The Lessons of War

Since the very advent of agriculture, there has been warfare. Before agriculture, humans generally travelled in small, hunter-gatherer groups. Land ownership was not an important concept to these early hunter-gatherers as they were nomadic and did not need land for building or growing crops. Once agriculture emerged, land and resources suddenly became quite valuable. Fertile land was necessary for efficiently growing crops and so conflict arose over who had rights to certain areas. Furthermore, agriculture is more unreliable than hunting and gathering. Crops would often fail and groups with no food would raid those who did have food. Thus, war was born.

An example of an early settlement created in response to the advent of agriculture.

An example of an early settlement created in response to the advent of agriculture.

Understanding the causes of conflict can greatly help to mitigate the effects of war on today’s societies. Therefore, many archeologists are interested in creating an accurate model of what prehistoric warfare was like. One of the primary ways to do this is by trying to ascertain how many people died in specific prehistoric conflicts to see how large of an impact they had on the communities involved. To piece together a story, archeologists rely primarily on projectile points and other weapons that have not decomposed as well as skeletons with evidence of injury from these weapons. Unhealed fractures, shallow cuts around the skull indicating scalping, and projectile points imbedded in bone are a few of the more common indicators that war took place in a specific area. However, interpreting this evidence is a difficult and complicated endeavor.

The skull of a Native American woman with a projectile point embedded in it.

The skull of a Native American woman with a projectile point embedded in it.

Many factors must be taken into account when attempting to understand the effects of a war. For example, one must determine the lethality of the weapons used (what percentage of people survived being wounded) as well as the gender and age ratio and total population of the groups involved. Through statistics like these, archeologists can see how war affects entire communities and even surrounding communities that were not directly involved. To find the lethality of a weapon, archeologists will often recreate the weapon to test its accuracy and power. The medical knowledge of the prehistoric communities must also be taken into account. For instance, knowledge on how to treat arrow wounds was limited during the French-Indian war, so one can look at reports of the percentage of soldiers who died from arrow wounds then and extrapolate that a similar percentage would have died in a prehistoric war. Of course, with only skeletons to work with this provides only a loose estimate. Not all arrows struck bone and thus many who died from arrow wounds have no discernable marks on their skeletons to suggest that they were hit. Determining the effect on the overall community is equally difficult. The percentage of the total population killed must be estimated, as well as less tangible variables such as malnourishment or disease caused by war. Finally, and most importantly, archeologists observe how warfare has changed or destroyed cultures over time. By understanding this entire picture, we can predict the consequences of wars today and make informed decisions to minimize loss and tragedy.


Sabloff, Jeremy A. Archaeology Matters: Action Archaeology in the Modern World.

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Archaeology of Warfare Today

War leaves scars; not only to humans, but to the physical landscape as well. Weapons, bullets, bodies, and destroyed buildings are just some of the remains that signify war. These remains are noticeable many years after their deposition, allowing archaeologists to study warfare of past civilizations. Such warfare archaeology “can provide a… context for… the inevitability of war and its role in modern civilization” [4, pg. 60]. Hamoukar is one such archaeological site that cannot only tell us a great deal about past warfare but can also teach important lessons for today.

Above is an aerial photograph of Hamoukar which provides archaeologists a better view and interpretation of the site [1].

Above is an aerial photograph of Hamoukar which provides archaeologists a better view and interpretation of the site [1].

        Hamoukar in northeastern Syria provides evidence for one of the earliest major battles in history, dating to 3,500 B.C. Archaeologists uncovered destroyed walls and buildings with approximately 1,200 sling missiles strewn throughout the site. Furthermore, Uruk pottery was found that arrived shortly after the war meaning that the Uruk civilization was likely the conqueror. This shows that Hamoukar actually developed independently of the Uruk, shining light on a new theory about the beginnings of civilization. [5]

The above image shows various sling-fired missiles found at Hamoukar. The deformed ones resulted from impact after hitting a building or wall. [2]

The above image shows various sling-fired missiles found at Hamoukar. The deformed ones resulted from impact after hitting a building or wall. [2]

        Warfare archaeology in Hamoukar not only reveals direct information, such as who fought the battle and what remains of it, but can also detail the effects of warfare on culture and landscape. At approximately the same time of the military battles in 3,500 B.C., Hamoukar civilization already started to urbanize from high agricultural production.  Archaeological evidence shows remains of canals and dams used to irrigate fields. Once war struck these areas, such technologies were not lost but continued to grow. By 2,500 B.C. this area reached a level of urbanism “never again achieved in this area” [3, pg. 67]. Archaeology can unlock these techniques for efficient agricultural production in harsh conditions and provide a means for people today to make better use of land possibly leading to less crowded cities and a richer population. [3]

