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The Archaeology of Historic Battlefields: A History and Theoretical

Development in Conflict Archaeology

Article  in  Journal of Archaeological Research · March 2011

DOI: 10.1007/s10814-010-9044-8


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2 authors, including:

Douglas Scott
University of Nebraska at Lincoln


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J Archaeol Res (2011) 19:103–132
DOI 10.1007/s10814-010-9044-8

The Archaeology of Historic Battlefields: A History

and Theoretical Development in Conflict Archaeology

Douglas D. Scott • Andrew P. McFeaters

Published online: 14 July 2010

 Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2010

Abstract In the last two and a half decades there have been many advances in the
technology available to archaeologists. As new technologies have been used to
challenge previously held hypotheses and expand the capabilities of current
research, they also have assisted the expansion of archaeology to include conflict
archaeology. Although there has been a long history of interest in the material
remains of conflict, it is only recently that the necessary tools, methodology, and
theoretical approaches have been combined to allow serious scientific contributions
to the holistic study of past human conflict. This article provides an overview of the
origins of conflict archaeology and research that has helped consolidate the subfield
into its present form. We examine the current state of conflict studies and consider
what lies ahead for conflict archaeology.

‘‘The history of technology is part and parcel of social history in general. The
same is equally true of military history, far too long regarded as a simple
matter of tactics and technical differentials. Military history too can only be
understood against the wider social background. For as soon as one begins to
discuss war and military organization without due regard to the whole social
process one is in danger of coming to regard it as a constant, an inevitable
feature of international behavior. In other words, if one is unable to regard war
as a function of particular forms of social and political organization and
particular stages of historical development, one will not be able to conceive of
even the possibility of a world without war’’ (Ellis 1986).

D. D. Scott (&)  A. P. McFeaters

Department of Anthropology, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 810 Oldfather Hall,
Lincoln, NE 68588, USA

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Ellis intended his quote to be read and appreciated by military historians, arguing
that they need to look beyond strategy, maneuver, and tactics to understand the
dynamics of warfare. If one substitutes the words anthropology and archaeology, the
audience becomes anthropologists in general and the focus is the burgeoning field of
classical and historic battlefield archaeology, or the more inclusive term, conflict
archaeology (Freeman and Pollard 2001). Classical and historical military sites have
long held the interest of archaeologists, and in the last two and a half decades there
has been a growing interest in the archaeological investigation of battlefields. Today
there are a plethora of archaeological reports in the literature detailing the results of
investigations at historic military forts, camps, prisons, and battlefields, as well as
air fields, aircraft wreck sites, and shipwrecks.
The archaeology of conflict sites, especially battlefields, has grown at an
exponential rate in recent years. The first archaeological conference devoted to
battlefields and conflict, Fields of Conflict Conference, was held in Glasgow,
Scotland, in 2000. Others have been held in Aland, Sweden, in 2002, in association
with the American Battlefield Protection conference in Nashville, Tennessee, in
2004, at the Royal Armoury in Leeds, England, in 2006, and in Ghent, Belgium, in
2008. A result of the first conference was the development of the Journal of Conflict
Conflict archaeology has become a dynamic area of investigation in historic
archaeology, and there is strong interest in the archaeology of violence and conflict
in the prehistoric past as well. The special focus of classical and historic
archaeology has been on ‘‘battlefields’’ and other specific points of conflict. At
battlefields, conflict archaeologists have developed techniques and methods to
recover and record evidence of conflict and attempt interpretations of how combat
occurs. Recently, conflict archaeologists have expanded the definition beyond
battlefields. Archaeological consideration of the organization and management of
war is beginning to be investigated at sites other than battlefields that played
important roles in military events, including military support facilities, camps,
bases, arsenals, logistic support processes, and even prisoner of war, internment, and
concentrations camps. However, employing archaeology to assess contextual
aspects of conflict and warfare is challenging, and there is still not a fully refined
archaeological vocabulary or conceptual inventory for this topic.
Military sites are usually the best-documented type of site available for historians
and historical archaeologists. Military sites are easily defined archaeologically and
are relatively compact social, cultural, and physical units, which make them ideal
for historical and anthropological studies. Military sites also have unique aspects
related to their function, in preventing or making war. Military sites, specifically
battlefields or sites of conflict, offer a unique perspective on the behavioral aspects
of a culture, or cultures, in conflict (van Creveld 1989). Here we review the
archaeological work that has established evidence patterns by which historical
battlefields are studied with an anthropological perspective. This perspective holds
that sites of conflict exhibit a cultural behavior by combatant parties that can be
retrieved and recorded through archaeological methods and theory. Military

