War dances in Ancient Greece


The_Pyrrhic_Dance_by_GeromeThe most famous war dance in ancient Greece was the pyrrhike which became the national dance of Sparta, and persisted there long after Greece became a province of the Roman Empire and similar war dances had died out in other cities. The Greeks had several stories that accounted for the name of the pyrrhic dance. One said that it was invented by a Spartan called Pyrrhicus, though an alternative version claimed that Pyrrhicus was a Cretan. Another story connected the dance with the son of the hero Achilles, who bore two  names: Pyrrhus as well as Neoptolemus. After Achilles was killed in battle at Troy, Pyrrhus came to Troy to take his father’s place, and his greatest exploit was killing Eurypylus, leader of a force of Hittites that had come to help the Trojans. After he slew Eurypylus, he performed an exultant victory dance, and from his dance the pyrrhike took its name.

The pyrrhike and many other war dances were common among the peoples in the Greek world, as well as in neighboring countries between the tenth and seventh centuries BC Dancing had a practical purpose in the warfare of early Greece when warriors often fought in single combat, and nimble feet made the difference between a warrior dodging the spear that his foe hurled at him, and being impaled by it. In Homer’s Iliad, the Trojan prince Hector tells the Greek hero Ajax that he is not frightened by him, for he knows the steps of the “deadly dance of Ares,” the god of war.

hoplite-danceBy the mid-seventh century BC, however, the complexion of war had changed. Battles became contests between two battle lines of heavily-armed infantrymen called “hoplites,” and a good hoplite did not dodge or dance; rather, he stood firmly in his place in the battle line and shoved the enemy that faced him with his shield and thrust at him with his spear. Dance ceased to be an important part of military training, except in Sparta, which maintained its militaristic traditions long after it ceased to be a military power. By the end of the second century CE the pyrrhike was performed only in Sparta, where boys were still trained to dance it from the age of five. Yet the pyrrhike remained the dance most often portrayed in war sculptures and vase paintings.


hoplomachiaSpartan education, which was intended only for the warrior elite that controlled the state, aimed to produce superb soldiers, physically fit and skilled at handling arms. Hoplomachia (weapons training) between men was an important part of a warrior’s education, and it resembled a type of dance. When the philosopher Plato discussed the pyrrhic dance in the Laws, he described it as part of the hoplomachia. However, as pyrrhic dance developed in Sparta, youths who were being hardened for battle would first have their training session where they practiced their skill with the weapons of war, and then when it was over, they danced. A piper played the aulos, which had a timbre not unlike bagpipes, and the young warriors formed a line and danced to a quick, light dance step. While they danced, they sang songs which were composed by musicians who worked in Sparta in the seventh century BC such as Thaletas, who was credited with organizing the Gymnopaidiai (a Spartan festival). Hence, the pyrrhic dance was most likely not part of the weapons training, but was done to enhance the nimbleness of the warriors.


banquetAnother literary source for information about the development of the pyrrhic dance came from an author named Athenaeus who wrote a discursive work at the end of the second century CE called Learned Men at a Banquet. In it, Athenaeus imagines banqueters displaying their knowledge on a host of subjects, including dance. According to the Learned Men at a Banquet, the Spartans, who had a penchant for war, still trained armor-clad boys from the age of five in the pyrrhic dance in the second century CE. The dance, however, was no longer truly a war dance by this time. Athenaeus described it as a kind of Dionysiac pantomime— the dancers performed an interpretative dance that related various myths of the god Dionysus, including his expedition to India and his return to his native state of Thebes.

Apuleius of MadaurosBy the time that Athenaeus lived, pyrrhic dances were staged for Roman tourists, and in fact, pyrrhic dancers sometimes performed at Rome to amuse the crowd in the public games as a prelude to the deadlier entertainments offered by gladiatorial games and wild beast fights. Julius Caesar staged pyrrhic dancing at Rome, and so did the emperors Caligula, Nero, and Hadrian. The North African rhetorician and philosopher, Apuleius of Madauros (c.123–c. 190 CE), whose novel, the Metamorphoses, or the Golden Ass, is the only Latin novel to survive in its entirety, described a typical dance entertainment staged in the amphitheater at Corinth in his own day. First there was a pyrrhic dance, performed by boys and girls, beautifully costumed, then there was a pantomime—a ballet on the “Judgement of Paris” in which the young Trojan prince Paris judges a beauty contest of goddesses—and finally, the pièce de resistance, a convicted murderess torn apart by wild beasts.


