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Harm's Way: An Approach to Change and Continuity in Prehistoric Combat


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Warfare has been recognized as an important factor in past societies, but the way it contributes to change is still not very well understood. When it comes to ancient war, archaeology faces a problem: we are rarely able to address the intentions behind wars. This article seeks to take a look at the micro-scale of warfare and address what, and how, it contributed to change. To achieve this it was necessary to take a close-up look at combat, weapons and fighters as elementary parts of warfare. The use-wear analysis of 208 Early Nordic Bronze Age spears and swords, and 15 Late Neolithic halberds will be used as a case study to address several problems: 1. the (non-) functionality of early weaponry; 2. the conduct of combat; 3. the relation between weapons, fighters and combat. A hypothesis will be formulated in order to understand combat in terms of communication as a mediator between different agents of warfare.
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Warfare has been recognized as an important factor
in past societies, but the way it contributes to change
is still not very well understood. When it comes to an-
cient war, archaeology faces a problem: we are rarely
able to address t he intentions behi nd wars. This a rticle
seeks to take a look at the micro-scale of warfare and
address what, and how, it contributed to change. To
achieve this it was necessary to take a close-up look
at combat, weapons and ghters as elementary parts
of warfare. The use-wear analysis of 208 Early Nor-
dic Bronze Age spears and swords, and 15 Late Neo-
lithic halberds will be used as a case study to address
several problems: 1. the (non-) functionality of early
weaponry; 2. the conduct of combat; 3. the relation
between weapons, ghters and combat. A hypothesis
will be formulated in order to understand combat in
terms of communication as a mediator between dif-
ferent agents of warfare.
Keywords: use-wear analysis, weapons, combat,
techniques of the body, change, warfare
It seems as if warfare is one of the most persistent activities in human
history, with its origin far in the past (Keeley 1996; Guilaine & Zam-
mit 2005). War has been researched in various disciplines such as soci-
ology (e.g. Münkler 2005), history (e.g. Keegan 1994; Contamine 1986)
or psychology (e.g. LeShan 1992). Yet, in archaeology it is very elu-
An Approach to Change and Continuity in
Prehistoric Combat
Christian Horn
sive; evidence always seems to be notoriously difcult to obtain and is
rarely unambiguous (cf. Wileman 2009). Warfare is uncanny, because
the death and destruction it brings makes it an unpleasant topic. De-
spite this, it is important to research every detail of it to understand its
mechanisms. Prehistoric archaeology cannot work like history, and it
is problematic to write generalized histories about the ups and downs
of warfare over time. Something individual is represented in the materi-
alities of war available to archaeology, for example a sword, an injured
skeleton or even a hill-fort, giving us the unique opportunity to come
closer to the unknown individuals who fought wars, and a look inside
the machinery (Molloy 2012).
Vandkilde (2011:377) discussed whether warfare could be responsible
for major social changes, and maintained that the way in which it works
is still little understood. How could warfare have such an inuence? It
was felt that this problem needed to be addressed on a smaller scale than
large-scale socio-cultural changes. Due to the nature of archaeology it
has to rely on the material remains to gain insight into such questions.
Close combat weapons are archaeologically well known. O’Connell has
argued that the relation between humans and weapons is more intimate
and complex than has been admitted (1988:5). However, he himself has
a rather static view of the history of weapons and does not allow for
much change up until early modern times (O’Connell 1988:9–10). It is
here archaeology can make a contribution. Due to their potential use in
interpersonal ghting, close-combat weapons can perhaps be viewed as
intimately entangled with the ghters (Malafouris 2008; Molloy 2008;
Warnier 2011). Weaponry could be seen as an elementary aspect of the
material culture of warfare, representing its micro-scale.
The use-wear analysis of weapons was considered the best method of
providing a close-up view in order to get close to the individual ghter.
Early specialized weaponry faces considerable scholarly scepticism about
its functionality, even from renowned researchers proposing a great im-
pact of warfare on past societies (Harding 2007; Mercer 2006; Osgood
et al. 2000). Thus, specialized weaponry from the Late Neolithic and
the rst period of the Early Nordic Bronze Age has been analysed with
regard to its use wear. The sample comprises a normal cross-section
through the material and can therefore be seen as representative. Fifteen
of the 41 known Late Neolithic halberds and 208 weapons (158 spears,
50 swords) of the approximately 600 known have been analysed (Horn
2013). The geographical frame spans from Southern Norway and South-
ern Sweden to Denmark and Northern Germany. For concision these
regions have loosely been summarized under the term Southern Scan-
dinavia. This transitional phase brought with it great changes in metal-
Harm’s Way
lurgy, but also in social structure. New forms of close- combat weaponry
emerged, with spears and swords replacing the halberd of earlier times.
Several questions form the basis of this article. Why and how can we
trace the impact of warfare on humans and material culture? Was the
weaponry used at all? What does warfare as a relational system change
apart from the intentions and achievements of past war parties? Lastly,
in what way could warfare have developed such an impact? The follow-
ing considerations aim to contribute to the scholarly discourse on war-
fare and its material culture. Due to their hypothetical nature they are
open to critique and scrutiny.
Since Keeley’s (1996) polemic account, the presence of war in prehistoric
societies is no longer denied (Ferguson 2008:502). However, the scale
and especially the denition of warfare is still debated (see e.g. Guilaine
& Zammit 2005:1–39; Otto 2006:23–28; Vandkilde 2006; Peter-Röcher
2009:14–26; cf. Wileman 2009 with older literature). Points of general
agreement seem to be that warfare is a social group action involving vi-
olent means to achieve a goal. Weapons have been recognized as a very
important feature in the denition and study of war (Bleed & Scott
2011). It has recently even been suggested by Beyneix (2013) that war-
fare is archaeologically only recognized by the presence of specialized
weaponry. This led him to assume that “true” warfare only occurs with
the beginning of the Bronze Age. Arguments against such a hypothesis
are provided by depictions of Neolithic archery warfare (Christensen
2004:135). Furthermore, the dead in the mass grave from Talheim were
massacred using a multifunctional tool: the adze (König & Wahl 1987).
Apart from that, there is specialized weaponry present early on, such as
specialized war arrows (Sarauw 2007:73) and close-combat weaponry in
the form of halberds (Horn forthcoming). Specialized weaponry could
perhaps be regarded as a consequence rather than a necessary prereq-
uisite of warfare (Harding 2007:178; Molloy 2012:91).
