Prehistory: War

Violence and conflict undoubtedly occurred in prehistoric Britain, but the archaeological evidence – mainly bodies with fatal injuries – is often subject to varying interpretations. Where earlier archaeologists identified massacres, revisionists have put forward less sensational explanations.

Part of the ramparts at Maiden Castle, Dorset

Part of the ramparts at Maiden Castle, Dorset
© Andrew Wood/Alamy

ARROWS AND ARCHERS

Evidence is now emerging that the early Neolithic period of great communal tombs (4000–3500 BC) was not always an era of peaceful co-operation. Those whose bodies have been found at Belas Knap Long Barrow in Gloucestershire, Wayland's Smithy in Oxfordshire, and elsewhere were killed by blows to the head or arrow wounds. Hundreds of flint-headed arrows have been found at the causewayed enclosures of Crickley Hill, Gloucestershire, and Hambledon Hill, Dorset, where the attackers also burned the defensive palisades.

Bows were certainly used in conflict as well as for hunting. The Stonehenge Archer, himself identified as a bowman by his protective wrist-guard, was shot in the back by three arrows, and finished off at close range by another.

Though probably not the victim of violence, the roughly contemporary (about 2300 BC) Amesbury Archer was also buried with wrist-guards and fine flint arrowheads. His other grave goods, however, presaged the new metal-working technology which revolutionised weaponry.

Selection of arrowheads from Grime’s Graves, Norfolk

These flint arrowheads from Grime’s Graves in Norfolk show how weapons developed from the Neolithic period onwards: from early Neolithic (left) to late Neolithic (top) to early Bronze Age (bottom right).

ARMS RACE

The development of bronze weapons set off a prehistoric arms race. Bronze daggers evolved into longer ‘rapiers’ for thrusting, which were succeeded by heavier bronze slashing swords. Bronze-headed spears were used as javelins, or for close combat.

There may even have been regional fighting traditions, with swords used in the north, swords and spears in the south-east, and mainly spears in the south-west and midlands. We have little evidence for violence, however, and many of these items may have been for display.

Axeheads discovered at Beeston Castle

These Bronze Age copper-alloy axe-heads were discovered during excavations of the earthwork bank at Beeston Castle, Cheshire. They seem to have been buried deliberately, suggesting that they had a ritual purpose.

HILLFORTS

During the Iron Age (from about 800 BC) iron weapons gradually superseded bronze. Ditched and ramparted earthwork hillforts also proliferated in the south and west. They are most numerous in Devon and Cornwall, where 285 survive, many of them small.

Much more spectacular are the often multi-ramparted hillforts of Hampshire, Wiltshire and Dorset, including Bratton Camp, Uffington Castle and Maiden Castle – the biggest hillfort in Europe – and the Welsh border counties, including Old Oswestry.

FORTRESSES OR SYMBOLS?

Hillforts were traditionally viewed as fortresses: instruments and indicators of widespread tribal warfare. The renowned archaeologist Sir Mortimer Wheeler even attributed the addition of multiple ramparts to some forts to developing sling-shot technology. Certainly hoards of sling-stones have been found at Blackbury Camp, Devon, and some 20,000 carefully chosen beach pebbles were discovered near the elaborately defended entrance of Maiden Castle.

Despite the defensive character of such entrances, more recent archaeologists view hillforts primarily as displays of power, with multiple subsidiary roles, including occasional refuges, centres of commerce and animal pounds. Most had been abandoned before the Roman invasion of AD 43, so highly coloured accounts of the ‘last stands’ of British hillforts have also been discredited.

CHARIOTS

Greek and Roman commentators provide the first written descriptions of British war chariots. Julius Caesar was struck by the skilful way they were used in Britain when he invaded in 55 BC:

In chariot fighting the Britons begin by driving all over the field hurling javelins … then … they jump down from their chariots and engage on foot.

Meanwhile their charioteers waited nearby to rescue them if they were too hard-pressed.

Remains of late Iron Age two-horse chariots have been found in east Yorkshire (at least two accompanying burials of women), while a hoard of showy chariot-horse trappings was discovered near Stanwick Iron Age Fortifications, also in Yorkshire.

These remains are too flimsy to have been used for ‘chariot-charges’, but typify an individually heroic, ‘hit and run’ style of warfare which proved no match for the Romans.

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