Another famous war dance of Sparta was one performed for the Gymnopaidiai, which scholars first translated as “Festival of the Naked Youths.” The central feature of the festival, usually held in the heat of the Spartan midsummer in honor of the god Apollo, was a dance contest in which contestants danced naked. The contest was not just restricted to young boys, however, but was divided into three groups that were graded according to age: retired warriors too old for active service, warriors of military age, and youths still too young to serve in the army. Many scholars have come to believe that the word Gymnopaidiai should be translated as the “Festival of Unarmed Dancing,” for instead of wearing armor, as did the dancers of the pyrrhike, the dancers of the Gymnopaidiai wore nothing at all. The dancers pantomimed scenes from wrestling and boxing matches, but at all times, their feet moved in time to the music. As they danced, they sang songs by Thaletas and by another musician, Alcman, who plied his trade in Sparta about the same time.


castor_pollux_adjThe pyrrhike may have been the national dance of Sparta where it was part of the regular exercise of warriors keeping themselves in good physical condition for battle, but it was found elsewhere in the Greek world as well. In Sparta, the pyrrhic dance was sacred to the divine twins, Castor and Polydeuces, whom the Romans knew as Pollux. In Athens, the pyrrhic dance honored the warrior goddess Athena, the patron goddess of Athens. It was part of the ceremony of the annual Panathenaic festival that was held in honor of Athena, as well as the Great Panathenaic festival when non-Athenians were allowed to compete in the athletic events. The dancers were called pyrrhicists and they were chosen from among the ephebes (youths over eighteen years of age).

Several relief sculptures have survived that portray the Athenian pyrrhic dance. One shows youths, naked except for helmets, shields, and swords, dancing a light dance-step; another shows them in a chorus line, presenting their shields. Their training for the festival was financed in the same way as dramatic productions; a well-to-do citizen was chosen as choragus (“leader of the chorus”) and he paid the costs and had general oversight of the production. Crete was another source of war dances, the best known of which was the dance of the Curetes. It had a legendary origin: when the mother goddess Rhea gave birth to the infant Zeus, she hid him in Crete in a cave on Mt. Dicte to save him from his father Cronus, and the Curetes performed their dance, which Rhea had taught them, to cacuretes-rheamouflage his hiding place. They whirled about their shields and banged them with their swords as they made great leaps into the air. This performance was a primitive ritual connected with the cult of Zeus on Crete, which was quite unlike the cult of Zeus on mainland Greece, for the Cretans believed that their Zeus died and was reborn with the seasons. The dance of the Curetes marked his rebirth.

In the ancient world, the Greeks and Roman saw a connection between the dance of the Curetes and the frenzied dance performed by the Corybantes, the priests of the Great Mother, Cybele, the ancient goddess of Phrygia in western Asia Minor, and there may be this much connection: both rituals went back to an ancient fertility religion. The dance of the Curetes, however, was not a dance of priests like the dance of the Corybantes, but of warriors, though neither dance seems to have had much in common with the pyrrhic dance.


APPENDIX – Excerpt from Xenophon’s Anabasis

XenophonXenophon (ca. 430 – ca. 354 BC) was a disciple of Socrates who—against Socrates’ advice—joined a force of soldiers of fortune who were recruited by the younger brother of King Artaxerxes II of Persia, Cyrus, who plotted to overthrow Artaxerxes and make himself king. But in the decisive battle fought at Cunaxa in Mesopotamia, Cyrus was killed and his Asian supporters melted away, leaving the force of Greek mercenary soldiers to find their way home. To make matters worse, the Persians invited the Greek officers to a parley and killed them, thinking that the Greek troops would be helpless without their leaders. But the troops chose new officers, one of them Xenophon himself and they made their way north to the Black Sea, and from there the survivors disbanded to find new employers.

When they reached Paphlagonia in Asia Minor, the ruler of Paphlagonia sent envoys to the Greek officers, who gave them a dinner, and the various ethnic groups in the little Greek army entertained them with war dances, with the dancers bearing arms. The Paphlagonian visitors were surprised that all the dancers wore armour as they danced, whereupon a dancing girl was brought on, who performed the “Pyrrhic” dance, a Spartan war dance named in honor of the hero Achilles’ son, Pyrrhus, otherwise known as Neoptolemus. The Paphlagonians were even more impressed. They wondered if the Greek women fought in battle side by side with the men, and the Greeks replied in jest that it was their women who had routed the king of Persia, Artaxerxes II. Xenophon describes the scene in a vivid passage in his Anabasis, which tells the story of how the ten thousand mercenary soldiers that Prince Cyrus recruited from among the Greeks and their neighbours—for not all the recruits were Greeks—marched into the interior of the Middle East and returned again.