For a denition of warfare the focus on specialized weaponry is pos-
sibly too tight. Thus, it is perhaps more useful to view weapons, whether
specialized or not, as a part of the technology of warfare. Such a view
could help to highlight the planned nature of warfare and separate it
from other forms of violence, for example manslaughter, domestic vio-
lence or a simple brawl. These outbreaks of violence have a strong affec-
tive connotation and are mostly spontaneous. War may also originate in
strongly felt affection, see for example the Iliad. Nonetheless, when it
comes to the actual engagement in warfare, technology becomes more
important. Thus, a denition of warfare and combat specically involv-
ing technology will be attempted. However, it should also be kept in
mind that the presented denition is a working hypothesis.
Warfare can perhaps be dened as the engagement of at least two
groups of people with at least one party willing to resolve an issue by
the use of force and without the willingness or ability to employ other
means such as (competitive) exchange. In warfare and combat, tech-
nology is utilized as a means to advance one’s owns effort. In turn the
technology changes the way warfare is conducted. A prerequisite to es-
tablish a state of combat or warfare is the will of both sides to engage.
Sometimes this may be facilitated by the sheer will to survive if one side
is surprised by the attack and solely defending, or in siege warfare when
the defending action requires setting up fortications. If a party was
not willing or able to engage in any action, no state of warfare would
be established, and the according party forfeits whatever the issue was.
Weapons as part of the technology of warfare form an important part
of the material remains of many regions. Yet, early weaponry has been
viewed as many things, including not being t for ghting. One of the
earliest specialized weapons of Europe is the halberd (3800–1800 BC;
Horn forthcoming). This weapon was “a pointed blade afxed at or
near the end of a shaft and transversely to it“ (Ó Ríordáin 1937:240).
Halberds are frequently portrayed as a non-functional class of weapons
solely for prestige or ritual purposes. The arguments of a “weak con-
struction”, “unsuitable” and “unused” were repeated for over 70 years
(Ó Ríordáin 1937:241; cf. O’Flaherty 1998). Some authors even shroud
this weapon with an aura of mystique (O’Flaherty 1998:92; for exam-
ple Lenerz-de Wilde 1991:48) leaving the whole group unexplained and
one-dimensional. To the eye of the modern researcher the halberd has
an odd form, and maybe the reason for its interpretation as non-func-
tional is found in its “otherness”. However, this explanation does not t
with the specialized weaponry of the subsequent phase. With the onset
of the Early Nordic Bronze Age (period I, 1800–1500 BC) new weapons
emerged in the form of the sword and the spear of bronze. Both weapon
forms are quite well known from later historical periods as functional
weapons. Nevertheless, swords of the Sögel/Wohlde complex have also
been portrayed as technologically ill-constructed and solely t for stab-
bing (Fontijn 2005:146). Similarly, early spears are considered by some
Harm’s Way
to be “clumsy” (Harding 2007:76) or generally not t for ghting (Mer-
cer 2006:131). Some scholars acknowledge the use of spears in combat,
but limit their functionality by interpreting them purely as throwing or
thrusting weapons (Osgood 1998:91; Osgood et al. 2000:22).
Maybe one problem in the interpretation of these weapons is that sym-
bolic aspects overshadow the technological ones, as was stated by Leroi-
Gourhan in his great study on prehistoric body technique (1993:184).
This insight is valuable and in many senses related to source criticism and
a critical review of interpretation of the (non-)functionality of weapons.
Furthermore, it may help to contextualize the archaeological remains
and analyse their technology.
In order to dene combat wear and understand its signicance it
may be helpful to address the ritualistic aspects rst. The distribution of
early weaponry in Southern Scandinavia seems to be rather dense (g-
ure 1). However, if the temporal dimension of a span of approximately
1000 years (2500–1500 BC) is considered, the impression of density
vanishes quickly. Even though the three weapon forms overlap consid-
erably, they also seem to gravitate in different directions. In that sense
regions are dened by the lack of a weapon rather than by its presence.
Swords are almost absent in Zealand, Öland, Gotland, and Southern
Sweden apart from the surroundings of Mälardalen. The distribution
of halberds seems to be more closely related to spears, though there are
very few nds north of Scania.
Figure 1. Distribution of early specialized weaponry in Southern Scandinavia.
Unfortunately, over a third of the contexts are unknown or uncertain,
and as such, there is a margin of error. However, most of the weapons
are considered to have come from ritual contexts: graves, hoards and
possibly single depositions (gure 2). Burials and sacrices probably
had different recipients and different messages to convey, but both take
place in a ritual context. Only one weapon, a spear, comes from a set-
tlement context, but even this piece was discovered in a grave within the
settlement. The problem is that the archaeological material itself me-
diates a strong ritualistic message concealing other information. This
in turn may not only shape the interpretation of past objects, but also
our perception of when, where, and how many objects were in use. The
premise for the following is that the known weapons are just a fraction
of what constituted past reality.
It should be borne in mind that ritual contexts provide us with weap-
onry in the rst place. Nonetheless, apart from the ritualistic back-
ground of their deposition they could possess traces of further ritual
treatment. Other acts could be performed, such as intentional destruc-
tion. This ritual is known from various European regions and times: the
Neolithic (Larsson 2011), the Copper Age (Horn 2011), throughout the
Bronze Ages (Nebelsick 1997, 2000; York 2002:83–84), and the Late
Iron Age (Sievers 2010:68–69; Whitley 2002:223–224).
There are many ways weapons could be intentionally destroyed, in-
cluding the removal of the handle (Horn 2011; Nebelsick 2000:160–
162), extreme deformation (Sievers 2010:68–69) or “hacked” cutting
edges (Bridgeford 1997:106–107). In the sample presented, one halberd
Figure 2. Overview of the nd contexts of the analysed weapons.
Harm’s Way
(Stolpe, Germany) was deliberately chopped in half (gure 3). From a
European perspective it has been argued that the removal of the handle
occurs quite frequently on halberds (approx. 40%; Horn 2011). Unfor-
tunately, the number of halberds analysed for this contribution is too
small to make any meaningful comparison. Nevertheless, it seems that
they repeat that pattern. One of the main indicators of this treatment
is a plastic deformation along the longitudinal axis of the object, called
twisting (Horn 2011). Only a small quantity of swords and spears pos-
sess this feature (8–10%). Circumstantial evidence brings the hoard
from Bondesgårde, Torsted (Denmark), into scope: a total of 40 spears
enclosed in a small stone setting together with axes (Becker 1964). Due
to spatial restrictions they were probably deposited without handles.
