Violence in temperate Europe in the Early Bronze Age

In central Europe the Early Bronze Age began ca. 2200 bc and is usually divided into two phases: Bz A1 (ca. 2200-2000 bc) and Bz A2 (ca. 2000—1600 bc).125 In the historical chronology used in this book those dates will be lowered 100 years. That warfare (in contrast to other forms of violence) was familiar to Europeans through most of the Early Bronze Age has again been assumed but again is not clear.126 We are fortunate that a masterful survey of weapons for the period has recently been published by Anthony Harding.127 Although I am not persuaded by all of Harding’s generalizations, his command of the particulars is unsurpassed.

Although violence continued to be familiar to Europeans early in the Early Bronze Age, I doubt that it often—if ever—rose to the level of an organized hand- to-hand battle: an engagement, that is, between opposing forces, each of which was armed and prepared to fight hand-to-hand. Whether anything that we would describe as a war was fought in Europe during the Early Bronze Age is even more doubtful. The absence of defensive armor—helmet, corselet, greaves—is not surprising, because even in Egypt and Mesopotamia metal armor had not yet come into use. The lack of any evidence for shields may be more significant,128 but most significant is the limited set of offensive weapons. The main hand-to-hand weapon in Neolithic and Chalcolithic Europe had been the axe, and that continued to be the case through much of the Early Bronze Age. Although bronze was now available, Europeans continued to make their arrowheads of flint or some other chipped stone. The short tang of the arrowhead was simply pressed into the wooden shaft.129

The Early Bronze Age in central Europe began with the Unetice (or Aunjetitz) archaeological culture ca. 2200 bc. With it also began the practice of including a bronze dagger among the grave goods to accompany the deceased into the Underworld. Harding found in this practice “the rise of the warrior” in temperate Europe. According to his statistics only about 3 or 4 percent of adult male burials included a bronze dagger, and so small a percentage may suggest that these men were a warrior elite.1301 will argue, however, that the man buried with a dagger in central Europe was not a warrior but simply the proud owner of a bronze dagger. Supporting the latter possibility is the finding of daggers in the graves of a few elderly women and even of children.131 It had long been a common practice of adult males in the Levant and on Crete to wear a dagger, and these were not warriors but “ordinary” men.132 In the tin bronze economy early in the second millennium bc the practice evidently spread to temperate Europe, but there—in contrast to crete and the Levant—only a few men of the period were rich enough to carry to the Underworld the daggers they had proudly worn in their lifetime.

In temperate Europe and Italy the dagger and the axe are the only hand-to-hand weapons attested in the early second millennium bc. Clubs and fire-hardened wooden spears may also have been in use, but they are not archaeologically detectible. It is difficult to imagine that well into their Bronze Age Europeans were fighting in organized battles—as opposed to brawls, mayhem, or surprise attacks on unarmed villagers—in which the only hand-to-hand weapons made of metal were hatchets and daggers. No swords from this period have been found in Europe, but they are not expected because in the eighteenth century bc the only swords known in the Near East and the Aegean were the status symbols worn by men in the elite class.

Much more telling is the absence in temperate Europe and Italy of spears, because the spear was more effective in battle than the rapier and far less expensive. According to Harding, “the spear seems to have entered the world of Bronze Age Europe at the end of the Early Bronze Age.”133 Metal spearheads had been in use in the Near East since ca. 2500 bc, and by the end of the third millennium bc the tanged version was beginning to be replaced by socketed spearheads. On the Greek mainland a very few shoed spearheads—less securely attached than the socketed, but superior to the tanged—were evidently in use in the MH period. Temperate Europe was therefore remarkably laggard in having no metal spearheads of any kind until well into the second millennium bc. Smiths and founders in the Unetice archaeological culture had been producing a wide variety of bronze artifacts since ca. 2200 bc. If battles were being fought in central Europe in the seventeenth century bc, metalworkers should by that time have long been producing bronze spearheads, whether socketed, shoed or merely tanged. Only toward the end of the Bz A2 period did the metal spearhead—socketed—and the sword appear in temperate Europe, and we shall look at those innovations in chapter 5. Harding is certainly correct in saying that it was only during the course of Europe’s Bronze Age that “for the first time, weapons were developed for the sole and specific purpose of killing humans rather than animals.”134 Another way of saying this is that until late in the Bz A2 period Europeans were not equipped, and therefore not expecting, to go into battle.

Such settlements as have been found are frequently on hills, and in many cases the inhabitants must have deemed the elevation itself sufficient protection. At other hill sites archaeologists have found evidence that the settlement was surrounded by a wooden fence or a palisade. “If additional strength was required,” Harding writes,

the provision of a modest ditch and bank at certain weak spots might be all that was required—and indeed it can frequently be seen that “defences” did not completely encircle sites, but were confined to small areas. The next logical step, that of providing a full set of defensive barriers, was one taken in the Late Bronze Age and more especially in the Early Iron Age.135

In northern Italy, along the foothills of the Alps and usually at an altitude of several hundred meters, hundreds of castellieri have been identified.136 Although surrounded by stone walls these installations seldom show any sign of occupation. They are more likely to have served as sheepfolds, with walls to keep the wolves away, than to have had any military purpose.

Temperate Europe was not necessarily a peaceful society in the early second millennium bc. Certainly many men possessed a weapon: a bow, an axe and occasionally a bronze dagger. Atrocities occurred from time to time, as wrongs or perceived wrongs were avenged by massacres. The general lack of fortifications, however, together with the primitive state of weapons and—as everywhere else— the absence of any defensive armor, suggests that in Europe battlefield warfare had not yet begun in the early second millennium bc and the idea of an army had not yet been conceived.

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