Warfare and Conquest

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Warfare has been defined in both broad and narrow terms. In the broad view, warfare is armed conflict between any social or political units. In this view, societies as diverse as bands of Mesolithic hunter-gatherers, Neolithic farming tribes, Celtic high chiefdoms, petty states, and the Roman Empire can conduct war. The narrow definition confines war to state-level societies—those with the hierarchical organization to centrally direct armies that are led by, if not consisting wholly of, full-time military specialists. This constricted view is historically misleading and anthropologically absurd. Roman legionnaires routed and killed by warriors of a Celtic hill tribe were just as vanquished as those beaten by a Persian army. Indeed, it took the Romans more time and manpower to conquer the small Celtiberian tribes of northern Spain (four to six legions and two hundred years of continuous fighting) than it took them to subdue Macedonia and Greece (two to four legions and, in total, about twenty years of intermittent combat). Under the narrow definition, the very terms "prehistoric warfare" and "tribal warfare" are oxymorons, which means that recent tribes such as the Apache, Maori, and Taureg never made war. For many reasons, then, the broad definition is preferable and is used here.

Archaeological evidence for warfare is recovered in four categories: human remains; fortifications; weapons and armor; and artistic representations. Only when classical authors begin to describe warfare of their societies with the so-called barbarians of more northerly Europe were there written accounts to supplement the physical evidence revealed by archaeology.

human remains

Human remains often bear witness to the traumas caused by weapons. These include sword cuts, the indentations made by stone axes and adzes, and depressed fractures made by maces or other bluntforce weapons. The most common type of weapon traumas found on victims of early warfare are embedded stone or bone projectile points. Any of these types of traumas can be considered the cause of death, especially when there are no signs that the wound healed.

Archaeological evidence for warfare can also be seen in the treatment of the body after death. Bodies of war victims were often left where they fell or dumped into mass graves. Bodies that were not buried soon after death often suffered mutilation by animal scavengers. War victims were also mutilated in the course of hostilities. One common type of peri-mortem (i.e., about the time of death) mutilation is known as "overkill," which involves striking the victim with numerous blows or multiple projectiles— any one of which would have been fatal. Another kind of mutilation involves the taking of war trophies—heads, hands, or other body parts—leading to burials with either too few or too many body parts for the individual interred. There is also sometimes evidence for cannibalization of the victims. These types of mutilation suggest that the victors wanted to either humiliate their victims or to acquire the victim's spiritual power.

When these stigmata co-occur, warfare was the certain cause. For example, more than 6,000 years ago, at the Early Neolithic site of Herxheim, Germany, more than three hundred people died violent deaths. Crania from these individuals were discovered at regular intervals in the two defensive ditches enclosing the site, indicating that victims were decapitated and their skulls thrown in the ditch or placed atop posts that later collapsed into the ditch. The crania bore traumas from axes and some type of blunt weapon. The Herxheim skulls thus evidence all of the signs commonly found on war victims—weapon traumas, mutilation, trophy taking, and atypical disposal of the dead.

Palaeolithic and Mesolithic. The bones of early European hominids show many healed and unhealed traumas. For example, Neanderthals seem to have been particularly accident-prone. But before the widespread use of stone and bone projectile tips by modern humans in the Upper Palaeolithic (c. 40,000–35,000 years ago), it is very difficult to determine whether these traumas were caused by human violence or other more prosaic causes. Evidence of homicide appears as soon as modern humans appear in Europe, such as the Grimaldi, Italy, child with a bone projectile point embedded in its spine (c. 32,000 years ago) and the mass grave of twenty individuals with head traumas at Predmost.

