Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Hell on Horseback - Únětice Armies? (Harald Meller, 2017)

There is an image of Early Bronze Age warriors as solitary figures who seldomly engaged in combat, but looked the part. When they did go to combat, it was some sort of insipid, highly-individualized type of combat without any real purpose other than general cock-strutting and virtue broadcasting.  Heads spinning off shoulders and torched landscapes would have been an implausible narrative for this period.

"Asgårdsreien", by Peter Nicolai Arbo, 1872.
To a degree, Late Neolithic warfare continues to be viewed as an age of loner heros, including in this paper in Cambridge "Antiquity" by Harald Meller.  But Meller's paper is one of several recent papers by prominent archaeologists that are starting to question the prevailing view of European warfare as limited ceremonial skirmishing rather than a now more plausible idea of large-scale, organized warfare in the Early Bronze Age.  He examines the widespread Únětice Culture and questions the interpretation of the ritual deposits of bronze axe hoards.

Most interesting is what Meller interprets to be Unetice barracks at Dermsdorf in Sömmerda District.  The longhouse is unusually long and could be a kind of communal squad bay for the 98 axes and two daggers deposited at its door.  In some ways, a class distinction between weapons of modern 'officers' and 'enlisted', common to Western Europe could be interpreted in this way.  Strangely the number is about the size of a Roman centuria and similar descended units.  He speculates that within sight of the Leubingen burial mound, other barracks may have been seen in the landscape.

Next, he discusses the division of arms in other hoards and suggests the percentages are indicative of a military unit structure; axes, halberds, daggers and (the likely ceremonial) double-axes.  A good illustration of this social division of arms in an infantry unit can be seen in the homecoming video of the 1st Battalion Scots Guards.  Keep in mind though, that this 'European' social division of arms within a unit is different from a Combined Arms Concept, although that may be further developed in the future as well.

After the pipe band passes, you'll see officers equipped with service pistols and holding their ceremonial swords and following by basic riflemen.  (see below)

Meller continues by mathematically breaking down other hoards and envisions a rank structure not unlike those of historical Europe.  I think he makes an interesting and very powerful argument. 

There are now several important papers queued up by influential archaeologists regarding the magnitude and organization of warfare in the Early Bronze Age.  Horn and Christiansen have a paper that may already be out regarding Bronze Age warfare.  Christian Horn has a very comprehensive paper on type-use of halbards as well that I hope to get to at a later date. 

"Armies in the Early Bronze Age? An alternative interpretation of Únětice Culture axe hoards" Harald Meller, Antiquity, Volume 91, Issue 360.December 2017 , pp. 1529-1545


"The Early Bronze Age Únětice Culture in central Germany was a highly stratified society with a ruling class of ‘princes’, as evidenced by the famous burials at Leubingen and Helmsdorf, and the newly excavated burial mound Bornhöck near Dieskau. To investigate the notion of Únětice military organisation, this article presents a new interpretation of the numerous weapons hoards recovered from the region. Hoard deposition and composition from central Germany strongly suggests a shift from a Late Neolithic culture of ‘warrior heroes’ to the creation of organised standing armies of professional soldiers under the control of ruling elites."


  1. In an earlier note I sent, I tried to point out that it would be hard to tell a standing army serving "a ruling class of princes" from a gang of raiders led by a head thug who might be talked into being a "prince" for a piece of the action -- instead of just raiding to get a piece of the action. Those barracks and hoards might have been permanent garrisons protecting a royal residence or a trade route. But they could also have been a staging areas for a force that owed nothing to no one. Or like Jomsvikings just looking for a safe plave to set up pirate headquarters.

    THe idea of a standing army -- a group that was not called up as needed, but were soldiers full time -- can exist outside of a stratified society or princes. Princes would have been more likely to use an as-need army to protect themselves. It cost less.

    But armies with regulation gear and marching orders is much older than Unetice.
    And warrior heroes probably have always been princely public relations,

    SEE eg the armies pictured on the Stele of Vultures from the Near East

    1. That makes a lot sense. As you've said, armies can exist outside of the state or normal society when they are self-serving. It's also an interesting question to ask, 'which came first, the state or the army?'