J Archaeol Res (2011) 19:103–132 105

behavior, whether in post, camp, or on the battlefield, is best described as an

element of society, a subcultural unit that mirrors the greater society’s cultural
ideals, constraints, and orientation.
We also review the development and growth of battlefield archaeology, and
conflict archaeology in general, with an emphasis on North American investiga-
tions, in part due to our experience and expertise. In addition, we summarize the
theoretical position of conflict archaeology as it exists at the beginning of the 21st
century and review overarching concepts that are driving the field today. We also
review models of the study of conflict that have direct application to the
investigation of classical and historic conflict as well as potential application to the
study of conflict in the prehistoric era.

Origins and roots of conflict archaeology

The archaeological study of battlefields was borne out of historical archaeology.

The trend to describing this research as conflict archaeology developed out of the
realization that there are many events and activities leading up to, and following, a
battle that were not necessarily sites of fighting but contributed to the activities of
warfare. As the inspiration for this subfield, however, battlefields have been a focal
point for much of the work done under the umbrella of conflict archaeology.
During its development as an archaeological approach, the reasoning for studying
historic battlefields was varied and debated. The documentation associated with
battles in the form of maps, personal accounts, and military reports, combined with
the understood, widespread knowledge of the end result, seemed to suggest that
archaeologists would only restate the obvious (Smith 1994, p. 4). Other roadblocks
include the nature of battlefields as large expanses of territory and the assumption
that battlefields were cleaned up after the fighting (Freeman 2001, p. 2; Rost 2007).
Yet these roadblocks did not deter archaeologists from entering into this new area of
research. Defining a goal for this new research was not simply done, however. Some
archaeologists supported the use of archaeology for filling in the blanks left by
history, whereas a smaller group felt there was more that could be done, addressing
such issues as cultural patterns, human activities, and behaviors associated with
conflict (Drexler 2003, p. 4). A more moderate option has been proposed by
Haecker and Mauck (1997, p. 6), who suggest an interdisciplinary approach that
employs both history and archaeology as complements for achieving the common
goal of learning more about the past. This approach was supported by Drexler
(2003) in his research on cultural variability in Civil War artillery ammunition.
Conflict archaeology has evolved over the last three decades much as American
archaeology has since the 19th century (Willey and Sabloff 1980), with issues of
classification of sites, artifact typologies, and chronology being considered, debated,
and then refined. Conflict studies have now resolved most basic methodological
issues as well as artifact typologies and chronology; it is now entering the
explanatory phase of growth as a discipline.
Depending on one’s definition of conflict archaeology, it is possible to place the
‘‘origin’’ of the subfield in different historical settings. One source, potentially the

106 J Archaeol Res (2011) 19:103–132

earliest attempt at conflict archaeology, is work done by Edward Fitzgerald in 1842

at the English Civil War battle site of Naseby (Foard 1995, pp. 343–382). Fitzgerald
used some techniques for locating the battle site that current conflict archaeologists
might use: recording names of fields, noting topographic features and the current
appearance of the landscape, recording where individuals had found artifacts, and
recording where local tradition had placed particular events of the battle (Foard
1995, pp. 343–382). Fitzgerald even opened test units and located a mass grave as
part of his efforts to learn more about the Battle of Naseby (Carman 2005, p. 216).
The first work attributed to conflict archaeology in the 20th century began in the
late 1950s (Carman 2005; Connor and Scott 1998). In Europe, Portugal’s military
government investigated the AD 1325 battle site of Aljubarotta (Carman 2005,
p. 216). While excavating ahead of construction for a museum and monument
intended to promote the country’s medieval chivalric past, a mass grave and
battlefield features were exposed. Such work contributed to a better understanding
of that particular battle (Carman 2005). In the United States in 1958, military
historian Don Rickey used a metal detector to locate firing lines at the Little Bighorn
(1876) and Big Hole battlefields (1877) and, with archaeologist Robert Bray, to
mitigate effects of path construction at the Reno-Benteen Defense Site of the Little
Bighorn Battlefield (Connor and Scott 1998, p. 76). Also at that time, U.S. National
Park Service park historian Bearss worked with nonpark staff who knew how to
operate metal detectors to confirm locations of the Civil War forts Wade and Cobun
(Bearss 2000, p. xvii). The adoption of the metal detector as an archaeological tool
was not widespread, and in fact its adoption by the archaeological community was
slow despite its great potential.
Metal detectors and other geophysical instrumentation make it possible to ‘‘see’’
beneath the soil. Metal detectors became the tool of choice in the hobby of relic
hunting, an association that made many archaeologists concerned, if not outraged,
about their use by collectors to destroy the archaeological record. So strong was this
stigma that even 40 years after the metal detector was first introduced to the
archaeologist’s toolkit, Connor and Scott (1998) felt it necessary to publish a paper
in Historical Archaeology about its usefulness to archaeologists (Fig. 1). Although
the metal detector is now accepted as a legitimate tool for archaeologists, it was not
the inspiration for relic hunting and artifact collecting anymore than the shovel was
the inspiration for the looting of prehistoric sites around the world.
Aside from metal detectors, a primary catalyst for the archaeological investi-
gation of battlefields was the recognition that conflict sites often included preserved
constructions or other features that could be studied with contemporary archaeo-
logical practices. The research and work that were done on such features was
important for orienting later work at those battle sites (Drexler 2003, p. 6).
One particular type of construction created especially for conflict that has
received much scholarly attention is fortification (Keeley et al. 2007). Although
studies of fortifications tend to address other kinds of questions than might be asked
of an open-plain battlefield, such as questions regarding class and economic
differences among the occupants or long-term trends in structural additions and
destruction, fortifications all stand as another resource for military deposits. Some
examples of fortifications in the United States that have been studied

