopt a conservative stance on this issue and assume
that most arrows and most knife-daggers in the Neolithic were used primarily in
hunting animals and not as weapons against other humans. Certainly there is little or
no supporting evidence to suggest that we are witnessing warriors.

Things change, of course, with the Copper Age, and most notably with the
magnificent statue-stelae that are found mainly in the Alpine or sub-Alpine area. The
superb stelae from Arco in the Trentino illustrate the point nicely. Not all are as
spectacularly equipped as the famous piece with multiple daggers, halberds and axes,
but several show either daggers or bows or battle-axes or “enigmatic objects” that
may be maces or other insignia of status. The famous stelae from Petit Chasseur in
Sion in the Rhône valley are also significant in this respect, as are several of the stelae
from the Lunigiana north of La Spezia. Interestingly, these stelae seem to date quite
early in the sequence of warrior development, and earlier than many of the daggers
that characterise the Beaker cultures of the late Copper Age. Now when we look at
these stelae, we can be in no doubt that the person being depicted and memorialised is
associated strongly with the implements that are shown on his (or sometimes possibly
her) body. The appearance of a bow on its own does not necessarily indicate warrior
status. Nor, we might argue, does the appearance of a dagger on its own – this might
actually have been used primarily as a hunting knife.

What happens next? These stelae seem to serve as an introduction to the dagger
culture that develops in the late Copper and Bronze Ages. Along with daggers,
arrowheads are found, in other words the same panoply of implements that was in use
in the later Neolithic, and which I have interpreted as being primarily associated with
hunting. I assume that hunting continues to be important. What is hard to assess is
the extent to which dagger graves indicate something more than the resting place of
elite hunters.

The Arco and Petit Chasseur stelae seem to be indicators of a status that does not
really come into full being until a millennium later. When we look at the
configuration of evidence for the late third and earlier second millennium BC, we find
the following: in the Beaker cultures, daggers or knife-daggers of various kinds occur
regularly, though in a minority of graves. In the full Early Bronze Age, especially in
central and western Europe, daggers become relatively common – though still
restricted in their distribution. But it is striking that many of the daggers from the
later part of the Early Bronze Age are high quality productions, often with decorated
blades, and in a well-known class with solid metal hilts. Add to this the fact that it
was during just this period that the first swords appear, in the Carpathian Basin (the
swords of Apa-Hajdúsámson type), and we can see that the objects are surely more
than mere hunting items.
The appearance of the sword has universally been regarded as marking a crucial
transition in the course of human history. While daggers could have a use in hunting,
or even merely as knives, swords cannot really be regarded as anything other than
intended to cause physical damage to a human opponent. This is not to say that all
swords were used as fighting implements, but in origin it seems likely that they were,
and even those that had a ceremonial or display function can be regarded as
essentially weapons for hurting people with, actually or symbolically.

So by around 1600 BC at the latest, and possibly earlier (depending on your position
on the absolute date of Apa-Hajdúsámson), we have weapons in existence that were
certainly intended for fighting as opposed to hunting. At some point between the
creation of the late Copper Age stelae and the appearance of these swords, we can
place the point at which ownership of a dagger means a move from hunting animals to
fighting other people, and fighting them in a less than haphazard way. Can we specify
more precisely when that moment was? This is difficult, but if pressed, I would say
that it occurred at some point in the Early Bronze Age, prior to Bz A2, at a time when
the first elaborately produced and decorated daggers appeared – if I had to put a date
on it, around 2000 BC.

Later developments
If we look at the development of arms and armour during the second millennium BC
in barbarian Europe (things may have been different in the Aegean and the Near East),
it is clear that by the end of the millennium the situation was very different from that
at the beginning. By 1000 BC, that is to say in the Late Bronze Age, large numbers of
weapons (mainly swords and spearheads) were in circulation, and had been for several
centuries. Armour, of sheet bronze or organic materials, was also available, though
the vagaries of preservation do not allow us to detect it as frequently as we would like.
All these things can hardly be anything other than the accoutrements of the warrior:
they were specifically created for the purpose, they were probably used extensively
(to judge from damage to swords and, on occasion, armour), and they were buried
with people who we can confidently call “warriors”. This enormous change over the
course of the millennium raises many questions about the social and economic
conditions that allowed this development to happen.

