Archaeology and reconstructing ancient warfare I

Sunday, May 23, 2010


Olympias, the modern reconstruction of a Greek trireme, was designed on the basis of a few and partial depictions of ancient ships, coupled with intelligent speculation.

Archaeology might seem to offer a better escape from the dominance of literature, and in certain areas it has produced useful insights. Without archaeological recovery of artifacts the study of ancient weapons would be dependent upon literary descriptions and artistic representations; survival of actual equipment gives a better idea of how material developed over time, even though there is still disagreement about how specific items, for example the Macedonian sarissa, might have been used. Analysis of fortifications may reveal aspects of the defence of a particular region, for example Attica in the fourth century, which do not receive comment in the surviving literary evidence, or permit the construction of overarching hypotheses about defensive strategies, for example how Roman imperial planning evolved in the first four centuries ad. On the other hand archaeological evidence is not neutral, and scholarly intrepretations are likely to be contested. A wide-ranging critique of Procopius’ panegyrical account of Justinian’s defensive constructions foundered because the material evidence was not presented fairly; although Procopius undoubtedly magnified Justinian’s actions and allocated him credit which belonged to others, his information did have some basis in fact. Our understanding of Roman attempts to conquer Scotland is largely informed by the physical remains of defensive walls, major bases such as Inchtuthil and Ardoch, and the numerous marching camps, since Tacitus’ account of his father-in-law Agricola’s actions only covers a small part of the struggle and had a strong personal interest. The material evidence points to the implementation of different strategies at different times, close supervision of the Highland Line in the late first century whereas in the early third century a widespread protectorate over southern Scotland and thorough ravaging and even deliberate depopulation of areas beyond may have been practised; but different interpretations are possible, however, and the chronology of sites can be disputed, especially where aerial survey has not been backed up by excavation.

There are limitations to what archaeology can provide. Naval battles cannot be elucidated by underwater archaeology, which has done much to improve other aspects of our understanding of ancient seafaring. The trireme, the main element of most battles, was a fragile craft but was unlikely to sink completely since it relied on its crew’s weight as ballast: boats would be overwhelmed in storms, wrecked on shore, or incapacitated in battle, but they would not end up on the sea bed to be preserved in silt for modern discovery. Olympias, the modern reconstruction of a Greek trireme, was designed on the basis of a few and partial depictions of ancient ships, coupled with intelligent speculation. The results of the investigation have enhanced our understanding of triremes, the prime importance of training, the factors affecting performance, and their susceptibility to poor weather, but the exercise might not have been initiated if there had been sufficient archaeological evidence to establish the ship’s appearance in the first place. Reconstructions have also been used to demonstrate the operation and effectiveness of ancient artillery, a process which has combined the information of ancient technical treatises, narratives of sieges and common sense.

Battlefield archaeology has been of minor help. Part of the problem is that many engagements cannot be placed with sufficient precision for detailed investigation to be undertaken: this applies to such major battles as Ipsus, Raphia, Magnesia, Mursa, Adrianople, whose general locations are known; some such as Mons Graupius float across a range of possible sites. At others, topographical change has affected the landscape to varying degrees: at Thermopylae the combination of centuries of silting and a rise in sea levels makes it impossible to dig down to fifth-century levels, at least without expensive pumping. Granted that most battles occurred at points along major communication routes, it is not uncommon for more than one engagement to have been fought at a particular site in antiquity (e.g. Chaeronea, Thermopylae, Mantinea) as well as more recently, with consequent complications for any investigation. Further, it is likely that many battlefields were quite effectively cleared: pillaging by the victors and subsequent scavenging by camp-followers and others in the vicinity removed most valuable or reusable items, corpses were usually collected for burial, not necessarily at or near the actual battlefield, and temporary constructions associated with an engagement, for example a palisade or ditch, might disappear quickly. The experience of the embassy on which Priscus served in 449, where they found outside Naissus that the whole area towards the river banks was covered with the bones of those killed in the fighting (Priscus fr. 11.1.54–5) was probably abnormal: there had not yet been the opportunity to bury the dead, or the people interested in doing so, though if one pressed Priscus’ words it would seem that the bodies had been efficiently ransacked.

One exception, however, is the Varian disaster of ad 9 in the Teutoburger Forest. The site was not precisely known: the narratives in Cassius Dio (56.20–2) and Tacitus (Ann. 1.61–2) left open several possibilities, and even if the regular discovery of gold and silver coins pointed to a location near Osnabrück other places were still canvassed. A combination of survey and limited excavation confirmed a site on the Kalkreiser-Niewedder depression, and clarified the progress of an engagement which was poorly known from the literary sources: the scatter of finds indicated where the main fighting occurred as the army struggled to continue its march until it became divided and units attempted to save themselves. The battlefield had been thoroughly plundered, so significant remains were only discovered in the burial pits dug by Germanicus’ army in ad 15 and near the Germans’ temporary turf walls, which had already begun to collapse during the battle as the desperate Romans attempted to escape. The bones showed signs of a period of exposure. The small finds reflected the diverse personnel of a large expeditionary force, not only fighting units but varied craftsmen, surveyors, clerks and medical personnel.

This site survived reasonably well since the battle was fought in a sparsely populated area on marginal land where the prevailing agricultural practice for most of the next two millennia consisted of dumping increasing quantities of organic material to improve the poor soil: ancient levels were preserved from interference, even if the conditions were not good for preserving organic remains. Another positive factor was that the fighting had some affinities with a siege, since the Germans used barricades to hem the Romans in. Sieges are slightly more likely than battles to produce archaeological evidence, since at least the location of the engagement can usually be identified. The evidence for many sieges was probably cleared quickly, since defenders would not want other attackers to exploit offensive works, whether the fortification was captured (e.g. Amida: captured by Persians in ad 502/3, Roman counter-siege 503/4) or resisted attack (Edessa in 544). But, where a site remained deserted after a successful siege, or only partially occupied, the remains might be considerable. At Old Paphos on Cyprus (498 bc) and Dura-Europus (c. ad 257) the remains of the Persian siege-works include ramps and tunnels, including at Dura the Roman counter-tunnels which contained the corpses of those killed in fierce fighting underground. At Masada (ad 70–3) the enormous scale of a Roman siege is revealed through the circumvallation with its associated forts and the siege mound up to the hilltop fortress.


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