These uses of archaeology can also be applied to warfare today. The current Syrian conflict gives archaeologists a new way to look at Hamoukar. Ironically, archaeologists are currently unable to excavate the warfare aspect of Hamoukar due to today’s Syrian conflict. Unanswered questions that can help today’s conflict include how warfare in Hamoukar affected the Syrian landscape. How did the Hamoukar war affect agriculture? How did that conflict change people’s professions and how did it change people’s relationships with the land? Warfare archaeology uniquely studies an aspect of culture that has occurred for thousands of years. In both settings, two groups of people fought, buildings were destroyed, and remains of struggle were left behind. The only difference between these wars is a 5,500 year gap; people then and now still live on the same land and the archaeology of warfare can look at past people’s struggles to provide solutions to living harmoniously today.



[1] Reichel, Clemens D. Figure 1. Digital image. Annual Reports 2005-2006. The                            Hamoukar Expedition, 2006. Web. 24 Nov. 2013. <                  06_Hamoukar.pdf>.

[2] Reichel, Clemens D. Figure 17. Digital image. Annual Reports 2005-2006. The                         Hamoukar Expedition, 2006. Web. 24 Nov. 2013. <                 06_Hamoukar.pdf>.

[3] Reichel, Clemens D. “Hamoukar.” Annual Reports 2005-2006. The Hamoukar                           Expedition, 2006. Web. 24 Nov. 2013. <                                   06_Hamoukar.pdf>.

[4] Sabloff, Jeremy A. Archaeology Matters: Action Archaeology in the Modern World.                  Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast, 2008. Print.

[5] Wilford, John Noble. “Archaeologists Unearth a War Zone 5,500 Years Old.” The New           York Times. The New York Times, 16 Dec. 2005. Web. 24 Nov. 2013.                                 <>.

Archaeology in Warfare

It is so interesting how the study of the past can be so relatable to today’s current issues, including sustainability, warfare, and more. By studying the different ways that past cultures and societies have been set up, we can see what worked for them and what mistakes they may have made. That way, we can try to correct those mistakes and improve upon our own societies in the modern world. One aspect of our studies and readings this week that I thought was particularly interesting was looking at warfare through archaeology. By understanding conflict and war in the past, we can better understand what happened (what started the conflict) so that we can have an improved knowledge of how to deal with conflict today. It is very fascinating that almost all warfare and conflict is based off of disputes over territory in one way or another. This is not a new concept, people have been involved in wars for hundreds of years, it is only the nature of wars that has changed.

An example of this idea of archaeology in warfare is seen in a conflict between Muslims and Hindus over the ownership of the 16th century Babri Mosque in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh. This mosque was said by some Hindu groups to have been built (in 1528) by Muslims on a place where a Hindu temple used to have stood that marked the birthplace of the mythical king, Rama. The temple was closed for a while after it was rededicated as a place of Hindu worship, right after Indian independence from Britain. Then in 1986, a judge ordered that it be open, as a place of Hindu worship.

Babri Mosque

This was greeted with resentment and anger by Muslims, who believed that this building truly belonged to them. Soon, protests and conflicts occurred. In 1990, the national government tried to have negotiations that would try to determine whether or not this building belonged to Hindus or Muslims. These negotiations, however, were not successful. In 1992, Hindu militants destroyed the mosque.

The destruction of the Babri Mosque by Hindu militants

The destruction of the Babri Mosque by Hindu militants

Archaeology was used in this case to try to analyze the stratigraphy in order to see whether or not it was inherently a Hindu temple or not. Interpretations of this archaeological data, however, have varied widely. It is difficult to try and analyze stratigraphy of a site because of the fact that it usually does not consist of a distinct transition from one time period to another. Everything seems to mesh together and it becomes difficult to interpret. It is also, in general, dangerous to be an archaeologist who has something to prove. That could create a certain dishonesty of the true results. The archaeologist must always be open to all results and must not have a bias.


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On the Brink of War

Everything has scopes and limitations – archaeology is no exception. Archaeologists solve some of the most nagging questions through excavations and laboratory analysis, uncovering new information about cultures and people. Certain sites can be packed with data, just waiting to be discovered; yet there are often extensive procedures needed before excavation, or in the worst case, social/political unrest in that area.