The spears from Bondesgårde possibly underwent another ritual
performance. Fourteen spears have fractured tips. While this could be
caused by corrosion, two of them show an additional curvature in this
area. At the same height six other spears are fractured on their cutting
edges or received a blow to the same area. This kind of damage affects
roughly a quarter of the total length below the tip. Potentially half of
the spears from Bondesgårde received a strike which damaged their tip
immediately before deposition. The blow was not necessarily aiming to
destroy the tip. While such damage might still occur in combat, there
is further evidence that this use-wear pattern is a remnant of a ritual
The hoard from Dystrup (Denmark) provides eight Apa-type swords,
and parallels Bondesgårde as a hoard with an outstanding number of one
particular weapon type (Wincentz Rasmussen & Boas 2006). Both nds
are unied overall by very limited traces of use. Nonetheless, the hoard
from Dystrup has a very similar pattern of damage. Three swords are
broken and two have fractures on their cutting edges in an analogous
area compared to the spears. In both cases it is approximately half of the
Figure 3. Halberd from Stolpe (Germany, LMSH KS 541).
weapons that exhibit such damage. Perhaps the conspicuous amount of
objects, the analogous damage pattern, and the similar number of af-
fected weapons as well as the lack of other traces of use could point to
a ritual performance.
Considering the evidence, it is quite possible that Late Neolithic and
Early Bronze Age weapons were subject to ritual performances leaving
visible traces. But does that mean these objects were purely ritual weap-
ons not t for combat? Before this question can be considered, we have
to ask: Why would we expect ghting to leave any traces at all?
Mauss (1992) popularized the term “techniques of the body” and Leroi-
Gourhan subsequently introduced it into archaeology with a thorough
discussion of the social and biological basis and its implications (1993).
Techniques of the body rst and foremost refer to knowledge of body
movements and do not necessarily depend on material culture. The use
of objects, however, does shape and transform bodily techniques. In
his dossier Mauss called this “the formation of mechanical ‘pairs of el-
ements’ with the body”. He used the explicitly archaeological example
of an Abbevillian (“Cellean”) hand axe and its relation to the techniques
of forceful movements and holding (Mauss 1992:471–472). Bodily tech-
niques and pairs of elements are set in a socially learned habitus (Mauss
1992:456) not always following the most efcient or even functional way
of doing things (see for example Warnier 2011).
Going back to the previously stated denition of warfare and the in-
volvement of technology, maybe we are able to differentiate two kinds
of technologies. One is the body techniques. The other component is
objects employed as weapons. Together they establish mechanical pairs
of elements. The weapons could be termed “practical technology” as
dened by Hayden (1993:203). Nevertheless, this technology does not
only involve a practical dimension. It includes technological knowl-
edge from the “recipes of action” to techno-science (Schiffer & Skibo
1987:597–598) and their materiality that is constitutive for individuals
and the social (Tilley 2007:17; see also Kuijpers 2013; Molloy 2008). To
acknowledge this complexity the term material technology will be used.
Fighting does not only require holding a weapon, it necessitates a
whole set of different bodily techniques (Warnier 2011). A combatant
needs to know how to move his arm to get a proper swing, his feet for
positioning, his head to avoid the most lethal blows, his eyes to be aware
along with a multitude of other motions. All these are techniques of the
Harm’s Way
body which are utilized in ghting, but are not exclusive to it. Every of-
fensive or defensive manoeuvre is made up of a combination of bodily
techniques, and a set of manoeuvres or movements makes up a style
of ghting. Fighting style can be separated into two levels. There is an
overarching level that is established by how a combatant aims to defeat
an opponent. The combination of cutting and thrusting manoeuvres
and the necessary defensive movements establish, for example a style
of ghting we could call fencing. According to the specic pair of ele-
ments this style is particularized by necessitating a variation of the bod-
ily techniques involved in every movement. Thus, a stab with a Myce-
nean sword (Molloy 2008) may look very different from a stab with a
halberd (O’Flaherty 2007). If both were used in a fencing ghting style
each would represent a variation of that style. Therefore, a particular
ghting style interlinks ghter and weapon intimately.
Presumably, weapons are employed to enhance the capacity to hurt
or kill an opponent even in the animal realm (O’Connell 1988:14; Wile-
man 2009:12). At the same time they are possibly the rst line of defence
if a ghter wants to avoid bodily harm. Due to the resistance, damage
is likely to occur when two weapons meet. Resistance could also come
from armour, a shield, bone or if a strike misses and comes into contact
with natural features, for example stones on the ground. The material
deforms according to a range of physical properties of the objects in-
volved (O’Flaherty et al. 2011). It should be kept in mind that damage
jeopardizes the physical integrity of a weapon, and ghters probably
tried to avoid it (Molloy 2008:126). Thus, combat damage is potentially
accidental, which may increase the diversication of damage.
From the observation of ritual damage we obtain some informa-
tion that can be used to dene what combat damage should look like.
Combat damage should not directly destroy a weapon (contrary to g-
ure 3). Instead traces should be more subtle with a variety of damage
on an individual weapon, little obvious pattering in placement, dam-
age type and strength of related weapons. Nevertheless, since combat
damage is linked to the way weapons are handled, patterning could
occur. Therefore, the boundary between combat and ritual damage is
perhaps blurred.
Before proceeding with the combat damage, a difculty with regard
to the relation of techniques of the body and use wear has to be ad-
dressed. A single technique or even a certain set of motions are poten-
tially indistinguishable. For example, removing the bark from a tree or
killing a person could involve very similar movements. The people who
massacred the individuals in Talheim with their adzes probably did not
need any special motions for simple blows against the skull, especially
when the enemy was already lying on the ground (König & Wahl 1987).
A similar case could be made for the hammer-like weapon found in
Tollense, Germany (Jantzen et al. 2011). Perhaps it can be said that the
fewer techniques of the body vary, the smaller the chances of observing
it in the use-wear traces.