The sword was invented at some point in the Early Bronze Age, but it did not become
more widely known until a couple of centuries later; and it cannot be said to have
been common (to judge from the imperfect source material) until later than that. After
1200 BC there are indeed large numbers of swords from several parts of Europe. No
part of the continent has none; and some parts have very large numbers, as Henrik
Thrane (2004) and I have attempted to chart in previous work. Thus parts of the
Nordic area, and Ireland, have a high density compared to other countries (though
exactly what this tells us is uncertain: it could be related to how metal was used rather
than to the frequency with which fighting took place). In northern Europe, swords are
quite commonly found in graves; by contrast, they are almost never in graves in
Britain and Ireland, and the same is true in some other places. I will return to the
significance of this variable mode of deposition below.

If the sword reached Europe in the later part of the Early Bronze Age, it was during
the Middle Bronze Age that it became a relatively frequent form – though it must be
stressed that the emphasis should be on “relatively”. By comparison with the
situation in the Late Bronze Age, swords remained few and far between. We can see
them above all in graves of the Tumulus Bronze Age and related cultures, where they
appear with ornaments (typically spiral leg and arm guards, depending on area),
spearheads, and a few other forms. In Britain and Ireland, the favoured form was a
relatively short pointed weapon, usually referred to as a dirk or rapier, depending on
length. I suppose one could use these weapons to deliver the coup de grâce to a
wounded animal, but a knife or dagger would actually seem better for the purpose.
Instead, I prefer to see these as part of the developing move towards militarism, or at
least, the show of aggressive weaponry which could be used against other people
when necessary.

The early forms of both Griffzungenschwert and Vollgriffschwert developed during

the Middle Bronze Age in continental Europe, and it is these weapons, along with the
spear, that really marked the sea change in the way we perceive those who wielded
them – and perhaps, in the way they perceived themselves. Really, from this moment
on, we are talking about changes in quite minor details of the swords rather than
anything more fundamental. It is true that some changes, such as the development of
a leaf-shaped blade, might bespeak some alteration to the way the weapon was
actually wielded – I bow to Barry Molloy in any assessment of this – but in essence
the two sword types seem to me to represent a particular facies of militaristic
accoutrement in the period, a facies that once established did not change in its
essentials for several centuries – not even when iron started to replace bronze as the
main material for weaponry.

There are of course other questions which one might ask of the material record in this
respect, notably, why two sword forms? What was the essential difference between
the Vollgriffschwert and the Griffzungenschwert, that caused swordsmiths to draw
such a clear distinction between them? This is a complex matter, which may have
less to do with warrior identity than with object biographies and the intentions of the
maker and user of the weapons.

If the story so far is correct, we are to envisage the centuries between 3000 and 1200
hosting a remarkable shift in the way that people – I assume mainly men – viewed the
tools of their trade, and hence their own identity. To say they went from being hunters
to being warriors is too simplistic, but there is an element of truth in this statement.
However, we can perhaps go a little further in pinning down exactly what it was that
people were doing with their weapons – not just how they wielded them, but what
they did with them. I believe that a study of their deposition has much to tell us about
what they were for.

But does this tell us anything about the role and status of the warrior in the Bronze
Age? Can we automatically assume that a dagger, and later a sword, was the mark of
someone whose role in life was to act as a fighter, who intended to engage in combat
with others, and probably to maim or kill them? Probably, but not certainly. Let us
now turn to other classes of evidence.