“After we had poured wine on the ground to honour the gods, and had sung a hymn, first two Thracians stood up and began to dance in full armour to the sound of the pipe, making nimble leaps high into the air as they wielded their sabers. Finally one of them struck the other, and everyone thought the man was mortally wounded. His fall was artfully done, I suppose. The other man stripped him of his armour as the Paphlagonians howled, and made his exit, singing a Thracian war song known as the “Sitacles.” The other Thracians bore the fallen dancer away, as if he were dead. But he had been not at all hurt.

Next some Aenianians and Magnesians got to their feet and danced the dance called the Karpaia, wearing their armour. The dance was like this: One man is driving his oxen as he sows a field, his arms laid at his side, and he casts frequent glances around him like a person who is afraid. A robber approaches, and when the sower sees him, he grabs his arms and goes to meet him and fights to save his team of oxen. These soldiers did this to the rhythm of the reed pipe. And at last the robber ties up the man and takes off the oxen. But sometimes the owner of the oxen trusses up the robber. When that happens, he yokes him beside his oxen with his hands tied behind his back and drives off.

Then a Mysian came on with a light leather shield in each hand. And at one moment he danced, pantomiming a battle against two opponents. Then he wielded his shields as if he were fighting a single opponent. Then he would whirl around and do somersaults, still holding his shields. So it was a fine sight to see. Finally he danced the “Persian dance”—clashing his shields together, he would crouch down and then leap up. He did all this keeping time to the music of the pipe. Then the Mantineans and some others from region of Arcadia came forward, wearing the finest armour they had, and they performed a drill to a tune with a marching tempo played on the pipe, and they sang a warrior hymn. And they danced in the same way as they did in the processions with which they honoured the gods. And as the Paphlagonians looked on, they thought it odd that all the dances were performed wearing arms.

A Mysian who saw that they were amazed, retorted by persuading one of the Arcadians who had acquired a dancing girl to dress her in the finest costume he could, fit her with a light shield and bring her on to give a graceful performance of the “Pyrrhic” dance. Thereupon there was a roar of applause, and the Paphlagonians asked if the Greek women also fought side by side with their men. The Greeks answered that these were the very women who had routed the king from his camp.”


Xenophon, Anabasis. Book 6

(Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998): 466–470.

Translated by James Allan Evans.


Battle of the Teutoburg Forest

Hermann-Arminius monumentIn September 9 AD, Germanic tribesmen slaughtered three Roman legions in a battle that marked the “big bang” of the German nation and created its first hero — Hermann. The country is marking the 2,000th anniversary with restraint because the myth of Hermann remains tainted by the militant nationalism that would later be associated with Hitler.

Germany’s 20th century history has been so troubled that anniversaries of positive events are in short supply. This year has two such rare examples, the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the 60th of the establishment of democracy after World War II.

There’s a third one coming up in September that represents nothing less than the birth of the German nation — the 2,000th anniversary of a devastating victory over three Roman legions by Germanic tribes in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest.

The battle created the first German hero, Arminius, or Hermann as he later became known, a young chieftain of the Cherusci tribe who led the rebellion and was hailed for centuries as the man who united the Germans and drove the Romans out of Germania.

But Germany is marking the event with noticeable restraint. There’s no sense of glory and no program of flag-waving festivals of the sort one would expect in other nations celebrating their creation.

In fact, a lot of Germans don’t even know about Arminius. Many schools shunned his story after 1945 because he became contaminated by the militant nationalism that led to Hitler. Interest has gradually reawakened since the discovery of the presumed site of the battle in the late 1980s, and there has been intense media coverage of the man and the myth this year.

VarusschlachtCautious Celebration

Chancellor Angela Merkel visited the battlefield in a forest near the village of Kalkriese in May to open an exhibition on Germanic tribes there, and some 400 actors dressed as Romans or Germanic tribesmen gently re-enacted scenes from the battle there in June, with rubber-tipped spears. Most actors wanted to be Romans, and there was such a shortage of Germanic warriors that some hirsute hobby Vikings had to be recruited to make up the numbers.

