Prehistoric Anatolia and the Archeology of Warfare

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By: Stephanie Selover, PhD Candidate, the University of Chicago


Stephanie excavating at Marj Rabba, Israel

My dissertation project centers on the study of evidence of warfare from Chalcolithic to Early Bronze Age Central and Southeastern Anatolia.  To date, research on the subject of warfare in the Ancient Near East in general and Anatolia in particular has been largely limited to overviews that include the entirety of the Ancient Near East and go into few details.  These include Roper’s “Evidence of Warfare in the Near East from 10,000-3,400 BC (1975), Ferrill’s The Origins of War (1985), Hamblin’s Warfare in the Ancient Near East to 1600 BC (2006) and Gat’s War in Human Civilization (2006).  Indeed, many such reviews of ancient warfare compile all of human existence from the Upper Paleolithic (100,000 BC) to the start of the Late Bronze Age (1300 BC) into a single chapter (e.g. Ferrill 1985: Chapter 2; Hackett 1989: Chapter 1).  Commonly, these studies lead off with the assumption that the origins of warfare start at some point in the ancient Near East then spread elsewhere (Ferrill 1985, Kelly 2000: 2; Vencl 1984). 

Theories on the origins of warfare place it anywhere from before the emergence of fully modern humans (Corning 1975, Givens 1975), to hunter and gatherer societies (Ember 1978, Kelly 2000), to the onset of the domestication of plants and animals (Roper 1975) or even as late as the rise of chiefdoms and state societies (Carniero 1970, Diakonov 1974).  Such overviews take into account evidence such as the presence of early fortification systems, including Jericho’s pre-pottery Neolithic tower (Bar-Yosef 1986) or Çatal Höyük’s Pottery Neolithic agglutinative architecture (Mellaart 1965) and its numerous clay sling balls (Ferrill 1985: 24-25) or iconographic data such as the Narmer palate with its pharaoh smiting his enemies (Shaw 2000: 49), as evidence of warfare before the Chalcolithic.  However, rarely do these accounts delve deeper than this or take a more detailed look at any particular region.  As a result, though there is a vague impression that warfare originated in the Ancient Near East by the Early Bronze Age, nothing more concrete or thorough has been yet attempted for the region.

Studies of prehistoric warfare are made particularly difficult due to the lack of written records, which would tell us such important information as when the war was fought, over what conditions, who were the fighting parties, etc.  Without written records, one only has what remains in the archaeological record as a basis, which is not a straight-forward matter.  One of the main inquiries to be tackled by my dissertation is to understand what can be known, and what cannot be known, in the study of the archaeology of prehistoric warfare, using prehistoric Central and Southeastern Anatolia as the case study.  This is not an easy task. As stated by Webster in his study on the effects of warfare on culture between the Lowland Maya and Polynesia, “Despite its ubiquity and importance [in Polynesian culture], how would we perceive such warfare archaeologically, except where durable fortifications existed?  My guess is that if we had to rely only on archaeological materials, we would dismiss as inconsequential one of the most important components in the structure and evolution of Polynesian society” (Webster 2000: 350).

Archaeology has no direct access to personal stories except those handed down through texts, though such sources most often record the point of view of the elite and literate, and so must always be taken with a grain of salt.  The majority of archaeology deals only with the remains of material culture. Though there is much to be learned from such materials, the emic rationality for specific acts can only be guessed at through indirect means.  Even such aspects as the length of wars, how they were fought, the sides taken, etc., likely cannot be known without textual information. However, there are benefits to archaeological knowledge.  Archaeology can study a culture and its actions over a long period of time, from a few years to millennia, and over large areas.  Archaeology is the study of change over the passage of time.

Archaeology tells the story of a people, but rarely that of specific individuals; warfare is about both.  Years or decades of time can become highly compressed in the archaeological record.  Material remains of warfare, such as human skeletal remains with signs of violence, weapons caches, or destruction levels can exist at a site, but this may not give information on how the war itself was waged, how long it lasted, or how many people were involved.  The scope of war can be exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to tell from material remains alone. However, through archaeology, one can attempt understand the long-term impacts of warfare, and how it shapes and is shaped by a society.  Archaeology can give information about how societies adapted to war and how war affected a society over the long term.

The scarcity of known prehistoric or widely excavated archaeological sites in both Central and Southeastern Anatolia presents a larger problem for my dissertation.  Archaeological sites are found through various means, such as through landscape survey or by accident, but not all possible sites are either yet known or excavated down to the prehistoric levels.  As well, some ancient sites may leave only minimal evidence that is hard to recognize without excavation.  Therefore, the amount of data we have for any given area is always going to be only a fraction of the entire picture. So, while there may theoretically be data out there regarding, for example, battlefields in Early Bronze Age Anatolia, no such site had yet been found or excavated.

A difference has been noted between scale, e.g. the number of peoples directly involved in combat or the number of deaths, versus intensity, or the number of battles, skirmishes, etc. in a particular area (Shankman 1992:401, Bamforth 1994: 98).  While related, there is a difference between the two concepts, and each would leave slightly different archaeological evidence.  As Bamforth writes, “they usefully distinguish between what happens when people go to war (scale) and how often they go to war (intensity)” (1994: 98).  Overall, the scale of war is more visible than intensity, as the effects of warfare, e.g. bioarchaeological evidence of warfare, evidence of burnt settlements, etc., are more easily identified than the length of time the fighting continued or how often battles occurred.

In EBA and Chalcolithic Anatolian archaeology, there are no known or as of yet excavated battle grounds, no knowledge of how war was conducted, how warriors dressed, the number of combatants involved, the reasons behind the warfare or at least the propaganda given to those involved in the fighting.  Much is lost when only archaeological evidence of warfare remains.  What can then be known about warfare when so much will forever remains unknown to us?

One of the goals of my dissertation is to study many different strands of available archaeological evidence, from the obvious, such as fortification systems, bioarchaeological remains, and weapons, to the less so, such as the placement of settlements in the landscape, and combine them in order to come up with a more complete picture than any one or two strands alone could do.  At the same time, I will question this process.  How complete is the picture of the archaeology of war and where is it lacking?  What evidence is there for warfare in Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Age Anatolia?  What does this tell us about how war was fought in this time period, and for what purposes?  Ultimately, what can archaeology teach us about warfare in the ancient past?


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