The appearance of true cemeteries consisting of many primary burials during the Mesolithic (c. 9600–4300 b.c.) increases the archaeological visibility of homicide and warfare. In France, Italy, Germany, Scandinavia, and the Ukraine, between 3 and 16 percent of the bodies excavated were of individuals with embedded projectile points. (By comparison, 3.3 percent of the French met violent deaths during World War I.) Evidence for trophy taking comes from the Late Mesolithic site at Ofnet Cave (7500 b.c.), in Germany, where two caches containing a total of at least thirty-three skulls were found, arranged "like eggs in a basket." Most of these crania had multiple holes knocked in them by stone adzes and many still-articulated neck bones showed marks from throat cutting. These men's, women's, and children's skulls were probably "trophies" from a single massacre. Smaller caches of skulls and associated neck vertebrae bearing similar traumas have been found at three other Late Mesolithic sites in Germany and northern France (Hohlenstein-Stadel, Kaufertsberg, and Mannlefelsen). These and other finds indicate that the economic and social landscape of Mesolithic Europe was highly disputed and violent. This evidence is clearly contrary to oftrepeated claim that foragers were peaceful and warfare only began with farming.

Neolithic. In the Neolithic period there is plentiful palaeopathological evidence for warfare. The skeletons of at least 6 percent and possibly more than 19 percent of Early Neolithic individuals of the Linearbandkeramik (LBK or Linear Pottery culture) exhibit traumas indicating a violent death. At Talheim, Germany, thirty-four bodies bearing weapons traumas were dumped haphazardly into a large pit. Like the skulls from Ofnet Cave, many of these were perforated, often several times (an example of overkill), with D-shaped holes of a type that could only have been made by a groundstone "shoe-last" adze of LBK design. The demography of the victims implies that an entire small village was killed, although there seem to be fewer young women among the victims than expected, possibly because they were taken as captives.

At Schletz-Asparn, Austria, an enclosed Early Neolithic (LBK) village was destroyed, along with most of its population. Archaeologists have recovered the fragmented skeletons of some one hundred people. Many skulls had fatal axe or club wounds, and there was evidence of animal gnawing, indicating that the bodies were simply left where they fell and that there was no one left to bury them. Only later were the partially disarticulated remains cast into the enclosing ditch and covered with earth. The clear underrepresentation of young women in the skeletal remains suggests that women were carried away, whereas the others were simply killed. Talheim, Schletz-Asparn, and the aforementioned Herxheim, alone, evidence the violent deaths of more than 500 LBK individuals, which—compared to the 1,500 or so excavated LBK burials showing no evidence of violent death—indicate that this period was particular bellicose.

There are also indications of clashes between Early Neolithic farmers and the Late Mesolithic hunter-gatherers living beyond their zones of settlement. Refuse pits at the LBK site of Vaihingen, Germany, contained a number of skeletons, often bearing violent traumas, whose physical features were more robust (that is, Mesolithic) than those of the villagers. In southern France, a few skulls bearing the hallmarks of decapitation were discovered on an Early Neolithic site of the Cardial culture. These skulls were more similar to the inland Mesolithic populations of that region than they were to the Cardial farmers. This suggests that, like the Mesolithics before them, and the contemporary LBK farmers of Herxheim, Cardial warriors sometimes collected the skulls of their enemies as trophies.

Further evidence of warfare comes from later Neolithic sites in Britain. At least two of them were attacked by archers and burned. The body of one man was discovered in the enclosure ditch at Hambledon Hill. He had fallen after being shot in the back with an arrow, crushing an infant he was carrying beneath his body. The burned palisade subsequently collapsed on them both.

During the Middle and Late Neolithic, the archaeological visibility of weapon traumas decreases, but that does not mean that armed violence was less prevalent. Almost all the famous Neolithic megalithic and tumulus-mound tombs in western Europe were plundered of their contents, including human remains, before archaeologists could investigate or record them. In other parts of Europe, the common later Neolithic practices of cremation and secondary burial (burial after the bones had been disarticulated, defleshed and partially destroyed by exposure to weather and animal scavengers) prevent or severely hinder analyses of cause of death. The exceptions indicate that warfare was often virulent during these periods, and this is supported by the prevalence of fortifications and specialized war weapons (see below).

