Archaeology of warfare: teaching and studying warfare in the archaeology of the Late Bronze Age and Iron Age of west Asia and east Europe

This blog is the report of a seminar entitled “Archaeology of Warfare; Teaching and Studying Warfare in Archaeology of East Europe and West Asia, Late Bronze Age and Iron Age.” in Lyon, France. This event was organized by Archéorient (UMR 5133) and Collegium, Institut d’études avancées de Lyon, and in collaboration with the University of Lyon, Pars Institute of Art And Architecture, Tehran, Iran and Metropol Grand Lyon financial help. Researchers in different fields of warfare archaeology, from universities and  other institutions worldwide, were invited to contribute to this two-day seminar which took place on 2-3 March 2023. This event provided the mechanism for a multi-disciplinary inquiry, within which each of the contributors presented the latest results of their research on different aspects of warfare and discussed and analyzed multiple aspects of studying and teaching archaeology of warfare in East Europe and West Asia during the Late Bronze Age and Iron Age.  

Warfare Archaeology

The history of warfare is as long as the history of humankind. Most of the earliest written records from all over the world are filled with reports of fighting and wars. It is important to note that war and warfare institutions are associated with activities involving a limited amount of material remains. Thus, the complex history of warfare across different periods and culturally diverse regions is an excellent source of information to study conflict in the human past. Warfare’s history chronicle events (e.g., battles, invasions, sieges, post-wars) simultaneously explores cultural milieux and related social variables that influenced when, how, and on what scale warfare was conducted in the past.

A survey of research history immediately highlights the fact that war-related violence was not really an issue in archaeological interpretations until after c. 1995. Prior to this date, archaeologists studied weaponry, and in some measure warriors, but rarely violence and warfare.  The establishment of an ‘archaeology of war’ is a recent development of the last couple of decades (Vandkilde 2014).

Given the complex nature of warfare and the ambiguity of archaeological evidence of war, this seminar addressed different questions focused on six critical themes concerning warfare in archaeological studies in the pre/protohistoric societies of West Asia and East Europe during the Late Bronze and Iron Ages, including:

  • The theories and approaches relevant to studying warfare and warfare-related material in archaeology.
  • The study of weaponry and related technological and metallurgical research (e.g., metallography, elemental, and isotopic analysis).
  • The constitution of armies, warfare strategies, infantry and cavalry practices and techniques, recruitment, military hierarchies, and mobilization procedures.
  • The study of artistic iconography relevant to warfare and the development of weaponry
  • The study of warfare and its historical record as known from textual sources
  • The study of cultural experiences and rituals associated with warfare in the societies under discussion in the seminar.

Presentations and discussions addressed the fundamental question of “how frequent warfare affects the basic choices people make about where to live, whom to fight, how to defend themselves, on whom to confer power, and how to form social groups.” These contributions provided a non-linear perspective to characterize the nature of warfare as encountered in research and teaching the archaeology of the Bronze Age and Iron Age in west Asia and East Europe.

Brief summary of contributions on archaeology of warfare:

This event included seven contributions that addressed different issues from theoretical approaches to more interdisciplinary approaches to the study of wars in archaeology.

The first lecture, “Warfare and violence in theoretical and comparative perspectives,” was delivered by Dr. Helle Vandkilde, professor at the School of Culture and Society at the department of Archaeology and Cultural Heritage Studies at Arhus University, Denmark. This lecture addressed the importance of combining archaeological solid datasets with theoretical aspects in the study of warfare in archaeology. It suggested using archaeology’s massive potential in the broader historical situations and trajectories field. Archaeological datasets should be combined with theoretical and comparative insights from anthropology and history. However, it is necessary to consider that the importance of war should not be overemphasized in the study of societies. Drawing on examples from anthropology, the Neolithic, and the Bronze Age, this lecture mainly covered key issues such as how to best define warfare and war, what are the key organizational units, and whether war is a history-maker.

The second lecture “What the study of weapons can tell us about warfare in prehistory,” presented by Dr. Barry Molley, associate professor at the School of Archaeology at the University College Dublin at Ireland. Violence was far from random practice in the Bronze Age when other stress-coping mechanisms failed. All levels of society anticipated and planned for violence by manufacturing swords, battle axes, shields, helmets, armor, and battle spears. The metal is procured, made into weapons by smiths, and used by the warriors. Smiths devote significant time to perfecting their craft. Those who use specialized weapons in life-or-death situations should be equally dedicated to perfecting their use. The time they invested in learning to fight must have been essential and defining to their lives, whether they were farmers, traders, or specialized warriors in some societies. How can we use the archaeological data to demonstrate any of this, and what does this mean for prehistoric societies? It suggests culturally embedded and developed ways of fighting, which had profound meaning. In other words, combat was brutal and nasty and a place where skill was crucial. Historically, such skills were likely replete with ideologies, hidden or secret moves, schools, and traditions. Culture defined fighting as much as it defined it, so it was fundamentally cultural. The first part of question addressed in this lecture was focused on how ancient weapons’ traces of damage reveal their use. Experimental archaeology has also been successful in complementing this. Thus, warfare in the Bronze Age was a defining element of societies in both peace and conflict.