Rock art
The other source of evidence that deserves particular mention is rock art. As is well-
known, numerous rock art panels in Scandinavia, particularly western Sweden, depict
men bearing weapons: swords in scabbards fastened at the waist (though not
brandished), spears (usually held aloft), battle-axes, and shields. What is more, these
depictions sometimes show armed men in the unusual situation of being aboard a
boat. While the number of armed men is small by comparison with the number of
boats or animal figures, and pales into insignificance when compared with the
commonest motif, the cup-mark, they are still a sizeable component of the repertoire
of depictions.

Many people have speculated on what these images depict, whether a specific scene
showing fights between particular warriors whom the artist and viewer could name; or
whether they are rather generic scenes of battle, such as occurred as a regular part of
Bronze Age life in that part of the world. The further question arises, is the fighting
that is shown serious fighting, between warriors intent on killing or wounding one
another; or is it rather some kind of ceremonial or display combat in which warriors
engaged as part of a set of symbolic actions? In either event, what are the
implications for the warrior and for warriorhood in Bronze Age Scandinavia? And do
those implications apply in other areas where such art is not present?

Certainty on these matters is beyond us, but there are some pointers. It is always the
case, as far as I am aware, that the warriors are brandishing the weapons but not
striking their opponents. In many instances, there is no opponent; the warrior simply
holds his weapons – and may or may not be part of a larger scene (a much debated
matter). The weapons that are brandished are never swords, at least not certainly
swords; whereas spears, axes and sometimes other weapons (clubs?) are clearly
shown. The spears and axes are often very large, sometimes oversize (i.e. they appear
out of all proportion to what an individual might have actually thrown or wielded).
The warriors are never shown as part of a group, let alone a massed brigade; though
sometimes several are shown separately on one panel (“separately” meaning that
while they might have been intended to be seen together, there is no indication that
they were created as part of a single dynamic scene). The appearance of the warriors
in boats represents a further conundrum: since one famous example shows such
individuals blowing trumpets (lures), there is a strong hint that what is depicted is
some kind of generic ceremonial scene. Lures, after all, are usually found in pairs
deposited in various parts of South Scandinavia in situations where they are unlikely
to have been intended for recovery. They may have served a purpose as war trumpets,
though this is pure speculation.

Add to this the deposition of armour, such as the set of shields from Froslunda in
central Sweden or the Viksø helmets, and the experiments by John Coles which seem
to show beyond doubt that metal shields were functionally much inferior to leather
ones (a matter which of course Barry Molloy disputes), and an association with the
votive sphere seems assured.

I believe I am not alone in seeing in these rock art images generic scenes depicting
warriors showing their prowess, showing off if you like. It seems entirely plausible
that young men, on reaching puberty (or some stage or age beyond it), should have
been required to engage in weapon handling as a preparation for a life that might have
involved serving in war bands as part of the retinue of a chief or head man. These
scenes on the rock art might depict either these practice skirmishes, or some other
kind of ceremonial combat between individuals such as occurred at specified times,
and which were an essential part of what it meant to be a warrior in Bronze Age
Scandinavia. That some such scenes take place in boats is not surprising when one
considers the nature of the natural environment along Swedish coasts: numerous sea
inlets, rough and rugged inland terrain, such that water journeys might be much the
easiest means of communication between groups near and far. The number of boats
depicted surely confirms such a picture.

Now Scandinavia is but one area of Europe, and an outlying area at that; one may
properly question whether what happened there can be regarded as representative of
the wider European scene. Certainly the images on the rock art are not found outside
the Nordic area, not even in those other parts of Europe where rock art appears (in
Valcamonica, for instance, one sees a very different repertory of motifs). But given
the similarities in general material culture between south Scandinavia and northern
continental Europe, there seems no bar to treating this art as at least a guide to some
possibilities in the interpretation of warrior behaviour in Bronze Age Europe.

Weapon deposition

It is not just the formal development of weaponry, or the depictions on rock art, that
give us information on how warrior identity changed, however: it is also the ways in
which these items were deposited, the contexts in which they occur archaeologically,
and the objects that accompanied them to the ground.