The famous Tirolean "Iceman" mummy, an individual of the Late Neolithic (c. 4000 b.c.), was a casualty of war. Embedded in his back, just below the shoulder joint, was a stone projectile point. This lethal projectile was of a large, shouldered design that was very different from the small, triangular arrowheads the man carried. The design of the embedded projectile would have been difficult to remove after penetration, possibly a specialized war point. Evidence of similar deaths have been found at other sites dating to the Late Neolithic. At a mass grave at Roaix, France (c. 2500 b.c.), more than one hundred persons of all ages and both sexes, often with arrow points embedded in their bones, were simultaneously buried.

Bronze Age. Although cremation and secondary burial remained common in many areas, examples of traumatic injuries and mutilation are known from several Bronze Age sites. At the site of Hernádkak, Hungary, a male skeleton was found with a bronze spearhead embedded in his pelvis. A massacre is evidenced at the site of Velim, Czech Republic (c. 2000–1700 b.c.), where the fragmentary skeletal remains of dozens of individuals who died from traumatic injuries were found. All sexes and ages were represented, and some of the their bodies appear to have been cannibalized. A number of Bronze Age burials in Hungary are missing hands and feet, possibly taken as war trophies. Some prehistorians believe that trepanation holes found on some Bronze Age skulls were attempts to treat battlefield head injuries.

In the Late Bronze Age (1700–1400 b.c.) cremation becomes the almost universal burial custom in Europe. Thus, if human physical remains provided the sole line of evidence, the Late Bronze Age would seem quite peaceful compared with earlier periods. Nonetheless, female skeletons bearing weapons traumas were found at Wicnica, Poland, and there is evidence for cannibalism from the cemetery at Velatice in the Czech Republic, where the fragmentary remains of 205 individuals were found in association with one (cremation) urn burial. Despite the dearth of remains, other archaeological evidence (see below) has convinced archaeologists that this was a period of frequent warfare and destruction, especially in eastern and central Europe.

Iron Age. Well-preserved Iron Age skeletons are rare in many areas of Europe. Most of the tumulus burials of the Early Iron Age were looted before they could be investigated. Less vulnerable "flat burials" from later in the Iron Age have been excavated and analyzed, but most seem to involve only exceptional elites. In any case, burial customs were quite varied, with cremation and exposure common in many periods and regions. At a number of burial sites in east Yorkshire, of 107 male skeletons analyzed, three had died of sword cuts. One of those buried at the great hillfort of Maiden Castle in England had been killed by a Roman ballista bolt during the Roman conquest.

In the middle of the Iron Age, the warriors of prehistoric Europe came into open conflict with their "civilized" neighbors to the south. As a result, the Celts were among the first Europeans north of the Alps mentioned by classical authors (after 550 b.c.). These accounts recorded their prowess in war, the weapons they employed, and the tactics they preferred. Especially horrifying to Romans was their taking and displaying of heads from enemy dead. Diodorus Siculus states that warriors would "embalm in cedar oil the heads of the most distinguished enemies and preserve them carefully in a chest to display them with pride" (in Ellis 1990). In addition, these were often nailed above the door of the victorious warrior's hut. At Entremont, France, a third century b.c. fortification, a stone shrine with niches for displaying trophy skulls was found along with fifteen such skulls with nail holes for attachment. Similar trophy skulls and one other shrine with skull niches (from Roquepertuse) have been found at other Iron Age sites in the region.


Fortifications are one of the most readily identifiable archaeological indicators of the possible presence of warfare during any period. Fortifications—often euphemistically called "enclosures"—are large-scale constructions that allow a relatively small number of defenders to repel forces that greatly outnumber them. The most common features of early fortifications include curtains (wooden palisades or walls of stone or earth enclosing a settlement or blocking its most vulnerable access routes), ditches in front of the curtains, bastions (projections of the curtain from which flanking fire can be directed along the curtain), and defensible gates designed to obstruct attackers and put them under fire from several directions.