“This anniversary year has gone very well because it has been free of nationalist emotion,” Tillmann Bendikowski, author of a new book on the battle and the myth of Hermann, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. “It has been dealt with far more soberly than one might have expected.”

The story of Arminius is a lesson in how history can be invented and turned into propaganda. From the 16th century onwards, when an account of the battle by Roman historian Tacitus resurfaced in a German monastery, nationalists fashioned the Germanic leader into an icon to help them forge unity in the face of such perceived enemies as the Vatican, the French and the Jews.

Arminius and the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, they said, marked the origin of the German nation. Hermann, as Martin Luther called him, was deemed the perfect symbol to give a nation fragmented into dozens of states the identity it lacked.

The Kalkriese battlefield near OsnabruckGermany’s “Big Bang”

“The battle became the big bang of the German nation in terms of myth and legend. But in terms of real history, it was no such thing,” said Bendikowski.

The more than 50 Germanic tribes of the ancient period were the forefathers of many European nations, not just the Germans. And Arminius by no means united them — he persuaded five tribes to join him in battle, and he was killed by members of his own tribe a few years later.

However, there’s little doubt that the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest sent shockwaves through the Roman Empire. It was one reason why Rome abandoned plans to turn Germania east of the Rhine into a province.

Some 10,000 to 12,000 highly trained and battle-hardened legionnaires are believed to have been slaughtered at Kalkriese in an ambush orchestrated by Arminius. Three Roman legions were wiped out in four days of fighting on the narrow forest paths a few miles from what is now the city of Osnabrück. The entire Roman Empire stretching from northern England to Egypt only had 28 legions at the time.

The popular notion that Arminius drove the Romans out of Germania east of the Rhine is a fallacy, though. Roman legions were back in force six years after the battle, wreaking havoc and winning major battles. The discovery last year of an ancient battlefield some 100 kilometers east of Kalkriese, near the town of Kalefeld south of Hanover, testifies to Roman military presence deep in hostile Germania as late as the third century AD.

battlefield“It’s typically German to say world history was shaped on German soil,” said Bendikowski. “We know that this was one battle among many and that there was a range of factors behind Rome’s eventual retreat to the Rhine. Everyone who needed this myth regarded it as the turning point of history. For many it remains the turning point. But it wasn’t.”

The Man and the Myth

The playwrights, writers and political leaders of the 18th and 19th centuries didn’t let the facts get in the way of a good story. They were helped by a severe shortage of facts because the ancient Germanic tribes had no written culture and no Roman eyewitnesses survived the slaughter.

Hermann, portrayed as a blond, muscle-bound warrior, featured in more than 50 operas and plays during the 18th and 19th centuries, such as “The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest” written by German poet Heinrich von Kleist in 1808 as a call to arms against Napoleon’s occupation. The figure came to epitomize the power of a young nation striving to be united and free.

The cult of Hermann continued to grow during the 19th century and was evoked impressively by a gigantic monument to him erected near the northwestern town of Detmold. Completed in 1875, four years after Germany unified, the statue wields a seven-meter (23 foot) sword and stares defiantly westwards — towards France.

image-6080-gallery-zuxuThe statue became a focal point for a brand of nationalism that turned increasingly aggressive and racist and culminated in the Nazi quest to subjugate Europe and eradicate the Jews.

Hermann has never recovered. “I personally think this Hermann myth will pale. And I hope people in the future will take a closer look at history, question what they have learned and review the sources,” Gisela Söger of the Kalkriese battlefield museum, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. “We want to contribute to a spirit of taking a more sober, distanced look at history here.”

Crushed Skulls and Slingshots

The Kalkriese museum displays spear tips, human bones with terrible battle wounds and metal parts from Roman body armor found on the battlefield in the more than 20 years since a British hobby archaeologist, Major Tony Clunn who was stationed in Germany with the British army, discovered 150 silver coins and three Roman slingshots about a kilometer from the site.

Traces of fighting have been found in a wide area around Kalkriese, which ties in with accounts by Roman historians that the battle lasted four days and began with ambushes on the thin column of legionnaires and supplies that stretched 15 kilometers along narrow forest paths.

The army was commanded by Publius Quinctilius Varus, a Roman general, and was heading south to spend the winter in a base by the Rhine.

image-6077-gallery-agdjArminius, who belonged to the tribe of the Cherusci, was the commander of a troop of Germanic cavalry attached to the Roman army as auxiliaries. He led Varus into a trap by persuading him to make a detour to put down a rebellion, Roman historians wrote.

