Warfare, Conflict and Violence in the Human Past

Module code: AR3054

Warfare and other forms of conflict and violence are typical, if not universal, features of human societies. However, from being (arguably) over-emphasised in archaeology in the past, which at times could seem obsessed with warriors, during recent decades violence has been widely downplayed and neglected in fields such as Iron Age European and Roman studies. At a time of renewed academic interest in these areas - and of armed conflict in many parts of the contemporary world - this module focuses primarily on martial violence, military institutions and related affairs in the wider context of past societies, mainly in the Iron Age and Roman worlds but also considering others from the pre-gunpowder era, within an up-to-date theoretical framework.

Our focus will be on the role of archaeology and history in understanding the violent past, contextualised as part of a broader interdisciplinary exercise involving other relevant fields ranging from anthropology and sociology to modern military studies. We will consider the past development, present state, and future potential of archaeological studies of warfare, conflict and violence, in the context of parallel and complementary research in other relevant disciplines. You will study the ways in which evidence relevant to violence, associated institutions and ideological structures may be identified, studied and interpreted. You will also learn how to critique the approaches deployed by scholars in the study of these grim but important aspects of human action.

Weapons and armour workshop

Part of this module involves handling a variety of accurate replica Iron Age, Greek and Roman swords, plus spears and a shield, and trying on items of armour, to get a sense of the physical nature of pre-gunpowder martial material culture. The weapons are sharp, so simulated combat is not possible! 

Topics covered

  • Ideas about violence and human nature
  • Violence among early human societies
  • Pre-gunpowder weapons
  • Physical and psychological trauma resulting from violence
  • Violence and identity - communities, status, gender, e.g. Roman masculinity
  • Barbarians - conflict in contact and colonial contexts, e.g. ‘the Iron Age Celts’ 
  • Conflict and cooperation, e.g. the rise of Rome 
  • Violence and conflict within human societies - the case of Rome