J Archaeol Res (2011) 19:103–132 107

Fig. 1 A metal detector team conducting a systematic transect at Pea Ridge Battlefield National Military
Park, Arkansas (Midwest Archeological Center, National Park Service)

archaeologically include the Revolutionary War period forts of Fort Stanwix in New
York (Hanson and Hsu 1975) and Fort Watson in South Carolina (Freeman 2001),
and the Civil War period Fort Pillow in Tennessee (Mainfort 1980). Although such
studies have added to our knowledge of the sites’ spatial layout and organization,
function through time, and occupational chronology, the data sets tend to cover
great time depth, often with less than desired detail of human behavior, except at the
broadest levels, due to limits of the temporal stratification in long-occupied sites.
Conflict-related sites, at least with regard to the archaeological record associated
with historically documented battlefields and camps, have a temporal deposition
associated with days or months, and not years, thus increasing the potential to
examine not only general human behavior across the site but often individual
actions, albeit in the context of conflict and violence.
Battlefield and conflict archaeology, focusing mainly on sites with historic
documentation, has demonstrated over the last two decades a powerful ability to
illuminate human behavior under the stresses of battle (Scott and Fox 1987; Scott
et al. 2007). Human actions during battle are constrained and patterned by the
changing technologies of warfare that developed in the cultural and social context of
the particular combatants (van Creveld 1989). Regarding battlefield behavior, it is a
corollary that any era’s military sites should exhibit unique depositional patterning,
and those patterns can be identified and interpreted as they relate to the broader
cultural entity of which they were a part. Technological changes through time will
be evident, and those technologies related to making war will be horizon markers
for the adaptive responses seen in the archaeological record of battlefield patterns.
Sporadic studies of forts and surviving fortifications combined with the
application of metal detectors, the approaches of historical reconstruction, and
anthropological analyses all came to a head by the late 1970s as individuals sought
to learn more about the past of conflict. Such work included Snow’s (1981, p. 20)

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excavations at the site of the Revolutionary War’s Battle of Saratoga, New York,
which exposed portions of lunettes and redoubts related to the battle. As a result of
that work, the park moved markers and interpretive devices to more accurately
depict the battle.
Perhaps the most well-known battlefield archaeological study was carried out by
Scott and Fox at the Battle of Little Bighorn battlefield in Montana (Scott et al.
1989) (Fig. 2). As a result of this battlefield study, several important advances were
made that established historic battlefield and conflict archaeology as legitimate
areas of archaeological inquiry. Little Bighorn, or Custer’s Last Stand, was by no
means the first battlefield to be studied archaeologically, but its iconic nature
brought the archaeological investigations to the attention of a much more diverse
audience. The Little Bighorn is unique among other documented conflict sites for
several reasons. It is the only battlefield where stone markers were placed at
locations where individual soldiers were reported to have fallen rather than where
they were buried (Fig. 3). It represents one of the greatest U.S. Army defeats of the
Indian Wars period (1876). The extensive historical record of the battle was
contested and shrouded in myth. In the fall of 1983, a grass fire exposed large
portions of the site’s surface and artifacts associated with the battle. The following
year the National Park Service was given the opportunity to assess portions of the
battlefield for archaeological remains (Scott et al. 1989). The fieldwork was directed
by Scott and Fox with the assistance of many volunteers and park staff. To start out,
a group of individuals was spread out along a line to look for artifacts on the surface,
followed by a group of individuals with metal detectors. It was soon realized that
most of the artifacts were being located beneath the surface by the metal detectors,
so the detectors were placed in front and became the most useful means for locating
metallic remains of the battle (Barnard 1998, p. 20). A second component of the
work included opening traditional test units around some of the stone markers to
determine if there were any human remains still present (Barnard 1998, p. 9). This