Neolithic. Because of the smaller size of co-resident groups and a more nomadic way of life, no fortifications attributable to Mesolithic or earlier foragers have been discovered. On the other hand, Neolithic and later fortifications are very common throughout Europe. They are first seen in the southeast at Early Neolithic sites such as Sesklo, Dimini, and Danilo. The earliest fortifications in central and western Europe appeared when early farmers of the LBK culture colonized these regions. There are now almost one hundred known LBK fortifications, and more are found each year. They date to all phases of the culture, although they are more prevalent in the later phases in the west. While many LBK fortifications appear to have been built to counter short-term threats, some sites, such as Schletz, Eisleben, and Köln-Lindenthal, evidence multiple phases of use. LBK villages were usually not located in locations with natural defenses. As a result, man-made features were needed for protection. These included one or two ditches backed by a fireproofed (daubed) palisade, baffled or screened entrances, and (rarely) gate houses or towers. These elements are surprisingly sophisticated, as they can all be found in fortifications up until the age of gunpowder. Their sudden appearance implies that LBK farmers had inherited an older tradition of building and refining defensive works.

The defensive works at Darion and Waremme-Longchamps, both in Belgium, are typical LBK fortifications. Ditches backed by palisades enclosed both villages. The entries into the palisades were protected by two methods. At Darion's north gate, a gate tower projects out from one side of the entrance. At Longchamps, a small "guardhouse" flanked the south gate but projected inward. Also at the south gate, both the ditches and palisades overlap forming a "baffle" (known to Roman military engineers as a clavicum). A similar design was employed at Darion's south gate, but only the palisades were "baffled." Attackers entering such gates had to expose themselves to fire from their unshielded (i.e., usually right) side and/or rear. The ditches fronting LBK palisades may have simply been large "borrow pits" from which mud was extracted to fireproof the palisade. However, their cross-section was often V shaped—particularly near the vulnerable gate areas—and they were two meters deep and three meters wide in some places, so they would have offered protection even without the palisade. Indeed, the Romans defended their forts with exactly similar V-sectioned ditches of 1.2 to 3.5 meters deep that they called fossae fastigata. Another form of defended gate used during the LBK was the screened gate (as is seen at Köln-Lindenthal), known to Roman military engineers as the titulum, where a section of the palisade sat out or in from the main palisade to form a double baffle entry. Cardial farmers in south and southwest Europe, contemporaries of the LBK, also surrounded some of their settlements (such as Masseria Candelero, Italy) with ditches, sometimes with baffled ("crab-claw") gates.

In some cases, Early Neolithic fortifications were so large that it seems unlikely that the number of people living within them could have constructed them. For example, English Early Neolithic fortifications were estimated to have required over 100,000 man-hours to construct. The smaller fortifications at Darion, with only about twenty adults, would have needed about 1,700 man-days to build. Several cooperating villages must have constructed these, either as a central refuge for several nearby communities or as frontier protection for villages to the interior.

By the end of the Neolithic, in the Copper Age, regularly spaced bastions were a feature of several stone-walled fortifications, such as Chalandriani (Greece), Boussagues (France), Los Millares (Spain), and Zambujal (Portugal).

Bronze Age. Although nearly all of the fundamental features of subsequent fortifications were in use by the end of the Neolithic, fortifications continued to increase in size and number during the Bronze Age. After 4200 b.c., there was a general growth of fortifications across Europe as groups competed for resources and control of trade routes. Hillforts protected by a ditch and earthen rampart begin to make their earliest appearance in this period, as at Hradisko, Slovakia. There seem to have been few fortifications in northwest Europe during the Early Bronze Age.

During the Middle Bronze Age, much of the European continent was unfortified. Sites that had been fortified during earlier periods were still inhabited, but their defenses were either absent or in disrepair. Refuge fortifications are known from Italy, and the site of Prítluky, Slovakia, was enclosed in a double ditch and rampart. The greatest fortifications, however, appeared late in the Middle Bronze Age, with the rise of the Mycenaeans. The defenses of the Aegean palaces at Mycenae, Tiryns, and Pylos, had "Cyclopean" walls, so called because the stones used to construct them were so large that the mythological Cyclops would be needed to move them.

