Sunday 7 August 2022

Understanding the threat to social cohesion presented by the emergence of a warrior caste in the Nordic Bronze Age.

The emergence of a warrior caste is seen as one of the defining features of the European Bronze Age, accompanied by concepts of a warrior ideal. The precise role of such warriors within society is debatable, and likely to have varied from place to place, but it is generally accepted that a ruling warrior elite appeared in Southern Scandinavia, northern Germany, and parts of Poland and the Netherlands. However, the exact nature of this ruling class is uncertain, with centralised kingdoms, local chiefdoms, extended ruling families, and flatter societies in which one's status was entirely dependent on personal prowess have all been suggested. 

Whatever the truth of this, the widespread occurrence of Warrior Burials (individual warriors buried with weapons and other grave goods indicative of social status), buried weapons hoards, and rock art depicting the actions of warriors, all clearly send a message that these were an important group of people.

Warriors are considered to have been important figures in the trade in metals. They are known to have taken part in (sometimes lengthy) journeys by both land and sea. Moreover, the presence of items associated with personal grooming in Warrior Burials suggests that they were image conscious, and possibly felt the need to distinguish themselves from other members of the community. Such a desire to distinguish themselves may have related to the membership of an elite caste which controlled access to some forms of knowledge, possibly concerning navigation, the symbolic interpretation of rock art, or the use of weapons.

Studies of the Bronze Age societies which produced these warriors have not generally considered the impact of their activities upon those societies. Warriors are assumed to have gone to war, fought, and then returned and continued with their lives, something which seems unlikely given our knowledge of later warrior societies, and the difficulties that modern soldiers often have re-integrating into their societies after taking part in conflicts.

In a paper published in the European Journal of Archaeology on 3 August 2022, Christian Horn of the Department of Historical Studies at the University of Gothenburg, considers the threat that such warriors may have presented to their own societies, and how those communities may have dealt with that threat.

Horn considers the evidence for warfare during the Nordic Bronze Age, and considers against whom such conflicts are likely to have been fought. He then considers the impact that the presence of the warriors who fought in these wars may have had on the societies which produced them, and looks for evidence for those societies having taken steps to cope with this threat.

Warfare appears to have been a common practice during the Nordic Bronze Age. The Early Bronze Age saw the appearance of the first swords, weapons which were to become the preferred status symbol of warrior classes for the next three millennia, as well as the refinement of spears, which had been around since at least the Neolithic, as weapons of war.

Bronze weapons are less prone to corrosion than iron weapons, which has allowed the examination of many Bronze Age weapons for traces of use. This has uncovered significant evidence of these weapons being used regularly (rather than just held as status symbols), including V-shaped notches, likely to have been caused by blows from other blades, U-shaped notches, variously interpreted as being caused by impacts against axes, shields, or bone, and signs of the weapons having been regularly repaired and maintained to keep them battle-ready.

(a)–(b) Early Bronze Age spears from Torsted (Denmark, NM K B15118.19); (c) Late Bronze Age spear from Bad Oldesloh (Germany, LMSH KS923); (d) Early Bronze Age full-hilted sword from Bragby (Sweden, SHM 14759); (e) Early Bronze Age sword from Vreta Kloster (Sweden, SHM 10419:211). Horn (2022).

Evidence of violence is also fairly common in burials from the Early Bronze Age of southern Scandinavia. Examples of this include burial from Over-Vindinge in Denmark, where the skeleton of a man aged between 50 and 60 buried between 1600 and 1500 BC was found to have a broken spear tip embedded in his pelvis. Another burial site, at Kråkerøy in Norway, produced the body of a man who was suffering from malnutrition, but had apparently died as a result of several sword blows to the head and neck. Another male body showing signs of having died from sword blows to the head and arm was found on a former seafloor at Granhammar in Sweden, possibly indicating that he died in a conflict at sea in about 800 BC.

Larger scale sites are also known from the region. At Sund in Norway the bodies of 22 men, women, and children, apparently all killed in a single incident, were found. These remains all showed signs of long-term malnutrition and hard labour, making it likely that they were slaves or other low status individuals. Finally in the Tollense Valley in Germany, a battlefield site has produced 140 sets of remains to date, with roughly 5-7% showing signs of violent injuries (this does not mean that the other remains are those of people who died peacefully, as fatal injuries to soft tissue will not be preserved in skeletonised remains). Many of these injuries appeared to be old wounds, which had healed at the time of the battle, implying warriors who had taken part in more than one conflict.