Use wear has been dened in accordance with academic literature on use-
wear analysis (Bridgford 1997, 2000; O’Flaherty 2011). Both spears and
swords show impact damage, plastic deformations, repairs and tip use
wear attributable to combat (gure 4). Impact damage includes notches,
indentations and blow marks. Sometimes it causes material displace-
ment. Plastic deformation includes curvatures and fractures. Impact
damage entails a plastic deformation just as plastic deformations are
caused by impacts. Both were separated according to the scale of their
occurrence. Impact damage is locally very restricted and the shape of
the impacting edge is partially visible. In contrast, plastic deformations
occur on a larger scale and affect wider parts of the weapon. Tip use
wear includes impact damage as well as plastic deformation, but in that
case it is the placement that matters. Repairs are a very blurred form of
combat trace (Kristiansen 1984, 2002), but they potentially signify cer-
tain areas where such damage appeared.
According to the different placement and occurrence of use wear, it
is possible to attribute it to different motions (Molloy 2011:75–77; An-
derson 2011; Schauer 1979). Due to the angle and directionality of cer-
tain ghting techniques they make different parts vulnerable to dam-
age. Impact damage along the cutting edges and on the body perhaps
indicates a cutting movement because it exposes more of the cutting
edge than other motions. Use wear on tips could indicate thrusting as
a combat manoeuvre, since the tip is the rst to meet resistance. How-
ever, an imprecise parry of a thrusting attack might still leave damage
on the cutting edge or the body of either weapon. Plastic deformation
and tip use wear could occur if the spears were thrown, but the evi-
dence for cutting movements shows that they were rather held in hand.
However, this cannot rule out that spears may occasionally have been
hurled at an enemy. Due to the trajectory of thrusting it is unlikely that
most tip damage originates from contact with another weapon. Human
skin and esh are probably not resistant enough to cause such defor-
mations. Accordingly, tip damage and some plastic deformations could
Harm’s Way
Figure 4. a. N otch (LMSH KS 12578); b. Indentation w ith material displ acement (NMK
B 11203); c. Blow mark slightly affected by corrosion (LMSH KS 6164); d. Tip pressure
(LUH M 17217); e. Curvature on the socket of a spear (SHM 1985 (1853)); f. Curvature
on the tip of a sword (NMK B 1698); g. Striations (NMK 6469); h. Tip reduced due to
repair (SHM 13035.1).
count as secondary proof for the existence of body armour or shields at
the time, despite the lack of archaeological remains. However, one has
to keep in mind that bones could be a source of this kind of damage as
well (O’Flaherty 2007).
Potentially, all these different damage types could point to various
ghting styles (Horn 2013). While some swords show several categories
of damage simultaneously, not all of them are damaged in all the dif-
ferent ways. Thus, the sum of damage types can perhaps be interpreted
as the sum of all the possible movements performed with a particu-
lar form of weapon. As an example, the summary of combat traces on
swords provides evidence indicating that swords were used in motions
establishing a complex fencing style that includes cutting and thrust-
ing manoeuvres (gure 5). Damage on tips such as pressure, curvature,
fractures, along with other curvatures and fractures on the body of the
weapon may primarily occur from thrusting movements. Cutting ex-
poses more of the longitudinal axis of the given weapon. Subsequently, it
is assumed that damage on the cutting edge and the body of the weapon
– such as notches, indentations and blow marks, summarized as impact
damage – accounts for such manoeuvres. Interestingly the same catego-
ries of damage are also visible on spears (gure 6) and halberds across
all the types and variants. It is even more intriguing that swords and
spears do not exhibit any statistically signicant variation in the pat-
terning of the quantities of the various damage categories (gure 7). A
χ2 test conrmed the impression the charts convey (p = 0.82275). This
suggests they were used in combat in a very similar manner, employing
both tips and cutting edges. These results suggest that swords, spears
and halberds were used in a complex fencing style employing, among
other motions, cutting and thrusting. There is a major disjunction be-
tween the logical inference of varying bodily techniques and the uni-
formity of observable traces.
These observations conrm Clements’ (2007) suggestion that the sep-
aration of thrusting and cutting as a means to ght is a myth. This re-
sult also implies that a separation of spears and lances into several func-
tional classes as suggested by Tarot (2000:41–45) for the Swiss Bronze
Age material does not t with the Southern Scandinavian evidence. In
contrast, the presented case supports results deduced from later material
in Britain and the Urneld culture in Germany (Anderson 2011; Schauer
1979). The result of this study shows early weaponry to be fully func-
tional. Regardless of the perceptions of modern researchers of functional
technical design, prehistoric individuals considered these weapons t
for ghting and frequently took them into battle. It is possible to view
these early weapons as specialized weaponry that gained importance
Harm’s Way
Table 1. Use wear visible on swords; see gure 5.
Swords (n=50)
yes no uncertain
Notch 18 13 19
Indentation 11 19 20
Blowmark 8 22 20
Impact damage (total) 24 11 15
Curvature 26 10 14
Fracture 25 13 12
Twisting 5 40 5
Plastic deformation (total) 28 11 11
Tip pressure 4 9 37
Tip curvature 12 4 34
Tip fracture 15 29 6
Repair 23 8 19
Repair and damage 22 8 20
Tip repair 3 13 34
Use wear (total) 28 2 20
Tip use wear (total) 25 3 22
Heavy disturbance 23 27 0
Figure 5. Chart use wear visible on swords; see table 1.
Table 2. Use wear visible on spears; see gure 6.
Spears (n=158)
yes no uncertain
Notch 73 51 34
Indentation 60 65 35
Blowmark 62 66 30
Impact damage (total) 115 20 23
Curvature 106 33 19
Fracture 82 57 19
Twisting 12 135 11
Plastic deformation (total) 125 19 14
Tip pressure 35 32 91
Tip curvature 50 44 64
Tip fracture 34 76 48
Repair 107 19 32
Repair and damage 102 32 24
Tip repair 46 49 63
Use wear (total) 131 13 14
Tip use wear (total) 91 22 45
Heavy disturbance 38 120 0
Figure 6. Chart use wear visible on spears; see table 2.
Harm’s Way
Table 3. Use wear visible on halberds; see gure 7.