This is not the place to embark on an extended discussion of how and why objects in
the Bronze Age – principally metal objects, but also those of other materials – found
their way into the ground, other than in burial contexts. Suffice it to say that the
climate of opinion has shifted markedly in the last 20-30 years towards a votive, or at
any rate non-utilitarian, explanation for the vast majority of depositions that are found
outside funerary and settlement contexts. The traditional distinction between
founders’, traders’ and personal hoards, and the explanation of deposition in the
ground for safekeeping in times of trouble, tends to break down when one asks the
simple question, why was all this metal not recovered? This is not to say that all
hoards had a votive purpose; some depositions, particularly of single objects, may
have been accidental, and some may genuinely have been deposited to prevent other
people getting hold of them; but I for one believe that the vast majority of hoards were
deposited intentionally with no expectation of recovering them. This applies
particularly to those which were put in wet places, such as bogs, rivers or lakes, but
can also be seen as likely for those where there is no likelihood that the place of
deposition was ever wet, such as on hilltops or heathland.

Hoards vary considerably in content and size, but a large number contain weapons,
either whole or broken. Interestingly, even in those hoards which contain, for
instance, numbers of broken sword pieces the pieces rarely join up, rarely even belong
to the same weapon. It seems unthinkable that if there was a sword broken into
several pieces around, all or most of the pieces of that sword would not have been
collected up and put into the same collection of scrap if the intention had been to
assemble scrap metal for the melting pot. Instead, hoards can be seen to consist of a
specific selection of objects, whether whole or broken. Thus pieces of separate
swords (and other items) were collected together and deposited en masse in a very
specific act of deposition.

The ways in which this affects our understanding of warriorhood in the Bronze Age
are varied. We are basically trying to put together a life history of individual objects,
when most pieces of the jigsaw are missing. But the very fact that swords could end
their life broken, and were placed in the ground individually or with other metal
objects, tells us something about the purpose they served during their life, and what
happened on their death. For this we need to look at some statistics of weapon
deposition – principally swords, which are the best-studied in Bronze Age Europe (the
study of spearheads is unfortunately much less well-developed, though it would
doubtless repay detailed study).

I repeat here some tables that I have already published, since they provide us with
interesting information on sword deposition contexts.

Context No. % % excluding

Water 213 27.7 33.0
Hoard 260 33.8 40.2
Single 167 21.7 25.9
Burials 3 0.4 0.5
Cave 2 0.3 0.3
Settlement 1 0.1 0.15
Unknown 123 16.0 0
Total 769 100.0 100.05

British sword deposition contexts (Burgess & Colquhoun 1988)

Context No. %
Rivers 64
Lakes 14
Bogs 48
Other wet 43
Subtotal wet 169 46.8
Other/unknown 192 53.2
Total 361 100.0

Irish sword deposition contexts (Eogan 1965; Burke 2001)

These figures from Ireland and Britain are striking: there are almost no depositions of
swords with burials (admittedly, in the later Bronze Age there is a shortage of burial
evidence), and the vast majority of swords were deposited in hoards, in wet places, or
as single objects.
What does this tell us about the role of the sword in the British Isles? Perhaps two
things: on the death of a human it was not considered appropriate to place a sword
with the deceased; and on the death of a sword it was considered appropriate to break
it and place it out of reach of present and future generations. This does not, however,
tell us much about how individual warriors regarded their swords.

By contrast, when one looks at the situation in central Europe, one finds along with a
substantial number in hoards and wet places a sizeable number placed in burials.

Context No. % % excluding unknown

Wet places 286 26.3 30.6
Hoards 67 6.2 7.2
Single 224 20.6 23.9
Burials 310 28.5 33.1
Settlements* 49 4.5 5.2
Unknown 151 13.9 0
Total 1087 100 100

Deposition contexts of swords in central Europe (Schauer 1971; Krämer 1985; v.