Weapons, and Human remains, give a good idea about the physical effects of violence in Early Bronze Age Scandinavia, but art has the capacity to reflect how this violence was perceived and imagined by the people involved. Rock art dating to the period is widespread across Southern Scandinavia, and includes over 6000 known depictions of Human figures, as well as more than 20 000 depictions of boats. Not all aspects of life are shown in this art. Pottery and houses are never shown, and agricultural activities are known form only a few sites. 

In order to analyse the representation of violence in these images, Horn looked at a dataset of 4000 images held by the Swedish Rock Art Research Archive. Images which were damaged or unclear were excluded from the study, leaving 3742 Human figures.  Of these, 977 could be identified as male, while 32 can be identified as female. Offensive weapons were carried by 74% of the male figures, 34% of the unidentified figures, and 6% of the female figures, while defensive weapons were carried by 575 figures, 226 of which also had an offensive weapon; of these 417 could not have their sex identified, while 158 were male (i.e 16% of unidentified figures and 15% of males had defensive weapons).

A network analysis carried out by Horn found that male figures were strongly associated with exaggerated calves, swords and boats; axes, spears, and shields were also common. Female figures were also strongly associated with exaggerated with exaggerated calves and boats, but their association with swords was much lower, and other weapons absent. Long hair was also important for female figures.

Weapons are far more common in male burials than female ones in the Scandinavian Bronze Age, and violence-related injuries more frequent on male bodies, both of which suggest a male-dominated society in which social status was linked to the ability to wage war. Many pieces of rock art also depict figures in which weapons are fused with male sexual organs, apparently indicating the concept of sexual violence, and not just against women; these scenes depict both heterosexual and homosexual couplings, as well as couplings between Humans and Animals.

Scenes potentially showing sexualized violence. (a) A warrior with erect penis stabs a sexless figure with a sword or spear (Tanum 158:1); (b) Scene depicting various forms of sexual intercourse involving armed figures, and a figure with a raised spear in a fighting position (Kville 182:1). Horn (2022).

The depiction of acts of sexual violence, combined with evidence of violence against low-status individuals, makes it unlikely that these Bronze Age Scandinavian fighters were 'clean' warriors bound by some sort of noble code. Rather, these individuals appear to have been capable of using severe violence and brutality to subdue opponents. The depictions of weapons being carried and presence of weapons in burials probably indicate that the open carrying of weapons was normal, something well documented in more recent warrior-dominated societies. The widespread depictions of violence also make it likely that violence was celebrated rather than sanctioned. In such an environment it would be very easy for warriors to turn violence against weaker groups within their own society, in order to protect or bolster their own social standing.

The Battle of Tollense took place in the thirteenth century BC, a time also noted for numerous other conflicts. This has been linked to the appearance of the Urnfield Culture, which brought with it new belief systems and practices which clashed with local religions and customs. Some of the fighters from Tollense have been shown to have come from far from a long way away from the battle, suggesting they were invading outsiders. However, the much of the conflict occurring during this period still seams to have been local in nature. 

All of the fighters appearing in Bronze Age Scandinavian Rock Art are depicted in the same way, armed with similar weapons. The Vitlycke Panel at Tanum in Sweden depicts two identical warriors fighting across a boundary, shown by a row of spots. This may imply a standardised way of drawing such fighters, regardless of their actual origin or appearance, but Horn believes that is part of a body of evidence suggesting most conflict was in fact local in nature. The spear tip which killed the man at Over-Vindage was of local manufacture, and the man buried at Granhammar appears to have been killed by a local axe. The victims of the massacre at Sund were also probably killed in some local conflict, possibly linked to slaving.

Scene showing three or four warriors with similar bodies and equipment in a fight across a border depicted by a row of cupmarks at Vitlycke (Tanum 1:1). Horn (2022).