Varus trusted Arminius — the two had dined together — and agreed to change course. Then the Germanic warrior, who wanted to head a revolt that would help him found his own kingdom, rode off with his men to join up with fighters from other tribes hiding in the forests. They started a wave of guerrilla-style ambushes up and down the snaking column.

Romans Outwitted

The Roman legionnaires, accustomed to fighting in disciplined formations on open ground using their shields, spears and swords, were unable to deploy their trusted tactics in the forest. But they were able to regroup and make camp on the first night of the ambush.

After days of attacks, the battle is believed to have culminated at Kalkriese, a bottleneck between a hill and a moor where the Germans had erected an earthen wall from which to assault the Roman flank. Seeing that defeat was inevitable, Varus fell on his sword rather than be captured by the Germanic hordes slaughtering his troops all around him.

The site of the battlefield had been a mystery ever since the Hermann cult got going in the 16th century, and countless locations have laid claim to it. Some historians still have their doubts about Kalkriese, but they are now in the minority because the certainty that this is the true battlefield has grown steadily over the last two decades.

The Kalkriese battlefieldEight pits containing the bones of men aged 20 to 45 have been found, with many skulls showing gaping holes from fatal blows. The pits tally with Roman accounts of how an army under commander Germanicus discovered the battlefield in AD16 and buried the heaps of bleached bones strewn across it. The soldiers also found skulls nailed to trees.

There are other clear indications that the battle was fought here. None of the 1,600 coins found were minted after AD9. Skeletons of mules were found — only Roman armies used mules.

Tiny Metal Parts Tell Chilling Story

Other finds at Kalkriese tally with the presence of a Roman military column that wasn’t expecting trouble. Ornate tableware, large amounts of cash, even a miniscule painted glass eye taken from a decorative figure that adorned a luxurious Roman dining sofa — it’s not exactly the equipment a Roman army would carry into battle. The army of Varus was moving home for the winter rather than embarking on a military campaign.

The most visually striking find is an iron face mask from a Roman cavalryman’s helmet. But it’s the myriad of unspectacular bits of metal that really tell the chilling story of the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest.

“We have been finding traces of plundering rather than of fighting,” Susanne Wilbers-Rost, the chief archaeologist at the site, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. “The excavations have revealed many small items torn off when the Germans were stripping the Romans as they lay dead or wounded. Things like buckles, hinges, connecting parts of body armor and chain mail.

“You can only imagine this kind of brutal stripping of the dead when the defeat was total, when no Romans survived,” she said. “We know that the Romans always tried to retrieve their dead. The Germans had all the time in the world. They weren’t disturbed.”

Hermann on the Wane

Susanne Wilbers-RostWilbers-Rost and her colleagues have even found evidence of organized sorting of equipment such as heavy Roman shields that the Germanic warriors had little use for. “They were mainly interested in the metal frames of the shields which they could melt down. We found many frames bent and folded ready to transport. That kind of folding can’t have happened in battle.”

Wilbers-Rost has gained international recognition for her work which has provided insights that can be applied to other battlefields of all ages. “This is a highly interesting excavation because it’s very unusual to find an ancient battlefield. The locations of these sites usually aren’t known because they were always plundered. Here we have found out that inconspicuous items can be indications of battle, or of related actions like plundering.”

“Usually if you’re looking for the remains of thousands of Romans and their enemies you wouldn’t pay any attention to a few spear tips and a few remains of a few metal frames, but that may be an indication of a battle,” said Wilbers-Rost.

Each year some 100,000 people visit the Kalkriese museum, which does a good job of explaining the battle. This year, visitor numbers are likely to be well above the average. The museum shop is doing a brisk trade in souvenirs such as “Hard Hermann” sausages, replica Germanic drinking horns and “Varus Temptation Waffles.”

But the myth of Hermann has lost its power in modern Germany. The old nationalism has been replaced by an easy-going patriotism that mainly manifests itself at sporting events like the soccer World Cup. Today’s interest in Arminius mainly reflects curiosity about what really happened in that fateful September 2,000 years ago. “This is a historical thriller,” said Söger.

“The myth of Hermann will continue to wane,” said Bendikowski. “What will remain of him will be the experience of how a historical myth was created, and how a nation sought to invent itself by fabricating history. It may help us to understand ourselves and other nations better.”