In the Late Bronze Age, there was an increase in the number of fortifications across Europe. The first Europeans to routinely construct hillforts were the Urnfield cultures. Some Urnfield sites were simply palisaded while others were enclosed in multiple walls and ramparts. The majority of Urnfield fortifications are in Germany, but they can also be found in southern and central Europe.

Fortifications with wall-and-fill (or "box") ramparts appear in Europe in the earliest Hallstatt phases of the Late Bronze Age. The method of construction involved building a facing wall of durable material—wood pilings, stone, or sod—and another wall two to three meters behind it. In some cases, the rear wall is tied to the face with transverse timbers, as at Poundbury in Dorset. The area between these walls was then filled with either spoil from the ditches fronting the wall or from quarries elsewhere. Box ramparts were relatively high yet resistant to slumping. They continued to be built until the ninth century b.c. and even later in some places in Britain. The rampart at Biskupin, Poland, also incorporated posts anchored into the outer slope at a 45° angle forming a kind of chevaux-de-frise. Gate areas were sometimes baffled, as at Seftenburg and the Wasserburg in Baden-Württemberg and the Mycenaean palace at Tiryns, but major advances in gate defenses came later in the Iron Age.

Around 1250 b.c. the defenses of the Mycenaean strongholds were strengthened, implying imminent conflict, but these improvements were apparently insufficient. By 1200 b.c. many sites bordering the Mediterranean were attacked, destroyed, and abandoned. Unfortified sites in Sicily were destroyed and subsequently rebuilt as fortified settlements by culturally different inhabitants. On the island of Sardinia, large stone refuge fortifications with massive walls and bastions, called nuraghi, first made their appearance at about this time. The wave of site destruction swept through the eastern Mediterranean as far as the mouth of the Nile. Its cause is still being debated.

At the same time, hillforts appeared in Italy, Ireland, and Romania. The people of the Swiss lakes region continued to utilize terrain to the best effect, locating their villages on islands or promontories and often enclosing them with substantial walls. In Ireland, artificial island strongholds, crannogs, were constructed.

Iron Age. Throughout the Iron Age, hillforts gradually increased in size, number, and complexity, particularly with regard to their entrances. Many hillforts—both on the Continent and in Britain—fell into disrepair around the middle of the first millennium b.c., suggesting some type of social collapse, only to be reoccupied by different peoples during later periods. By the sixth century b.c., hillforts on the Continent began to show the influence of classical Greece and Greek colonies, which resulted in square-bastioned fortifications such as Heuneberg, Germany, and Entremont, France, which are imitations of Greek fortifications.

The seventh century b.c. seems to have been a period of great unrest in northern Britain. Great hillforts were constructed, and farmsteads were fortified with stockades, suggesting that raiding was prevalent. In Scotland and Ireland, circular dry-stone towers called brochs began to appear, over fifty of which still survive. One of the earliest, Click-himin, developed from a fortified farm. Two of the highest are Dun Troddan (7.6 meters) and Mousa (13.7 meters). Staigue Fort, in Ireland, was 3.9 meters high and over 24 meters in diameter and had rooms built within the thickness of the walls.

Fortifications with "dump" ramparts first appeared around the fifth century b.c. Although the term "dump" implies haphazard construction, these ramparts were carefully laid. Generally, these curtains were unfaced, but their thickness and the shallow angle of the ramparts prevented slumping.

The gates of hillforts evolved throughout the first millennium b.c. The earlier examples had simple bent outset gates that formed a small courtyard, within which was the gate proper. Over time, entrance passages became longer and more complex. Whereas earlier entrances at sites like Ivinghoe Beacon were only 3.4 meters deep, later passages were lengthened to over 40 meters—the then-effective range of bowshot. Later, flanking guard chambers were added to the passageway. In some hillforts, gated barriers at the beginning and middle of the passageway reinforced this position. In the latest examples of Iron Age fortifications, entrance passages were lengthened to 45 meters and were curved at the interior end so that the gate was not visible from the exterior of the fort (as is seen at Painswick Beacon, England). Curving the entrance passage inhibited the use of fire arrows against the wooden gate or the use of battering rams. Bridges over the guard chambers, implied by the footings at Rainsborough and Titterstone Clee, subjected gate attackers to fire from above as well as both flanks. Gate screens or barbicans also came into use.