Warriors in Bronze Age Scandinavian rock art are often closely associated with boats, which again appear standardised in form, with very little variation. A scene depicting a Horse battle at Litsleby in Sweden, thought to date to the end of the Bronze Age, shows two groups of mounted warriors, again with no difference between the figures or their equipment. All of this appears to represent Scandinavian warriors fighting other Scandinavians, rather than invaders from elsewhere in Europe with different weapons and cultural items.

Fighting scenes. (a) Warriors with spears and two boats, Massleberg (Skee 614:1); (b) Warriors on horseback armed with shields and spears, Litsleby (Tanum 72:1). Horn (2022).

Warriors crossed boundaries into the territories of other groups to commit acts of violence, and used violence to defend the boundaries of their own group. Thus they were often absent from the group, and frequently tainted by death, which many societies have regarded as spiritually polluting. This can make warriors somewhat outsiders in their own communities, figures to be venerated, but also figures viewed with a degree of fear and suspicion.

The threat presented by warriors returning to their communities may also have been more tangible. A group of warriors returning from battle in a state of arousal and being treated with high kudos can present a threat to rulers even today, with plenty of modern warlords having ceased power under these circumstances. Even where local rulers were already from a warrior class, they could easily be overthrown by returning, battle-hardened young warriors with greater fighting skills or ruthlessness. If this happens repeatedly it can seriously threaten the stability of a society, something which is likely to have been a serious risk in the Nordic Bronze Age.

Furthermore, violence can be an addictive activity, particularly in societies where it is generally applauded, and when the use of violence becomes a successful political tool it can be very hard to stop. This may have been the cause of events like the massacre at Sund and the violent killing at Grenhammar. If the majority of conflicts being fought in Scandinavia at this time were local in nature, then the communities to which warriors were returning would have closely resembled the societies which they had been fighting, further undermining any social taboos against violence at home.

If returning warriors were, as Horn theorises, a threat to their own societies both spiritually and politically, then those societies can reasonably have been expected to take measures to minimise that threat, something for which he believes he has evidence.

Horn suggests that the burial of weapons, common in Scandinavia and other areas of Europe during the Bronze Age, could represent a ritual sacrifice associated with a right of passage which enabled warriors to give up their warrior status and move on to other roles in society. Such sacrifices may have involved the ritual destruction of the weapons. In Scandinavia and Northern Europe weapons burials almost always occur within 20 km of navigable waters; i.e. less than a day's walking distance. Thus potentially these burials could represent the giving up of the weapons of an entire group of warriors involved in maritime raiding.

Interpreting ritual activities from ancient sites is difficult, and requires careful excavation of the site. Many older weapons hoards in Scandinavia (and other areas) were discovered before archaeologists had an appreciation of this, resulting in a loss of information from these sites. However, some archaeologists, even in the nineteenth century, did provide careful context of their discoveries, enabling some interpretation to be made.

The Smørumøvre Hoard was excavated by Danish Archaeologist Jens Jacob Asmussen Worsaae in the 1850s. Worsaae recorded that the hoard comprised a group of bronze spearheads tightly packed together, and embedded in the floor of a former lake, possibly indicating that the had been bound into a package without their hafts before ritual deposition. The Torstead Hoard, again from Denmark, was uncovered in the 1960s, and provides better context. This hoard comprises forty spearheads and seven axeheads, deposited between 1800 and 1600 BC, within a small stone structure, which could not have held the hafts of any of these weapons. The removal of the hafts of these weapons could be a way of ritually 'killing' them by rendering them into a useless state. Some of the spears buried at Torstead also had their tips broken off, as did several swords from a hoard at Dystrup, with other swords being damaged in other ways. The Torstead Hoard was even buried in a small stone cist, similar to the ones in which Human remains were deposited at the time, re-enforcing the idea that these weapons may have been considered dead.

This ritual killing of weapons may have represented a way for warriors to shed their identities and re-integrate into their communities, something which has been recorded in some more recent societies, and proposed as an explanation for similar hoards from the Chalcolithic of Europe and Late Bronze Age of Britain.

Rock art may also have played some role in the ritual reinstatement of warriors into society. Curiously, areas where numerous hoards of Bronze Age weapons have been found tend to have very few rock paintings, while areas with large numbers of rock paintings often lack depositions of weapons, although both tend to be local to water. 