Halberd (n=15)
yes no uncertain
Notch 9 3 3
Indentation 8 4 3
Blowmark 5 5 5
Impact damage (total) 12 1 2
Curvature 12 2 1
Fracture 9 5 1
Twisting 6 8 1
Plastic deformation (total) 12 1 2
Tip pressure 4 3 8
Tip curvature 6 4 5
Tip fracture 5 6 4
Repair 7 2 6
Repair and damage 7 3 5
Tip repair 5 8 2
Use wear (total) 12 1 2
Tip use wear (total) 11 1 3
Heavy disturbance 5 10 0
Figure 7. Chart use wear visible on halberds; see table 3.
in ritual contexts rather than to interpret them as non-functional, sym-
bolic weapons. Nonetheless, the similarity of the ghting style, despite
the quite varied morphology, is a problem that needs to be addressed.
There is a marked difference in the morphology of the weapon forms.
According to Mauss (1992) the bodily techniques and the object form
employed constitute different pairs of elements. Logically, we should ex-
pect certain differences in the manoeuvres to successfully strike or de-
fend. Blades of halberds were angled differently to the ghter than the
blade of a sword or spear, making a different motion necessary to hit
an opponent with the cutting edge or tip. A cut with a halberd could be
inicted in a scythe-like or hooking motion (Brandherm 2004:322). The
cutting edge on swords is usually longer than that of the other weapon
forms, which changes the way a cut is drawn. Spears and halberds pos-
sess wooden handles and were perhaps two-handed. Perhaps it is reason-
able to assume that the handle played a role in defending and attacking
as it did in later periods (Anglo 2000:148–171; Schulze 2007:63–71).
So, why does the use wear not vary signicantly?
Manoeuvres like cutting and thrusting are distinguished to a lesser
degree by the specic techniques of the body involved. Instead they are
dened by the part of the weapon that is supposed to inict damage.
Due to its position, a desire to strike with a certain part of the weapon
may be assumed. Thrusting or stabbing was carried out with the tip of
a weapon regardless of how the blade was angled. The stress of impact
is mostly focussed on the tip. Conversely, the attempt to inict a cut
will leave the cutting edges more open, and therefore, more vulnerable
to damage. Resistance in both cases could come from bone, defensive
weaponry or successful but somewhat careless parries. Damage is de-
termined by the relative position of the impacted and impacting object.
Both objects potentially receive damage. This, however, is randomized
by the accidental nature of combat damage. Consequently, the notch
does not inform whether the ghter was attacking or defending; differ-
ent motions could leave similar use-wear traces.
As a result, we can say that the problem is possibly rooted in the in-
distinguishability of the archaeological evidence. We may not be able to
discern the particular combination of techniques of the body necessary
to conduct a certain movement. Nevertheless, there may still be the pos-
sibility to address change. Manoeuvres are constrained by the ability of
Harm’s Way
the ghter. It is thus possible that the design of the weaponry is adjusted
to the requirements of ghters; a phenomenon also observed by Warnier
(2011:369). A combatant and his weapon form a relational system; they
embody each other’s qualities (Malafouris 2008:122; Molloy 2008:119;
Warnier 2011). Therefore, new weapon designs possibly include prior
knowledge of ghting. Halberds, spears and swords are close combat
weapons with a tip and a cutting edge. Fighters potentially remained
within the same frame of fencing despite changing weapon forms. This
could subsequently lead to minor changes in the techniques of the body
not observable by means of use-wear analysis.
These considerations leave a problem. The visible changes in weap-
onry, the inferred subtle changes in body techniques and the stability
of the overall ghting style inferred from the evidence of the use-wear
analysis form a relational system that requires mediation between com-
batants, their material technology, and opponents along with their ma-
terial technology. So the question could be: What mediates between the
different agents?
As previously mentioned, the ritual contexts of discovery leave a
gap in our knowledge about how many weapons were actually in exist-
ence. Presumably, there were many more than we know. The damage
on weapons tells us that people fought, but it does not tell who was in-
volved. Southern Scandinavia is potentially highly interconnected with
a shared iconography (Kaul 2004), and material culture (for example
Vandkilde 1996). Amongst other means, canoes possibly facilitated high
mobility and fast travel (Ling 2008). Maybe this interconnectedness was
already present in the Neolithic, as can be seen through the distribution
of int daggers (Apel 2001). There is potential that it formed in even
earlier times (Zvelebil 2006). Though it is just circumstantial evidence,
this closely related system possibly led to tension of differing interests
relieved through combat and warfare. This assumption is perhaps sup-
ported by the interpretation of the rock-art ships as war canoes (Ling
2008:224–225) and a deceased male from Over Vindinge (Denmark)
with a period I spear embedded in his pelvis (Kjær 1912). Judging by the
frequency of combat damage on the weapons, these engagements could
have happened regularly.
Deleuze and Guattarie (1987:360) argued that the exteriority of war-
fare only exists in its own metamorphosis. It is an ever-owing eld of
coexistence and competition. In that sense warfare could be dened as
perpetual eld of interaction. Perhaps, in the words of Schiffer and Skibo
(1997:44), this eld did not only provide space for person-to-person in-
teraction, but also for person-to-object and object-to-object interaction.
Consequently, it could be argued that combat is the mediator and the
canvas on which people negotiate. Fighters establish this relational sys-
tem by means of engagement, which inuences them in return. This is
the interdependency of agent and structure on which Giddens (1986:25–
28) elaborated. Yet, how can we imagine what happens during combat?
Benjamin (1991:141) argues in his metaphysical discussion of lan-
guage that everything has its own language, and that language with spo-
ken words is just a special case. In combat humans perform in unison
with their weapons a constant series of attack and defence, action and
re-action, movement and counter-movement. In the sense of language,
they exchange arguments. Thus it can perhaps be said that ghting, and
on a larger scale warfare, establishes a space for communication with-
out spoken words. In their search for a decisive advantage humans take
different material technologies to the battleeld. Molloy and Grossman
(2007) reasoned that ghting requires training which transfers knowl-
edge into bodily know-how. In close combat it is impossible to think
about the next move for very long, and it is necessary to act quickly.
Thus, ghters also take their sets of techniques of the body to combat.
Both material and bodily technology are negotiated on the canvas of
ghting and mediated by it.