The zenith of prehistoric fortifications were the large Celtic hillforts, or oppida, which even Roman generals described with respect. By the middle of the first century b.c., some fortifications had developed into massive hilltop edifices like Alesia, which took Caesar's legions weeks to reduce. Against attackers armed with only short-range weapons such as the bow, sling, and spear, lacking siege engines and artillery, such oppida must have been nearly impregnable. This explains the relative absence of evidence that they were attacked until the Roman conquest. Many oppida enclosed so many inhabitants and such diverse activities that they have been described as "protourban centers"—that is, more like walled towns than just refuges or forts. For example, cities such as Paris, Toulouse, and Colchester began as oppida.

weapons and armor

The earliest known weapons of war were made of stone, wood, and bone. While used for more prosaic purposes, axes, adzes, mallets, knives (of stone or bone), and hunting weapons such as bows, throwing or thrusting spears, and slings were all employed to kill humans. As noted above, embedded arrow points and weapon traumas from knives, axes, and clubs have been found on the skeletons of Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic foragers.

Neolithic. During the Neolithic, the evidence for "purpose-built" weapons of war is at best circumstantial. Weapon traumas on victims indicate that the primary weapons of Early Neolithic warriors were the bow and arrow and the groundstone axe/adze. LBK arrowheads were large triangular points that would have been difficult to withdraw, while their lack of a stem made them likely to slip off the shaft when the arrow was extracted and remain to infect the wound. Food remains indicate that LBK farmers almost never hunted, so these points, as their design suggests, may have been purpose-built for warfare. Indeed, skeletons from this period bear embedded LBK arrowheads. These points are most prevalent in western LBK distribution, where other evidence for warfare is also common. The ubiquitous groundstone adzes of the Early Neolithic are often assumed to have been used solely for woodworking. As mentioned above, the perforated skulls of many war victims indicate that these tools were also used as weapons. Further proof is found in the fact that axes are found as grave goods in LBK adult male burials. Historically, prowess in war and the wielding of weapons was a much more common source of male status than skill at carpentry.

Bronze Age. How metallurgy appeared in Europe is still a matter of debate. Whatever its origin, Europeans immediately and most commonly used these new materials to make weapons.

Purpose-built weapons of war are among the earliest of metal artifacts. The first of these were triangular-bladed daggers with round pommels produced during the Chalcolithic by the makers of beakers. This form continued to be used for weapons and ornaments up until the Iron Age. Improvements in metal technology were signaled by the appearance of the Bronze sword in about 2300 b.c. Initially, these were short leaf-bladed weapons, heavily weighted toward the point and used to slash, but as knowledge of metalworking improved they became longer and slimmer. By the middle of the Bronze Age, true cut-and-thrust swords had been developed in central and eastern Europe, while rapier-like slashing swords were developed in the Aegean. The cut-and-thrust sword did not reach the Aegean (where early weapons show ties to Anatolia) until the Late Bronze Age. The first metal lance heads also appeared around 2300 b.c. They consisted of a dagger-like head with a long tang for attaching it to the shaft. The socketed spear tip followed shortly thereafter. These spears outnumber swords ten-to-one, suggesting that they were the primary weapon of common soldiers. It was not until the Late Bronze Age that bronze was used to create heads for arrows and javelins.

A major change in the way that war was waged arrived in central Europe with the Battle-Axe culture: the war chariot. By the Early Bronze Age, war chariots are known from Moravia, Slovakia, Hungary, and Transylvania. Early chariots were typically heavy carts, more like wagons than the graceful twowheeled vehicles depicted in later art. Nevertheless, they enhanced the mobility of an army, allowing it to flank less-mobile opponents. They also increased the firepower of charioteers because they allowed more projectile weapons (arrows, javelins, etc.) to be brought rapidly to the front lines.