In Sweden, the majority of Bronze Age rock art is found along the stretch of coast between Bohuslän to Mälardalen, and long the large rivers of this area, and around lakes Vänern and Vättern. At Gerum a large panel depicts 95 boats, 43 figures, 28 animals, 16 footprints (some of them shod), and 187 cupmarks. The land here has been uplifting since the end of the last Ice Age, and the panel was likely completely covered by water until shortly before carving began, with carvings being made close to the water, possibly from a boat, constantly working their way down the rock face as it became exposed.

The carvings at the Berget III site in the Tyrifjorden-Randsfjorden area of Norway are also thought to have been made from a boat. This carvings are 1.7-1.8 m above sealevel today, but when they were carved would have been only slightly above the water when they were carved. This is also thought to have been true of the rock art at Flögen in Sweden, where a series of boats (and a single Bull), were depicted over the course of the Bronze Age. These are now between 11.66 and 12.51 m above sealevel, but would have been slightly above the water when made, making it likely that the artists were either in a boat or standing on frozen ice.

(a) Density of Nordic Bronze Age metalwork based on published large catalogues. (b) Density of Nordic Bronze Age rock art. Horn (2022).

All of the rock art is placed close to water, but never in sight of the open sea. Instead it is placed within straits, fjords, and bays in places it can be seen from land, but hidden from the sea, presumably indicating that the scenes were directed inwards, for the benefit of the local community, but hidden from outsiders.

In the Early Bronze Age, warriors (and others) were buried in stone barrows and cairns, where weapons and other grave goods could be easily placed. By the Late Bronze Age, however, cremation had taken over as the predominant way of disposing of the dead, severely limiting the potential for sending metal goods with the dead. In areas where rock art was common, the amount of grave goods placed in tombs was lower, and the tombs tended to be placed close to the panels, and often directly above them, possibly indicating that these could serve as a substitute for grave goods. The proximity of these tombs and art to the sea, while at the same time being hidden for it and visible to the community may have in some way been symbolic of a warrior's final journey.

Grave goods included in Warrior Burials were often diverse and numerous, including weapons, equipment for personal grooming, and decorative items. In contrast, the weapons depicted in rock art are generally very simple in their execution. Curiously, many weapons were drawn in the earliest Nordic Bronze Age were subsequently reworked and modified extensively through the remainder of the period, sometimes having Human figures added.

Once the practice of burning the dead became predominant in the Late Bronze Age, the amount of grave goods buried with the cremated dead shrank, and became less varied. At the same time the burials themselves became less conspicuous, typically on hillslopes, or as secondary burials inside existing tombs. The process began between about 1300 and 1100 BC, when detailed images of warriors began to appear in the rock art, with these detailed warriors becoming most common and elaborate between about 950 and 720 BC.

Horn interprets this as an attempt to depict a warrior ideal in art, as this medium took over from elaborate burials as the main way to remember the dead. This art may well have been used in conjunction with other rituals, and helped to convey older narratives about warriors and heroes, but this does not mean that such rituals were not also intended to help warriors find their correct place in society, or step into and out of the role of warrior when this was required. 

Nordic Bronze Age rock art appears to have been used to celebrate an ideal of maritime warriorhood. The placement of this art, at the entrance/exit to enclosed waterways, combined with a ritual link to metalworking, may suggest that this art played a role intended to help men change their roles, from fierce maritime warriors on the outside, to responsible members of the community when at home. 

The long-distance raiding abilities of early Scandinavian cultures are often considered in historical studies, but shorter raids against nearby communities would have been much more common, and no less dangerous. Furthermore, those involved in such nearby conflicts would have had far less time for any associated bloodlust to subside before returning to their home communities, making them more dangerous at home. This could have created a need for a ritual means to re-integrate these warriors into their home communities. Horn theorises that the location of the rock art, combined with the fact that this was periodically reworked, strongly implies that this art was involved in the journey-related rituals, the most likely of which to need a ritual intervention were war raids.

The ritual sacrifice of weapons, combined with the retelling and embellishment of local warrior legends, performed at the boundaries of communities and the outside world, could have been a way for men to keep their identities as warriors in the outside world separate from their roles within their home community, thereby reducing the danger of internal conflicts within small communities.

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