Fig. 2 Distribution of metal-detected artifacts recovered at Little Bighorn National Battlefield. The
boundary areas show the metal-detected inventory areas (image by Douglas Scott)

J Archaeol Res (2011) 19:103–132 109

Fig. 3 Traditional archaeological test excavations used at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument
to determine if human remains were still present at a sample of the markers (Midwest Archeological
Center, National Park Service)

work provided new information on what happened to the soldiers who lost their
lives at Little Bighorn (Scott et al. 1989, 1998).
One advance resulting from the Little Bighorn investigations was the develop-
ment of a disciplined, systematic approach for surveying battlefields with metal
detectors and meticulously recording the spatial data of recovered artifacts. The
effort spent mapping the precise locations of individual bullets and cartridge cases
was ground-breaking in its application to a battlefield site because it allowed for a
more detailed analysis of the battlefield and the events that occurred there. This
methodology was first used in Scott and Fox’s work (1987; Scott et al. 1989) and
has since been adopted by the conflict archaeology community for completing
systematic studies of conflict sites.
Another advance was the application of modern firearms identification
techniques to the firearms components, cartridge cases, and bullets, which allowed
for individual firearms to be identified by class and for individual characteristics to
be noted among the bullets and cartridge cases. This information provided a means
for tracking the movement of firearms around the battlefield and, by association, the
combatants (Scott et al. 1989), thus providing the opportunity to observe and
analyze a series of individual combatant behaviors within a narrow temporal context
(60–90 min). It became clear that not only were Custer and his men outnumbered,
they were outgunned and outfought by their Lakota and Cheyenne foes (Scott et al.
1989, p. 118).
A significant outcome of the Little Bighorn investigations was the development
of a post-Civil War battlefield archaeological pattern or model that allows a more
in-depth understanding of combat behavior (Fox and Scott 1991, pp. 92–103; Scott
et al. 1989, p. 146). The attention spent on modeling the behavior of soldiers proved
that a battlefield and its artifacts could offer much more than data for critiquing the
historical record. The work demonstrated that the data can be used to get at the heart
of relevant anthropological questions regarding behavior of the individual in

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intense, life-or-death situations (Fox 1993). Subsequent studies have expanded the
model in both time and space, and these seminal studies are the basis for most
contemporary studies of conflict sites today. They are even being expanded and
modified to create models of marine battlefields and shipwrecks and their debris
fields for underwater sites (Cohn et al. 2007; Conlin and Russell 2006).

Expansion of conflict studies

From its beginnings, the study of battlefields has been of great interest to the public.
In the United States, historic battlefield sites dating to all periods in American
history have been archaeologically investigated. Sites related to the Revolutionary
War, War of 1812, Red Sticks War, Mexican War, Civil War, and Indian Wars have
been investigated through the application of conflict archaeology methods
(Cornelison and Cooper 2002, p. 29; Haecker and Mauck 1997).
In Europe, battlefield studies have taken a similar path (Fig. 4). The systematic
collection and recording of sling missiles by Lee (2001) at Olynthos in Greece
allowed him to reconstruct how the city was overrun by Macedonians under Philip
in 343 BC, providing a glimpse of urban warfare and warcraft. Another example is
work done at the AD 9 Battle of Varus site in Germany, where Germanic tribes were
able to exterminate three Roman legions, a feat inconceivable to the powers of
Rome and most of the known world of the time. (Rost 2007; Wilbers-Rost 2007).
The archaeological investigations revealed an ambush context that employed
landscape and terrain favorable to the attackers to trap and consequently annihilate
the Roman forces.
The archaeological study of conflict has not been limited to historically recorded
battles, however. At a time when prehistorians often denied that prehistoric warfare

Fig. 4 Modern aerial photograph with historic World War I aerial reconnaissance imagery
georeferenced, demonstrating the complexity of dealing with 20th century battle remains (photograph
by Douglas Scott)