Benjamin (1991:148) maintains that the language of things has to
be interpreted; turned back into the spoken language of humans to be
understood. Combat itself needs to be analysed by the ghters; bod-
ily know-how has to be re-interpreted into knowledge. Fighters are not
just free agents in that they are constrained by prior training, traditions,
physical abilities, weapons and ultimately by their adversary. Chang-
ing the learned techniques of the body is a difcult process, even if bet-
ter ways of doing things are known. Mauss highlights this anecdotally
(1992:456): “the habit of swallowing water and spitting it out again has
gone. In my day, swimmers thought of themselves as a kind of steam-
boat. It was stupid, but in fact I still do this: I cannot get rid of my tech-
niques.” Despite the deterministic undertone, today it is known that the
nerve cells in the motor cortex are suitable for “re-programming” (Kan-
del 2000:34–35), but it requires a lot of work and is a slow process. This
is so deeply engrained that it is here, as Malafouris (2008) contends,
a weapon is embodied in the ghter dening his very personhood and
inuences his motions and emotions (see also Warnier 2011). In view
of that, the material technology is perhaps the easiest part to change in
this relational system. Thus, adjustments take on an archaeologically
recognizable form in the morphology of the weaponry. Logically, this
changes bodily techniques leading to changing pairs of mechanical ele-
ments. Nonetheless, the habitus in the Maussian sense can possibly be re-
garded as a conservative element constraining change (Mauss 1992:456).
Harm’s Way
Prior embodied knowledge (Molloy 2008:119; with older literature) and
the need for a certain symmetry in ghting (O’Connel 1989) facilitate
the new designs. This ensures a certain continuity in the ghting style.
In regard to the weaponry considered here, this means that the changes
in the techniques of the body, while present, remain archaeologically
elusive, and the style of ghting visible in combat wear remains more
or less stable.
Summarizing the arguments, combat is probably a deeply socially
embedded and, horribile dictu, meaningful interaction. It is a serially
“executed social practice” (Fahlander 2003:16, 31–36). It shapes bod-
ily and material technologies which might reect back on broader de-
velopments. Without the space to go into detail here, weapons are part
of conspicuous larger-scale developments: The subsequent Period II of
the Early Nordic Bronze Age sees the wider introduction of swords into
Swedish material culture and with that a higher frequency of weapon
depositions in graves (Kristiansen 1998: Fig. 34). In another example,
copper halberds emerge in Southern Scandinavia among the rst com-
plex metal objects (Horn forthcoming). Therefore, combat introduces
change on a micro-level, affecting the material and bodily technology
of war. In this way warfare could change the social fabric, the relational
system of humans and material culture, apart from the expressed and
perceived intentions of past competitors.
This article has been based on a denition of warfare with an emphasis
on engagement and technology. Both have been argued to be important
features in warfare and therefore combat. In this light, the use-wear
analysis of 208 spears and swords of period I of the Early Bronze Age
and 15 Late Neolithic halberds has been used to hypothesize how com-
bat contributes to change aside from the personal aims of ghters. The
rst line of argument was a critical view of the interpretations of early
weaponry and the ritual performances these weapons were subject to.
The technology of warfare has been separated into material technol-
ogy and the techniques of the body in order to explain the occurrence
of combat wear on weapons. Specic sets of the techniques of the body
form ghting styles. Different weapon forms logically necessitate differ-
ent bodily techniques. The use-wear analysis of the early weapons did
not only prove them to be fully functional, it also showed that despite a
different material technology they were essentially used in the same com-
plex fencing style. Thus, in relation to the material technology, different
techniques of the body have been merged into a similar ghting style. As
a result it can perhaps be said that material technology was changed in
accordance with the requirements of the preferred ghting style of the
ghters, thereby only slightly changing their bodily techniques.
From that result a hypothetical model was inferred. Combat can be
regarded as a meaningful social practice; a temporal structure estab-
lished by ghters as a relational system. Fighting establishes a space for
communication in a language without spoken words. This provides a
canvas for the negotiation of material and bodily technology, but combat
also actively mediates between the agents involved. Micro-level change
is introduced and potentially builds up to cultural shifts.
I would like to thank Kristian Kristiansen, Helle Vandkilde, Barry Mol-
loy, Martin Hinz, Tine Schenck and Rich Potter for their help and sug-
gestions. Further thanks go to Fredrik Fahlander and Anders Högberg
for their patience as well as the three anonymous referees who helped to
improve this article. The research leading to these results has received
funding from the European Union Seventh Framework Programme
(FP7/2007-2013) under grant agreement number 212402.
Christian Horn
Graduate School “Human Development in Landscapes”
Institut für Ur- und Frühgeschichte
Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel
Johanna-Mestorf-Straße 2–6
24118 Kiel
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... Such an approach has been used to argue the fighting styles using swords or spears during period I of the Nordic Bronze Age (1700-1500 BC) followed similar patterns. This may have facilitated the adoption of innovations in weapon technology (Horn, 2013(Horn, , 2014a. Building on this prior work, our aim is to give a more detailed account of Nordic Bronze Age weaponry by extending the chronological framework and including the results of new wear analyses. ...
... Wear marks can be classified based on their morphology (Horn, 2013(Horn, , 2014a which will be outlined in the following. Other nomenclatures have been proposed (Bridgford, 2000;Gentile and van Gijn, 2019;Molloy, 2006), however, to keep comparability with earlier papers in the region we keep the definitions put forward in Horn's previous publications (Horn, 2013(Horn, , 2014a(Horn, , 2017. ...
... Wear marks can be classified based on their morphology (Horn, 2013(Horn, , 2014a which will be outlined in the following. Other nomenclatures have been proposed (Bridgford, 2000;Gentile and van Gijn, 2019;Molloy, 2006), however, to keep comparability with earlier papers in the region we keep the definitions put forward in Horn's previous publications (Horn, 2013(Horn, , 2014a(Horn, , 2017. Notches are v-shaped intrusions (Figure 1a-b) and indentations have more rounded u-shapes (Figure 1c-d). ...
