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  • The Archaeology of Warfare: Prehistories of Raiding and Conquest
  • Katherine M. Harrell
The Archaeology of Warfare: Prehistories of Raiding and Conquest. Edited by Elizabeth N. Arkush and Mark W. Allen . Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2006. ISBN 0-8130-2930-9. Maps. Photographs. Illustrations. Tables. Figures. Index. Pp. 549. $65.00.

The study of prehistoric warfare has been a subject of increasing interest to archaeologists, with a marked upsurge in the past decade. Among the many new titles dealing with ancient warfare, this volume, edited by Arkush and Allen, has much to offer archaeologists. To date, studies of prehistoric warfare generally have focused on Old World European case studies. For the most part, this has been because of the thousands of well preserved bronze weapons found from Scandinavia south to the Mediterranean; the historical myths and legends that underscore the antiquity of socially-organized violence in this region; and the contributions of archaeology by way of uncovering mass graves and ancient fortifications. This volume is a welcome addition to the body of Old World scholarship because of its focus on "peripheral" cultural assemblages, with the majority of study areas coming from the New World but also from China, Micronesia, and Africa.

The papers are organized in three sections grouped around theoretical perspectives, with the predominant focus being the impact of warfare on social organization. The approach taken by the volume in studying warfare and social organization makes a lasting contribution to studies of ancient warfare. This is because it advocates two current methods of inquiry, as spelled out in the first two sections of the book. The first of these, "Warfare in Middle Range Societies," encourages the identification of bellicose practices in non-states, which signifies a change in archaeological thought from some of the earliest conceptions of prehistoric warfare, as elaborated, for example, by H.H. Turney-High (Primitive War: Its Practice and Concepts [Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1949]), in which warfare was ritualistic instead of spontaneous, pacifistic instead of lethal.

Moreover, the second section, "Warfare and the Transition to Statehood," promotes the view that the ways wars are waged can change a society and can themselves be changed by transformations in social organization. While it has long been thought that warfare contributes to state formation, the notion that changes in the practices of warfare can be attributed to social transformations is much less common. Historically, archaeologists have tended to measure the overall impact of warfare on society against the overwhelming lethality of modern conflicts; not surprisingly, ancient warfare has appeared to be ritualistic and essentially non-violent in comparison. However, recent approaches to ancient warfare have moved away from such comparisons and have focused on understanding warfare in ancient societies on its own [End Page 546] terms. The authors of this volume have taken this approach, aiming to understand the forms of warfare conducted by ancient societies and the ways in which these forms reflect cultural ideologies.

Further to this, there is an understanding that ways of war have changed in form and varied over time as societies have evolved. In short, the authors of this volume, as noted in the chapter on "Themes in the Archaeological Study of War," take a much more complex view of warfare in ancient society. The older notion of an unsophisticated linear influence of warfare on social development has been abandoned in favor of one stressing a more complex and reflexive interrelationship between war and social change.

To sum up, this volume has a great deal to offer archaeologists who are interested in ancient warfare. Because the contents are organized thematically, and yet the individual contributions range widely in the way the authors demonstrate the impact and structure of warfare in the various cultures under study, the reader will be exposed to a number of ways in which warfare has affected, and been affected by, ancient peoples.

Katherine M. Harrell
University of Sheffield
Sheffield, United Kingdom


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pp. 546-547
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2010
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