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existed or at least minimized its impact on those societies, Keeley (1996) identified
clear evidence for such conflict in Neolithic European fortified sites. It became clear
that the prehistoric past was not as ‘‘pacified’’ as it was thought to be (Keeley 1996,
pp. ix–x). Other evidence of prehistoric conflict comes from the Crow Creek site in
South Dakota, where the skeletal remains of at least 486 individuals were
discovered in an outer ditch of a Great Plains fortified village, which engendered a
reanalysis of then currently held conceptions regarding prehistoric warfare and
conflict on the Great Plains (Bamforth 1994; Willey 1990). Since the time of
Keeley’s insights, the study of prehistoric warfare has become an accepted topic of
research, resulting in the publication of much more evidence for warfare in
prehistory (e.g., Arkush and Allen 2006; Guilaine and Zammit 2005; LeBlanc 1999;
Rice and LeBlanc 2001).
The attention given to historical battlefield studies has resulted in many
publications. In the last two decades several published volumes express the amount
of interest and breadth of subject matter associated with battlefield archaeology.
Volumes by Geier and Winter (1994) and Geier and Potter (2000) are compilations
of papers that address work at American Civil War sites. Most of the papers in these
volumes are concerned with critical evaluation of historical records, though some
(Manning-Sterling 2000; Potter and Owsley 2000) have gone further in an effort to
learn more about the individuals who fought and died on the battlefields and the
landscapes on which the battles were fought.
A volume edited by Freeman and Pollard (2001) provided the first international
compilation of papers concerning battlefield studies. Another volume (Schofield
et al. 2002) includes a collection of papers that address more recent episodes of
conflict and issues of preservation. The most recent edited collection (Scott et al.
2007) covers a broad geographical and temporal expanse.
The expansion of conflict studies has included the adoption of new analytical
techniques that will be useful to future studies. The use of geographic information
systems (GIS) has become much more prominent in recent years (Fig. 5), but even
in the early 1990s GIS was being used to predict potential concentrations of artillery
shell fragments at the American Civil War battlefield of Prairie Grove (Williamson
1993). Other GIS-based studies have employed viewshed or terrain analysis to aid in
determining what soldiers were able to see from their positions at the Civil War
battle of Lookout Mountain, Tennessee (Heckman 2007) and narrowing the area for
potential artillery positions through a cumulative viewshed analysis at Wilson’s
Creek (Carlson-Drexler 2007). Though not terribly new tools, other geophysical
equipment such as magnetometers and ground-penetrating radar are routinely
applied to battlefield studies. One such example is a thesis developed by Heckman
(2005) to test certain types of geophysical methods by using them to survey a test
plot containing the kinds of artifacts encountered at a battle site. Another example is
the recent application of geophysical surveys to an area bordering the Reno-Benteen
Defense Site of the Little Bighorn Battlefield in Montana (De Vore 2005).
Even experimental studies have been carried out. One such study set out to
determine the lethal range for smoothbore muskets like those used during the
Revolutionary War and the Civil War and to compare it to the optimal distance for a
bayonet charge (Babits 2002). Other experiments have been developed to determine

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Fig. 5 A British World War I

trench excavated by Belgian
archaeologists as part of a
highway mitigation project
(photograph by Douglas Scott)

the accuracy of firearm identification based on unique markings on percussion caps

(Weber and Scott 2006) and variations in spherical musket balls (Sivilich 1996,
2007) to form hypotheses about the patterning of lead balls fired from a 17th-
century cannon (Allsop and Foard 2007) and the effective range of 18th-century
British muskets (Roberts et al. 2008).

Military tenets in conflict archaeology: Methods of modeling the past

Most modern military entities train their leadership based on analysis of past actions
using historical narrative and the nine principles of war (U.S. Army Field Manual
1993, 2003). The fundamental principles of military actions describe the charac-
teristics of successful operations; armed forces in combat seek to impose their will
on the enemy and victory is the objective, no matter the mission. The fundamental
principles of military operations doctrine also describe the characteristics of
successful operations. These principles are not familiar to most anthropologists or
archaeologists, yet they are elegant in their simplicity and can be used as a model by
which to evaluate a warfare event using historical and archaeological data as
independent lines of evidence. Military planners and trainers constantly draw from
the historical record to illustrate the tenets and principles of war to prepare for and
conduct military operations. Military leaders have carefully conceptualized the
range of actions involved in undertaking combat. Military science, the discipline
developed to guide military conduct, rests on long history and has deep intellectual
roots. Yet the concepts and terms army leaders have developed to plan and execute
war are easily applied to archaeological analysis of battlefields and other military
sites. Most military establishments maintain a regular series of training publications
designed to make the conceptual basis of military activities available to new
personnel. These publications describe the range of actions involved in preparing for
and conducting combat in clearly defined, concrete terms. Since they are intended to