Full-text available
Wear analyses of 100 bladed objects including swords, spears, daggers, and knives dating to the Nordic Bronze Age was conducted focusing on Northern Germany. These analyses indicate changing patterns for tip and edge wear, the relationship of curvatures, fractures, and cracks, and for different traces of repairs. Comparing these results to published wear analyses suggests changing patterns across object forms and time. It can be hypothesized that there is a trend towards accommodating fighting style preferences with diverging object designs. This started at the end of the Late Neolithic with the change from halberds to swords/daggers and spears. The changing patterns were interpreted as indications of shifts in the use of swords, spears, and daggers following changes in the design of these objects. Swords and spears were used in increasingly more specialised motions over time, i.e. swords in slashing/cutting and spears more often for thrusting. Daggers may have shifted away from a role as combat weapons to multipurpose tools more in line with period III knives. This was interpreted as evidence for the existence of a technological network in which changes in design and use of bladed objects inform each other. The results provide the base for future research into object design, specialization, and social significance that can test the hypotheses put forward in this paper.
... Nineteen volumes have been published on swords (Bader, 1991;Bianco Peroni, 1970;Brandherm, 2007;Burgess and Gerloff, 1981;Colquhoun and Bur gess, 1988;Harding, 1995;Kemenczei, 1988Kemenczei, , 1991Kilian-Dirlmeier, 1993;Kramer, 1985;Laux, 2009;Novak, 1975;Novotna, 2014;01iillfeldt, 1995;Reim, 1974;Schauer, 1971;Shalev, 2004;Winiker, 2015;Wiistemann, 2004), as opposed to the six published on spears (Avila, 1983;Davis, 2012Davis, , 2015Gedl, 2009;Laux, 2012;Rihovsky, 1996). A similar pattern has been observed for the analysis of use-wear on swords and spears (Anderson, 2011;Horn, 2014). Although use wear studies on swords and spears start similarly early (Schauer, 1979;Kristiansen, 1979), swords are analysed much more frequently (for references see Horn, 2014). ...
... A similar pattern has been observed for the analysis of use-wear on swords and spears (Anderson, 2011;Horn, 2014). Although use wear studies on swords and spears start similarly early (Schauer, 1979;Kristiansen, 1979), swords are analysed much more frequently (for references see Horn, 2014). Only recently has use-wear on spearheads drawn more attention (Anderson, 2011;Horn, 2013Horn, , 2014Horn, , 2015. ...
... Although use wear studies on swords and spears start similarly early (Schauer, 1979;Kristiansen, 1979), swords are analysed much more frequently (for references see Horn, 2014). Only recently has use-wear on spearheads drawn more attention (Anderson, 2011;Horn, 2013Horn, , 2014Horn, , 2015. This disparity has arguably left half of the story of Bronze Age conflict untold and provided us with an oversimplified picture. ...
... The new awareness that intergroup violence may have played a major role in the social transformations of Bronze Age Europe has had an invigorating effect on the discipline, spurring an array of specialist studies that investigated early metal weapons and armour by integrated archaeological and scientific analysis. In continuity with previous developments, the sword has enjoyed pride of place within this fastdeveloping research strand, somewhat overshadowing similar lines of enquiry into Bronze Age halberds, spears, and shields (Anderson 2011;Horn 2013Horn , 2014Horn , 2017Lull et al. 2017;Molloy 2009;O'Flaherty 2007, O'Flaherty et al. 2011Uckelmann 2011Uckelmann , 2012. Two principal methods have been employed, jointly or otherwise, to research how swords might have been used in prehistory: experimental archaeology and metalwork wear analysis. ...
... For instance, it has overturned undemonstrated assumptions about the purely symbolic value of early weapons and has generated terrific new insights into their uses (e.g. Horn 2013Horn , 2014Horn , 2017O'Flaherty et al. 2011). Despite its centrality to weapon studies, however, MWA relies on experimentation to elucidate prehistoric wear formation. ...
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The article presents a new picture of sword fighting in Middle and Late Bronze Age Europe developed through the Bronze Age Combat Project. The project investigated the uses of Bronze Age swords, shields, and spears by combining integrated experimental archaeology and metalwork wear analysis. The research is grounded in an explicit and replicable methodology providing a blueprint for future experimentation with, and wear analysis of, prehistoric copper-alloy weapons. We present a four-step experimental methodology including both controlled and actualistic experiments. The experimental results informed the wear analysis of 110 Middle and Late Bronze Age swords from Britain and Italy. The research has generated new understandings of prehistoric combat, including diagnostic and undiagnostic combat marks and how to interpret them; how to hold and use a Bronze Age sword; the degree of skill and training required for proficient combat; the realities of Bronze Age swordplay including the frequency of blade-on-blade contact; the body parts and areas targeted by prehistoric sword fencers; and the evolution of fighting styles in Britain and Italy from the late 2nd to the early 1st millennia BC. All primary data discussed in the article are available as supplementary material (Appendix) so as to allow scrutiny and validation of the research results.
... The growing body of experimental research on the subject is informing a related (and growing) body of papers that discuss wear analysis of prehistoric weapons (e.g. Brandherm 2011;Colquhoun 2011;Horn 2011Horn , 2013Horn , 2014Matthews 2011;Melheim and Horn 2014;Mödlinger 2011;Uckelmann 2011). Yet it is unclear how comparable the experimental studies informing these wear analysis publications are and thereby how comparable the wear analysis is. ...
... This example suggests that the weight of perceived wisdom, which suggests function follows form, has hampered our understandings of prehistoric bronze weapons. The work of Anderson (2011) and Horn (2014) has overturned longstanding assumptions about the lack of functionality of early bronze spears and argued convincingly for the existence of elaborate fighting styles including, at least for large spearheads, sword-like slashing strikes that could not be identified by purely morphological studies. ...
Despite the wealth of recent research into prehistoric warfare, our knowledge of how early weapons were handled and used in combat encounters remains limited. The Bronze Age Combat Project aims to investigate the problem through a combination of wear analysis of prehistoric swords, spears, and shields from various UK museum collections and through extensive, rigorous field tests with purpose-built replica weapons. The chapter discusses the multidisciplinary research approach devised by the team. The focus is on the development of our research methodology and experiments. We review our experimental methodology in the light of previous tests with replica weapons and highlight the advantages and shortcomings of our own approach to weapon testing.
... In a work exclusively dedicated to a regional analysis of the prehistoric warfare [69], Bronze Age covers an important part, divided in two shares (Bell Beaker/ Early Bronze Age and Later Bronze Age) and interpretations are discussed about the cause of the destruction with the fire of some Bell Beaker/ Early Bronze Ages palisades (by attackers or for ritual), the early presence of swords and shields in Ireland and Great Britain and the percolation of territory and consequent violent competition between human groups in Late Bronze Age. In a short work analyzing the weapons of Baltic area, above all of Bronze Age, Horn [70] stresses that the technical study of weapons as a main point to distinguish the warfare from other forms of violence, and emphasizes the importance of the psychological habitués of the fighters and of the adaptation to this of the shape of the weapons. ...