As weapon technology progressed, so did the need for more advanced personal defense, meaning metal body armor. The existence of baffled gates that force a warrior to expose his unshielded side implies that shields had been in use from the Early Neolithic. Early shields were undoubtedly made from perishable materials such as wood, bone, and treated leather. Early body armor made from such materials is known from the second millennium b.c. in the form of a boar tusk corselet from Aegina, Greece. Armor continued to be made from such perishable materials even in the metal ages because they were relatively inexpensive. No helmets are known before the Late Bronze Age, although they surely existed prior to that time.

Bronze armor was developed first in the Aegean and was unknown in Europe until about 1200 b.c. Armor dating from this time was discovered in a chieftain's grave in Caka, Slovakia. An early example from Dendra, Greece, consisted of bronze greaves (leg armor) and arm guards, and boar's tusk helmets, similar to those of Anatolia. By the Late Bronze Age, Aegean military equipment, such as the round shield, shows more of a central European character. By around 1000 b.c., European armor had assumed the basic forms it would keep with only minor variations for the next 2,000 years. For example, Urnfield warriors wore a bronze breastplate, greaves, and conical helmet with top knob and cheek guards, and they carried a round wooden shield sheathed in leather and sometimes bronze.

Iron Age. Iron was first worked in western Anatolia around 2000 b.c. By 1500 b.c., it was displacing bronze in that region for tools and, especially, weapons. Ironworking reached the Aegean around 1250 b.c., taking another 550 years to spread to the Britain.

In the eighth century b.c. there was an increase in iron usage in eastern and central Europe. In central Europe, it was associated with the early Celtic cultures of Hallstatt C and D. They were skilled ironworkers, producing a variety of iron weapons and tools, from socketed axes to billhooks. Their iron swords and spears were superior to the weapons of all but their southern neighbors. Not surprisingly, the well-armed warrior elite of the Late Hallstatt controlled riverine trade routes of central Europe and established trade ties with the Greeks to the south.

Later La Tène Celts developed a number of specialized modes of combat. They continued the development of chariot and mounted warfare, becoming the most formidable cavalry Europe had yet seen. Their armies were highly mobile, and their two and four wheeled chariots (essenda) gave them the advantage over all but the most disciplined and well-armed infantry. Elite chariot burials have been found across Europe. By the time of Caesar's conquest, chariots had gone out of fashion in combat on the Continent, but they were still so used in Britain.

Celtic warriors employed a wide array of weapons: arrows, javelins, short- and long-bladed swords, and—in Iberia—the falcata, a heavy cleaver-like weapon that the Roman historian Livy claimed could sever a head or a limb in a single stroke. Slings were almost certainly used much earlier but the "ammo dumps" of sling stones found beside Late Bronze and Iron Age fortifications, such as Maiden Castle, are the first clear evidence of their use in Europe. Both mounted and chariot-borne troops utilized javelins. They would rapidly advance, release their missiles, then retire to safety. The Celtiberians of Spain used a short stabbing sword, the gladius, so effectively against the Romans that the latter adopted it as their legions' principal weapon. Celtic warriors used long shields of an oblong or rectangular shape and wore horned or plumed metal helmets. A few of these have survived, although some were so fragile they were more theatrical than protective. Ornate "jockey cap" helmets with gold plating and coral inlays, such as the splendid fourth century b.c. examples from Amfreville and Agris, France, are known from the La Tène period.

The Celts' best warriors, called gaesatae, wore torcs, thick-braided circlets of metal, around their necks. Gaesatae usually fought naked, sometimes with their bodies painted blue with dye made from woad (a type of herb), in the front ranks of Celtic armies. Because of their reputation for ferocity, they were hired as mercenaries into many Mediterranean armies. According to classical authors, the Celts preferred to settle conflicts in single combat between opposing leaders or champions. The long blunt-ended swords, useful only for slashing, that equipped most Celtic warriors reflected this predilection for single combat. Because of their longer reach, these were best in open, uncrowded combat, but unwieldy in crowded close quarters, as the closed ranks of Roman Legions with their stabbing swords would demonstrate in many battles.