By David Crossland in Kalkriese, Germany


Viking execution pit – 51 beheaded victim

viking-execution-pitThe mass burial took place at a time when the English were battling Viking invaders, say archaeologists who are now trying to verify the identity of the slain.

The dead are thought to have been war captives, possibly Vikings, whose heads were hacked off with swords or axes, according to excavation leader David Score of Oxford Archaeology, an archaeological-services company.

Announced in June, the pit discovery took place during an archaeological survey prior to road construction near the seaside town of Weymouth

Many of the skeletons have deep cut marks to the skull and jaw as well as the neck. “The majority seem to have taken multiple blows,” Score said.

The bodies show few signs of other trauma, suggesting the men were alive when beheaded.

One victim appears to have raised an arm in self-defense: “The hand appears to have had its fingers sliced through,” Score noted.

The heads were neatly piled to one side of the pit, perhaps as a victory display, the team suggests.

Unusually, no trace of clothing has been found, indicating the men were buried naked.

Even if their weapons and valuables had been taken “we should have found bone buttons and things like that, but to date we’ve got absolutely nothing,” Score said.

“They look like a healthy, robust, very strong, very masculine group of young males,” he added. “It’s your classic sort of warrior.”

The burial has been radiocarbon-dated between A.D. 890 and 1034.

During this time England was split between Anglo-Saxons, in the south and west, and Danish settlers, in the north and east.

The Anglo-Saxons were Germanic peoples who colonized England beginning in the 400s; founded the country on the island of Great Britain; and gave rise to the English language. Around the time of the mass burial, the Celts were still largely in control of the non-English regions of Great Britain: Scotland and Wales.

“You’ve got Danish and Saxon armies fighting backwards and forwards across England,” Score said.

The early English also faced the threat of longship-sailing Vikings, Scandinavian seafarers who pillaged coastal regions.

“It’s not just the odd ship” attacking, Score said. For example, “there’s a documented account of 94 longships attacking London at one point, and then they work their way down the coast.”

The team hopes chemical analysis of the buried men’s teeth will show whether they grew up in Britain or Scandinavia. (Related: “Vikings Filed Their Teeth, Skeleton Study Shows.”)

Wear and tear on the bones could also help reveal whether the executed were Viking oarsmen, since “strong physical exertion in a particular direction does affect the bones,” Score said.

“It might be possible to say they are overdeveloped in their upper body and arm strength … people who are doing a lot of heavy rowing.”

Anglo-Saxon Slayers, Viking Victims

The burial’s prominent location on a hilltop hints that a local group carried out the killings, Score said.

“Locations like this are classic sites for executions in late Saxon and medieval times,” he added.

Vikings, he said, had a different M.O.

“If you’re a Viking raider, you’re much more likely to leave people where you killed them in the town or on the beach,” he said.

Kim Siddorn, author of Viking Weapons and Warfare, suspects the executed men were indeed Vikings.

“I would say this was a Viking raiding party which had been trapped,” he said.

“They had left their ship, walked inland, ran into an unusually well-organized body of Saxons, and were probably forced to surrender.”

There was little to differentiate Vikings and early English warriors on the battlefield, said Siddorn, founder of Regia Anglorum, a historical-reenactment society.

“You would find it very difficult to tell the difference between a Viking and a Saxon if they stood in front of you in war gear,” he said

Both used spears as their primary weapons, with swords and axes as backups, Siddorn added.

But Vikings had surprise and, in some cases, numbers on their side.

“Whilst the Vikings were no better than the Saxons at fighting, they did come by the shipload,” he said.

“During the height of the Viking raids, it’s reasonable to say it was unsafe to live anywhere within 20 miles [32 kilometers] of the coast.”


Bloody Stone Age – War in the Neolithic

The perception that much of prehistory was relatively peaceful is changing. New research has identified evidence of violent assault in the Neolithic. What does this tell us about Stone Age life as a whole? Forensic archaeologist Martin Smith explains.
Whilst many Neolithic burials have been excavated during the last 150 years, they have received only limited study. Modern analysis of these remains by osteo-archaeologists is revealing shocking evidence for violent assaults involving clubs, axes, and arrowshot about 5,500 years ago.

Recent years have seen growing interest in conflict archaeology. Warfare has gone from being a subject rarely mentioned by archaeologists to one that is widely debated. Current  world events may have something to do with this, but it is also linked to advances in our ability to recognise evidence of violence, and a drive towards new theoretical approaches for making sense of it.