The study discusses an unpublished bronze hoard from the famous West Hungarian archaeological site: Velem-Szent Vid (Transdanubia, Vas County). This small Ha B1 assemblage contains a spearhead with remains of the wooden shaft, a sickle, and three different types of ingots. Our aim was a comprehensive structural and compositional characterization of the preserved objects from the hoard exclusively by means of non-invasive and non-destructive analytical, structural, and imaging techniques (XRF, PGAA, TOF-ND, Neutron Imaging, X-ray Imaging). The spearhead and the ingots were studied from production to deposition. Our results suggest that the spearhead was a good quality cast with relatively high Sn content and extremely low porosity rate. It received a minimal post-casting treatment, and hafted similarly to West European Late Bronze Age spearheads. Based on use-wear traces caused by blade-on-blade contact and edge-vs-flat collision, this weapon may have been used in parrying situation. After being used most likely just for a short period, the metal and wooden parts of weapon were intentionally destroyed by plastic deformation prior to deposition. Ingots selected to the Velem-Szent Vid hoard were cast in open one-piece moulds or ‘improvised’ moulds carved to the surfaces or berms of the metallurgical workshop. They have not been partitioned further after casting, but selected for deposition. The elemental composition data of the ingots revealed high quantity of Pb and Sb. The ratio of Pb in the miniature plano-convex ingot (89 ± 0.3 m%) and the rod ingot (94 ± 0.3 m%) was so high that they can be identified as lead ingots, a rare raw material type during the Late Bronze Age. One out of the analysed three ingots, the elemental composition of the cuboid ingot was the most complex, containing high Pb (13–37 m%) and Sb (0.6–6.2 m%) based on PGAA. Chalcocite (Cu2S) was identified by TOF-ND, which points to the possible origin of the raw material or production method (smelting). Our study suggests that this hoard was a combination of a professionally cast spearhead, used and destroyed intentionally along with a fragmented sickle, and three rare and valuable ingots made of specific materials, which were not used after casting. All of them were deposited together in a votive hoard in a central, multi-hoard settlement. Their treatment and selection followed local hoarding traditions practiced in Velem-Szent Vid and its related areas in Transdanubia.
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The article is Open Access, please visit the publishers website to download. Thank you! The archaeology of warfare and violent conflict has made many advances over the past three decades. However, the Funnel‐beaker Culture (TRB) is mostly absent from these discussions and the presence of warriors is assigned to the succeeding periods. This contribution takes a new look at a conspicuous object from northern TRB contexts: the so‐called thick flint points or halberds (dan. dolkstaver). Their functionality as a specialized weapon is discussed through their use wear, contexts and European comparisons. Afterwards the evidence for violent conflict in the region is explored thematically, including paleo‐demography, victims, enemies, and fortifications. Based on this it is argued that warfare existed during the TRB culture and that warriors may emerge in a society that seems of a largely egalitarian structure.
The Newcastle-led Bronze Age Combat project presents its results from innovative combat experiments with replica Bronze Age swords, spears and shields. The original experimental methodologies used authentic replica weapons in extensive rigorous field experiments, and actualistic combat based on historical manuscripts. These allowed for replicate combat-related wear marks as found on original Bronze Age specimens. Bronze Age Combat provides a full account of the methodologies, replicas, experiments and results in unprecedented detail. By bringing together a range of experimental techniques, materials and expertise, this book is designed as a starting point and reference collection for further studies into Bronze Age combat research, metalwork wear analysis and experimental archaeology.
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In this paper, we study the relationship between human beings, landscapes and material culture. We review previous research within the post-processual turn and the new material turn, which have moved away from the problematic view that sees material culture solely as acted upon, and the landscape as a passive arena where events take place. However, even though we consider it to be significant that the focus has shifted, we see a danger in viewing the landscape and material culture purely as a visual ideology, a human cognitive construction, which has prevailed in the post-processual turn, as well as seeing landscape and material culture as primary agents on a symmetrical axis with human beings, which prevails in the new material turn. Instead, we would like to move away from these dual categories by focusing on a dialectic relation based on the transmission of stories and human engagement with material culture and landscapes. Here, we apply memory studies with a particular focus on how activities and habits in the landscape shape and enforce memories, as well as how the landscape and material culture can form chronotopes, narratives combining spatial and temporal dimensions, which in turn motivate and influence human activities. Our case studies to make this point are gathered from Bronze Age rock art in Scandinavia as well as from war monuments in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Our primary argument is a fluid (opposed to static), multi-temporal approach to landscape and material culture, where the events taking place are to be traced in both spatial and temporal directions. However, it is important to note that the landscape does not store memories and it does not freeze events. It is solely through human engagement, activities, and reflexion that the landscape and material culture form narratives that are carried on in an ever-changing, multiple and highly context-dependent way into the future, by constraining the variety of possible perceptions and streamlining experiences.
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DOI: 10.1007/978-3-319-78828-9_4 In this chapter we employ a multidisciplinary approach to the study of Iron Age Samnite ‘warrior burials’ from central Italy. Building upon previous studies, which suggested that high humeral asymmetry in mechanical strength can be used as a proxy for weapon training from adolescence, we analysed the degree and laterality of asymmetry in 216 male burials, as well as the typology and layout of weapons in 153 burials from the overall sample. The relationship between martial paraphernalia in graves and the participation of the deceased in martial activities, as inferred from biomechanical analysis, has provided valuable insights into the military practices of Iron Age communities and their social significance. The research has revealed that the weapons may have been placed in the graves of individuals that did not undertake intensive military training during their lives. This suggests that they may have been used to signal social affiliation in funerals rather than actual participation of the deceased in martial practices. However, the presence and distribution of ‘prestige weapons’ in the burial sample seems to indicate a highly ‘war prowess-oriented’ society, in which status and wealth were acquired through the practice and display of fighting skills. Furthermore, the scarcity of highly asymmetric, left-handed individuals from the sample suggests that training of the right arm was systematically favoured. This is an extremely interesting result, which suggests that early Samnite armies may not have consisted of loose ranks as previously believed.