The third lecture, “Displaying war and peace in Oxford” delivered by Dr. Paul Collins from the Middle East Department in the British Museum, UK, addressed warfare-related material from a different perspective. This lecture pointed out the inefficiency of the traditional museum’s displays of archaeological material as ‘art’ shaped by chronological and typological considerations without having significant social narratives. Displaying objects, either isolated or in association with others for contemplative viewing, can often fail to engage audiences with the realities of life and death or the practical and symbolic use of objects. This is especially true with artifacts relating to the conflict. Taking a case study of a refurbishment of the ancient Middle East gallery at the Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford, and with a particular focus on the redisplay of so-called Luristan Bronzes, this talk offered thoughts on how museums can create greater context and mean through a flexible approach of ‘constellations’ of objects, intended to highlight methods of production and their multiple uses and meanings.

The fourth lecture, “Dynamics of warfare and society; how warfare and social structures interact and survive, a look through Ancient South-West Asia” was presented by Dr. Zahra Kouzehgari, associate researcher at the Archéorient Laboratory (UMR5133), Lyon, France. This lecture examined the role of war and its institutions in developing particular forms of social and political organization in distinct stages of historical development in human societies throughout history. Despite war’s destructive and unpleasant nature in human societies, this lecture examines warfare at a deeper level to better understand its dynamics. By using a dual approach, it argued how war and military organizations acted as a mechanism for social and cultural developments and political transformations and also how the evolution of military institutions and changes in warfare techniques and tactics led to the fundamental changes in social institutions and structures, in Ancient South-West Asia.

In the fifth contribution, Dr. Benjamin Raffield presented “Militarized societies on the move: Viking raiding fleets in Western Europe during the 9th century CE.” The lecture covered the later periods when Viking invasion fleets increased in the region during the late 8th to mid-9th century CE, causing extensive upheaval and disruption in the northern world. In archaeological and historical studies of these fleets, the composition, organizational structures, and strategic objectives ranged from a few ships and dozens of fighters to large fleets with hundreds of ships and thousands of people. Rather than merely mobile fighting forces, Raffield considered these groups to be migratory societies. The lecture examines how these fleets were formed, their institutional hierarchies, and the structures of governance that enabled them to mobilize for collective action against established kingdoms and state-level polities.

Dr. Ümit Güder, senior researcher at the Institute of Classical Archeology, Charles University, Prague, Czech Republic, and Max-Planck-Institute for Eisenforschung, Düsseldorf, Germany, presented the sixth lecture, “Examining warfare through microscopes : achaeometallurgy of ancient weaponry.” This lecture examined ancient weapons using archaeometallurgy techniques. Archaeometallurgy techniques for studying metal arms and armor are briefly discussed, as well as current developments in the field and analytical procedures in case studies. Analysis of archaeometallurgy tools can provide insight into ancient metalcraft materials. By analyzing the microstructure of materials, metallographic analysis reveals the material quality and changes the material has undergone throughout the manufacturing process. This is due to mechanical and thermal processes. Understanding alloying practices and material origins can be achieved using chemical analysis and mechanical tests. The techniques also enable the measurement of an object’s resistance to forces encountered during use or performance. This archaeometric technique provides us with information about the factors that influenced ancient weapons production, such as technological knowledge (i.e., heat treatments), production organization (i.e., systematic application of specific manufacturing techniques), and economy.

Seventh and last lecture was given by Dr. Anna Tornberg, a researcher at Lund University’s archaeology and ancient history department: “More than numbers – interdisciplinary approaches to ancient violence and warfare.” In this lecture, she stressed the importance of analyzing skeletal remains to study war and violence in human societies. Statistical analyses and such studies can provide information on population frequency calculations and conflicts of varying magnitudes. In her approach to conflict, Dr. Tornberg integrates evidence of violence with data from archaeology, isotope analysis, and archaeogenetics. In the context of ancient violence and warfare, bioarchaeological studies can generate knowledge that goes beyond numbers by integrating data from various sources. Osteological analyses can inform the frequency and type of trauma. At the same time, contextual archaeological data can reveal the cultural patterns of the victims. Furthermore, it can reveal projectile points that were initially embedded in soft tissue, just to name a few. Archaeogenetic and isotope data, however, may help us understand patterns of variation in the presence of violence within and across populations using biosocial implications of violence. As an example of this interdisciplinary approach, this paper, presented the outline and preliminary results of an ongoing project about warfare and violence in the Nordic Corded Ware Complex.


Vandkile, H. 2014. Archaeology, Theory, and War-Related Violence: Theoretical Perspectives on the Archaeology of Warfare and Warriorhood, “The Oxford Handbook of Archaeological Theory”, Edited by Andrew Gardner, Mark Lake, and Ulrike Sommer, pp. 1-32.


I would like to express my sincere thanks to all those who have been involved during the planning and organization of this seminar, including Dr. Frederic Abbes (Director of Archéorient), Dr. Jean-Michel Roy (Director of Colleguim), Mrs. Gwenaelle Pequay (Administrative and financial manager of Archéorient UMR5133/CNRS/LYON2), Mrs. Anissa Rejeb, Mrs. Severine Dalynjak (both from University of Lyon), Mrs. Bita Khterizadeh, who provided the technical supports, and Dr. Sebastien Gondet, for his assistance.


Zahra Kouzehgari est spécialiste de l’archéologie des armes, des guerres et des sociétés de l’âge du bronze récent et de l’âge du fer en Iran. Membre de l’UMR 5133-Archéorient, Lyon.

Citer ce billet
Zahra Kouzeghari (2023, 17 mars). Archaeology of warfare: teaching and studying warfare in the archaeology of the Late Bronze Age and Iron Age of west Asia and east Europe. ArchéOrient - Le Blog. Consulté le 15 juin 2024, à l’adresse

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