Most research of this kind has usually been concerned with more recent periods, but lately consideration is also being given to prehistory. In particular, we now have a growing body of evidence for aggression between groups and individuals during the Neolithic, most of which comes in the form of skeletal injuries. The fact that acts of violence sometimes occurred in this period now seems indisputable. However, assessing what this tells us about Neolithic life as a whole is harder.

Old wounds: new evidence
Many injuries to the skeleton are difficult to interpret, as there may be a number of ways in which a particular injury could be incurred. Fractured ribs, for example, can be sustained in various ways, mostly through accidents such as falls. It is generally impossible to be specific about the origin of these kinds of fractures in archaeological bone.

Some types of injury, however, may be more consistent with a particular cause. Fractures of the skull are a good example. Head injuries inflicted with weapons often produce patterns of fracture that are more easily recognised as such than wounds to other parts of the skeleton. Improved understanding of the properties of bone fracture has led to our recognition of a growing number of Neolithic head injuries consistent with violence, many of which might previously have been interpreted as damage after burial.
Such signs of violent assault are apparent throughout much of Europe, and not least in Britain. These include a number of healed head injuries apparently inflicted with blunt, club-like implements, as well as unhealed fractures inflicted very close to (if not actually at) the time of death. The latter include a mixture of sharp-force and blunt-force trauma, possibly inflicted with stone axes.

Then there are projectile wounds. This category is particularly unequivocal where fragments of arrowheads remain embedded in bone, although recent experimental research has revealed that it is sometimes possible to recognise such injuries even where the ‘murder weapon’ is no longer present. In a recent research project examining evidence of cranial trauma, Mick Wysocki, Senior Lecturer in Forensic Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Central Lancashire, and Rick Schulting, Lecturer in Scientific and Prehistoric Archaeology from Oxford University, produced a conservative estimate (based on the view that some examples might be misdiagnosed) that 26 out of 350 crania examined (7.4%) displayed traumatic injuries.


“Viking ship” discovered in Sweden’s largest lake


Marine archaeologists in Sweden have discovered what they believe to be the wreck of a Viking ship at the bottom the country’s largest lake.

A team of 50 divers from the Swedish coastguard happened upon the 20-metre long wreck by chance on Wednesday afternoon.

“Never before has a Viking shipwreck been found in Swedish waters,” marine archaeologist Roland Peterson from the Vänern Museum told The Local.

A few Viking boats have previously been discovered in Sweden, but earlier finds were made on dry land, Peterson explained.

One of the ship’s ribs was discovered protruding from the bottom of the lake, while the rest of the boat was filled with a one metre-thick layer of sediment.

A wood sample from the ship, as well as iron samples from a spear and a sword found with the vessel, are to undergo expert analysis over the coming weeks.

“We can’t be sure of anything until we get the dating results back, which could take around a month. But the sword did seem semi-familiar,” said Peterson, referring to the weapon’s apparent similarity to earlier Viking era finds.

The ship’s clinker-built structure also strengthened the hypothesis that the vessel found in the Lurö archipelago, in the middle of Lake Vänern, dates from the Viking era. Vänern is Europe’s third largest lake, with an area measuring 5,648 square kilometres.

The Swedish coastguard and the Vänern Museum are currently involved in a joint project to discover and examine shipwrecks lodged at the bottom the vast lake.

Six other wrecks have also been discovered within a 100 metre radius, three of which were found lying almost on top of each other.

“But it’s too early to say whether these date from the same era,” said Peterson.


The Treasures of Genghis Khan

gold-alloy-bracelet-dates-from-the-14th-century-it-is-decorated-with-a-phoenix-flanked-by-demonsOf all the wonders in The Palace of the Great Khan, the silver fountain most captivated the visiting monk. It took the shape of “a great silver tree, and at its roots are four lions of silver, each with a conduit through it, and all belching forth white milk of mares,” wrote William of Rubruck, a Franciscan friar who toured the Mongol capital, Khara Khorum, in 1254. When a silver angel at the top of the tree trumpeted, still more beverages spouted out of the pipes: wine, clarified mare’s milk, a honey drink, rice mead – take your pick.