The Babri Masjid Mosque in Ayodhya, India, is an example of this. Hindu mythology claims that Ayodhya was the birthplace of Rama, a famous warrior and protagonist in the Ramayana. Supposedly, on the very spot that Rama was born, a temple was erected in his honor. In 1527, Mughal emperor Babar constructed a magnificent mosque over the temple, thus destroying the original edifice.

Babri Masjid Mosque, Uttar Pradesh, India

For centuries, the Babri mosque stood undisturbed – until 1992, when a massive riot of over 150,000 Hindus resulted in mass vandalism and ruining of the mosque. In no time, the building was reduced to mere piles of rubble and dust. Muslims across the country were enraged; over 2,000 people died in communal riots and India was in turmoil.

In order to figure out what to do with the land to appease the Hindus and Muslims, the Government of India called upon the Archaeological Survey of India to run preliminary surveys of the Ayodhya site. Results proved to be inconclusive as there was a fair amount of ambiguity around whether or not there originally was a Hindu site, considering the unreliability of Hindu scriptures and oral tradition. It took many years for approval to pass, but in 2003, the ASI was given the green light to perform in-depth excavations of the site. Yet again, anger and tensions stirred between the Hindus and Muslims, with both parties claiming that the ASI was committing sacrilege on holy ground.

Scores of protesters vandalize the mosque

The results of the excavation were stirring. In the five month period of excavation, various teams had made around 1360 discoveries. The 574 page report stated that there was “a massive structure just below the disputed structure and evidence of continuity in structural activities from the 10th century onwards”, thus confirming the existence of an establishment prior to the mosque. In addition, a small seal with connections to the Asokan Brahmi was found, further supporting evidence towards a Hindu structure.

Numerous Muslim groups and organizations disregarded these discoveries and refuted the ASI’s findings. This, again, caused a rift within the volatile social framework of the country, spurring more tensions among the people.

Finally, in 2010, a decision to divide the land between the Hindus and the Muslims was made. Not everyone was happy, but it was the most practical decision and after decades, anger and disputes in Ayodhya had ceased.

Archaeology helped solve this case. By filling in the pre-Mughal void in time that was unknown, archaeology managed to settle any arguments by using scientific methods. At the same time, archaeology nearly sent the country into a massive civil war – it really is a miracle that the ASI managed to emerge out of such a touch situation unscathed.





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Conflict: Leaving a Unique Footprint in the Archaeological Record

Last week, an Italian anthropologist named Carlo Severi gave a lecture on images and their importance to archaeology, especially in regard to the Penitente Brotherhood. This brotherhood was a cult of Christianity that formed as a result of conflicts between Christian civilizations and Native Americans in the United States. This cult developed unique symbols and images such as Dona Sebastiana, a saint represented as a skeletal woman with a bow and arrow. Professor Severi’s lecture revolved around the necessity of this image to the brotherhood. This image was a direct reflection of the conflicts that the people of the brotherhood faced.

An image of Dona Sebastiana.

An image of Dona Sebastiana.

Throughout history, many objects have become symbols to represent how conflicts have affected societies. Many of these objects are considered forms of art, and one form that has become very well known is “trench art.” Trench art was created during World War I and each piece represents what war was like for its creator. World War I was a war that involved many different countries, so trench art can be found in numerous locations around the globe. An archaeological study of trench art can help archaeologists understand issues about conflict landscapes, nationalism, religion, and heritage.

Trench art varies from piece to piece, because each piece was made by a different person. The most common materials used for the creation of trench art include bullet shells and other war-related materials. The materials and methods used to create a specific piece of art can help tell what type of person made the artifact such as whether it was a soldier not in battle, a prisoner of war, or even a civilian.

An example of trench art.

An example of trench art.

Archaeologist Nicholas Saunders has set out to study modern conflict archaeology, in which he studies trench art to better understand global conflict. Saunders studies conflict archaeology as opposed to battlefield archaeology, because he feels that battlefield archaeology only seeks to record items to help create a better picture of military history. Saunders felt that no one was giving proper attention to trench art, so he set out to study trench art to gain a better understanding of past conflict as reflected in these items.

Archaeologist Nicholas Saunders at an excavation.

Archaeologist Nicholas Saunders at an excavation.

Pieces of art often become symbols that represent something, whether it is related to religion, culture, or issues faced at the time. Trench art, which has only in recent years become a popular art form to study, can help aid archaeologists in understanding the conflicts that surrounded World War I. Whenever conflict arises it is often represented in some sort of symbol that is created. Although trench art and images of Dona Sebastiana may seem as if they have nothing in common, both can lend archaeologists a helping hand in understanding the conflicts of the past.



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