Although rare, representations of homicide exist from the Palaeolithic onward, and depictions of warfare date from the Neolithic. They were created in every medium—paintings on cave walls and ceramics, sculpture, and engravings in stone, bone, ivory, and metalwork. Artistic representations are not photographs and do not always represent actual events, nor is their incidence directly related to the frequency or severity of actual conflict. Nonetheless, they do indicate that artists and audiences of the time were familiar with warriors, weapons, and combat.

One of the earliest depictions of warfare is from the Early Neolithic site of Morella la Villa–Cueva del Roure in Spain (c. 4900 b.c.). It shows combat between two groups of archers, one of four, the other of three. The larger group is both advancing in the center while flanking the smaller group on its more vulnerable right side. This painting indicates that even Neolithic warriors had knowledge of rudimentary tactics. There are other Neolithic conflicts depicted in Spain—eleven archers confronting nine at Les Dogues, fifteen archers opposing twenty at El Molino de las Fuentes. Several Bronze Age Scandinavian rock art scenes show groups of warriors with spears fighting on land and from ships. With the arrival of the Battle-Axe culture, images of chariot warfare appear in European art.

Beginning with the Hallstatt cultures, the number of objects decorated with martial scenes dramatically increased. In part, this is due to the more durable media on which they were recorded. Copper, bronze, gold, and iron were all used to depict Celtic warriors, their equipment and tactics. Early Celtic bronze drinking bowls typically depict scenes of warfare. The Hallstatt D (c. 530 b.c.) burial couch from Hochdorf, Germany, is decorated with warriors riding on wagons and three warriors brandishing swords and shields. Similar bowls from Steier-mark, Austria, and Certosa, Italy, depict Celtic warriors with axes, spears, oblong shields, and rounded helmets. The Vix krater (wine mixing bowl), a Greek import found in a tomb in France, shows infantry and charioteers. In addition to its skull shrine, the site of Entremont provides further evidence for the Celtic obsession with trophy heads in the form of a sculpted pile of severed human heads.

Classical authors testify to the accuracy of the depictions on Celtic objects. Diodorus Siculus described Celtic warriors as carrying man-sized shields with projecting bosses of bronze and wielding long swords or lances. According to the author, their apparel included bronze helmets with horns or projecting figures, chain mail, and iron breastplates. They were said to be accompanied by musicians playing harsh-sounding war trumpets. All of these are depicted on the Gundestrup Cauldron, a second century b.c. La Tène artifact found in Denmark.

See alsoHochdorf (vol. 1, part 1); Maiden Castle (vol. 1, part 1); First Farmers of Central Europe (vol. 1, part 3); The Iceman (vol. 1, part 4); Late Neolithic/Copper Age Iberia (vol. 1, part 4); Sardinia's Bronze Age Towers (vol. 2, part 5); Late Bronze Age Urnfields of Central Europe (vol. 2, part 5); Mycenaean Greece (vol. 2, part 5); Oppida (vol. 2, part 6); Hillforts (vol. 2, part 6); Ironworking (vol. 2, part 6); The Heuneburg (vol. 2, part 6).


Carman, John, and A. F. Harding, eds. Ancient Warfare:Archaeological Perspectives. Stroud, U.K.: Sutton, 1999.

Ellis, Peter B. The Celtic Empire. London: Robinson, 1990.

Keeley, Lawrence H. War before Civilization. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

LeBlanc, Steven A., and Katherine E. Register. ConstantBattles: The Myth of the Peaceful, Noble Savage. New York: St. Martin's, 2003.

Milisauskas, Sarunas, ed. European Prehistory: A Survey. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum, 2002.

Lawrence H. Keeley, Russell S. Quick