The Khans had come a long way in just a few decades. Like the rest of his fierce horsemen, Genghis Khan – whose cavalry pounded across the steppe to conquer much of Central Asia – was born a nomad. When Genghis took power in 1206, Mongolian tribes lived in tents, which they moved while migrating across the grasslands with their livestock. As the empire continued to expand, though, the Khans realized the need for a permanent administrative center. “They had to stop rampaging and start ruling,” says Morris Rossabi, who teaches Asian history at Columbia University. So in 1235, Genghis’s son, Ogodei, began building a city near the Orkhon River, on the wide-open plains.


“It was as if you put Venice in Kansas,” says Don Lessem, producer of a new Genghis Khan exhibit touring the country now.

The ruins now lie beneath sand and scrubby vegetation, but lately there’s been renewed interest in Khara Khorum. A book of new scholarship, “Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire,” coming out in June details major finds that archeologists have made in recent years, which shed light on what life was like in the city as the Mongols transitioned from raiders to rulers. The traveling exhibit, at the Houston Museum of Natural Science in Texas through September 7, 2009, and then at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science for three months starting October 10, 2009, will showcase some of those artifacts for the first time on American soil.

Now archaeologists who’ve worked on the site believe that they might have located The Palace of the Great Khan, home of the fabled silver fountain.

The name Khara Khorum means “black tent,” Rossabi says. Surrounded by tall mud walls, The Mongol capital rose up out of the blank plains.


“It wasn’t Cairo, but people compared it to European cities,” says William W. Fitzhugh, an archaeologist at the National Museum of Natural History and a co-editor of the new book.

People of many nationalities walked its warrens of narrow streets: Chinese, Muslims, even a lone Frenchman — Guillaume Boucher, the goldsmith who designed the fountain. Many of these foreigners lived in Khara Khorum involuntarily, conscripts from conquered cities. The city layout reflected their diversity: there were mosques, “idol temples” and even a Nestorian Christian church. Archaeologists have found Chinese-style tiles and turret decorations that probably adorned the roofs of buildings.

Khara Khorum was also a trade center and goods from far and wide have been recovered there: silver Muslim coins, pieces of Chinese pottery. The Texas show includes an obsidian mask that likely traveled to Khara Khorum all the way from Egypt, Lessem says.


The Mongols didn’t have strong artistic tradition of their own but loved beautiful objects and often spared vanquished craftsmen in order to put them to work. Archaeologists have unearthed evidence of glass-working and bone-carving workshops. “We found relics of the craftsmen’s quarters and firing places and iron and metal artifacts,” says Ernst Pohl, a German archaeologist who spent years excavating the site. His team discovered a gold bracelet decorated with a phoenix flanked by demons that had apparently been made in the city.

Just as they were inspired by the cities that they conquered, the Mongols were influenced by the Chinese and Arab civilizations that they absorbed.

“Nomads are not dogmatic,” says Bill Honeychurch, a Yale University archaeologist. “They had the idea that you can learn from people you’ve brought into

the fold.”


From these pieces the Mongols forged a culture of their own. “They didn’t just adopt, they synthesized and acquired, and the end result was something unique and different.”

As it turned out, Khara Khorum was a less than ideal site for a city. “There wasn’t sufficient food or resources,” Rossabi says. Five hundred carts of supplies were brought in each day to feed a population that grew along with the empire, which by the mid-thirteenth century would stretch from Hungary to the shores of the Pacific. Genghis’s grandson, Kublai Khan, eventually moved the capital city to Beijing and built a summer palace at Shangdu — the “stately pleasure dome” of Samuel Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” poem.


“You can’t rule a population of 75 million from Mongolia,” Rossabi says. “Kublai was trying to ingratiate himself with the Chinese, playing down the foreignness of his dynasty to win over his subjects.”

Khara Khorum began to fade, although the Khans periodically returned to the city on the steppe. After the Mongols were expelled from China in the fourteenth century, they briefly made the city their center again; in 1388 the Chinese obliterated it. The site remained important to various Mongol clans and in 1586 Abtaj Khan built a large Buddhist monastery there.


The Palace of the Great Khan, archaeologists now think, lies beneath the remains of this complex, much of which was destroyed by Mongolia’s Communist leadership in the 1930s. Its silver fountain may never be recovered, but to historians the real fascination of the Mongols’ city is that it existed at all.

“It is kind of amazing that they conceived of, or accepted, the idea of setting up a permanent structure,” Rossabi says. If the Khans hadn’t “moved toward having an administrative capital, the empire wouldn’t have succeeded so readily.”