Quillfeldt 1995)

What is more, it can be shown that within this number, there was a significant
tendency for Griffzungenschwerter to be more likely to be placed in burials than
Vollgriffschwerter, and for Vollgriffschwerter to be placed in wet places more
commonly than Griffzungenschwerter. In other words, different sword types had
different life histories. This also affects their use in combat, as shown by wear or
damage. Kristian Kristiansen devoted many hours of his younger days to an
examination of resharpening on Danish swords; I find more persuasive than this the
evidence of blade notching and other edge damage. As Sue Bridgford has shown for
the Irish swords (1997), large numbers show marked use patterns, wear, or notching,
indicating that they really were used, presumably in real combat. My own
examination of actual swords indicated much the same, and study of the drawings in
the PBF series can add to this body of knowledge. By no means all swords bear edge
damage, but many do; and for those with significant notching, it is much the most
likely that the damage resulted from the clash of blade against blade.

In fact, the commonest forms of damage are found at the hilt and the tip.
Griffzungenschwerter often have broken rivet holes, or snapped hilts; and swords of
all types quite commonly have broken tips. The former must surely result from the
stresses incurred during use; the latter are more mysterious, since it is not obvious that
hitting an opponent (or his sword or shield) would break the tip off a sword. It is
equally possible that this form of damage came at the end of a weapon’s life, as a way
of putting it out of use for ever.

But in summary, the totality of evidence from sword deposition, and the state in
which they were deposited, bears out the notion that they were extensively used, had a
specific purpose in both life and death, and were a regular accompaniment of the
warrior on his journey through manhood. In different areas, however, different ways
of treating the sword at the end of its life were practised; but in all cases there was a
strong element of intentionality about how this treatment was carried out.

Interpreting the evidence for the identity and role of warriors

Taking these various sources of evidence together, it is possible to develop a picture

of the Bronze Age warrior and his social environment. Individuals no doubt had to
achieve competence, perhaps excellence, in wielding their weapons and defending
themselves against attack. But the number of weapons deposited, and the increasing
numbers of fortified centres as the period progressed, surely indicates that combat was
more than the meeting of individual warriors. Here we have to make something of a
leap of faith, and draw an analogy with a rather later period: the Germanic Iron Age.
The accounts of, among others, Tacitus give a detailed and believable picture of how
chieftains among the Germanic tribes whom the Romans of the first century AD
acquired bands of young men to serve as their followers, their retinue (Gefolgschaft,
to use the technical term), and who would fight on their behalf with the main aim of
maintaining their prestige of the chief. In these accounts it is the war band which is
paramount, not the individual warrior. I believe there is a strong case for viewing at
least the Late Bronze Age as subject to this form of social organisation.

Can we back-project such a picture from the Roman Iron Age backwards through the
centuries BC to the Bronze Age? We cannot be sure, but we can say this: if the
practice existed in the first century AD, it surely existed in the first century BC, and
since it is described as a common feature of the German tribes probably went back
beyond that. How far back we cannot of course know; but given the long history of
prestige weapon production through the Iron Age, and indeed the Late Bronze Age,
there is no particular reason to doubt that such war bands existed for centuries prior to
the time of the Roman invasions. The further evidence of the rise of territorial
centres, and the division of land into estates in the later part of the Bronze Age, serves
as fuel to this fire.


Identifying personal identities from the mute material evidence of prehistoric periods
is always going to be a matter of debate and speculation. In the case of warriors,
however, there is such a wealth of artefactual material available for study that this
problem seems less pressing than for other groups of people. There are thousands of
weapons, mainly swords and spearheads, and scores of armour pieces, to work with;
and every single one tells us something about the people who made and used it. Add
the evidence of rock art and deposition, and the story acquires a much more textured
and nuanced significance. The demonstration that weapons were not deposited
randomly or accidentally is a crucial factor in the debate, since they remove or
diminish the possibility of chance acquisition, use and loss. All the indications are
that weapons signify warriors, that the identification of men as warriors developed
over the course of some 1000 years, and that in the later stages of the Bronze Age
men served as warriors in war bands. It is thus no exaggeration to say that the Bronze
Age was a period marked by, if not defined by, the rise of the warrior and the
prevalence of inter-personal aggression.
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