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guide the planning and execution of military activities, these manuals treat combat
at all levels, from the specifics of individual and small unit actions to the general
formation of military policy. They offer clear conceptualization of the range of
activities involved in organizing and conducting combat. Since they treat both
concrete realities and conceptual constructs, they can address observable features
and support inferential interpretations of archaeological materials. Many of the
concepts are defined in clear but general terms and are suitable to application to
diverse, specific situations. In that regard, military concepts are similar to unit
concepts developed by Americanist archaeologists to organize information on the
archaeological past (Willey and Sabloff 1980) and the development of middle-range
explanatory theories (Binford 1968, 1977, 1978).
Military operations concepts evolved over time and have been formally
developed as U.S. Army Staff Rides since the 1890s (Robertson 1987; Tutherly
1898). The successes and failures of historic commanders and armies are regularly
measured against the tenets and principles of war. The tenets are initiative, the
ability to set or change the terms of battle; agility, the ability of friendly forces to
react faster than the enemy; depth, the extension of operations in time, space,
resources, and purpose; synchronization, the ability to focus resources and activities
in time and space to provide maximum relative combat power at the decisive point;
and versatility, the ability of units to meet diverse challenges, shift focus, tailor
forces, and move from one role or mission to another rapidly and efficiently. Out of
the tenets arise the nine principles of war: (1) Direct every military operation toward
a clearly defined, decisive, and attainable objective. (2) Offensive operations are the
means by which a military force seizes and holds the initiative while maintaining
freedom of action and achieving decisive results. (3) Mass the effects of
overwhelming combat power at the decisive place and time. (4) Judiciously
employ and distribute forces; no part of the force should be left without purpose. (5)
Place the enemy in a position of disadvantage through flexible application of
combat power. (6) For every objective, seek unity of command and unity of effort
under one responsible commander. (7) Do not permit the enemy to acquire
unexpected advantage. (8) Strike the enemy at a time or place or in a manner for
which he is unprepared. (9) Prepare clear, uncomplicated plans and concise orders
to ensure thorough understanding.
As laid out in the U.S. Army Field Manual (2003), any action undertaken in
support of a military mission can be described as an ‘‘operation.’’ To help
commanders visualize the wide range of operations involved in the military mission,
current doctrine presents war in terms of three levels: strategic, operational, and
tactical. Strategy refers to the development of ideas for using power to achieve
objectives. The highest strategic level is where political groups determine objectives
and develop plans for employing the power available to them to achieve objectives.
Drawing on those ideas as policy, military leaders develop strategic plans for
military actions in general and, with specific adjustments, to operations in specific
times and places.
The operational level is where strategic policy is organized for specific action.
Conceptually, this is the sphere where field operations are planned, conducted, and
sustained. It is relevant to archaeological investigations since operations at this level

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are bound to specific times and spaces and a number of terms define those temporal
and regional frames. A series of related major operations aimed at achieving
strategic and operational objectives within a given time and space is a campaign.
The operational components of a campaign are actions conducted to accomplish
strategic goals. They include movements toward combat and a variety of kinds of
engagements with hostile forces.
Campaigns and their component actions are tied to geographic areas, or theaters,
but to address diverse realities of military operations, military planners treat spatial
aspects of operational actions in conceptual terms. The environment, factors, and
conditions a commander must understand to successfully apply combat power are
the battlespace, which is determined by encountered conditions and can be
addressed in terms of both spatial subdivisions and facilities. Spatially, it includes
an area of operations, the immediate area occupied by a combat force for which the
commander is responsible. Around that space is the area of influence, the zone a
commander can directly influence by maneuver or fire. Farther out is the area of
interest, which is relevant to a commander’s mission although it is controlled by
enemy forces. These three ‘‘areas’’ are at least generally geographic in that they can
be located in real space and tied to specific places and features. Combat also occurs
within an information environment, which refers to the sources of information
available to a commander. This environment has less geographic reality, but the
concept lets military planners address the fact that combat decisions are based in
part on the information available to decision makers.
Battlespace also includes concrete facilities. Home stations are permanent bases
from which combat forces may be mobilized. They function as staging areas and
have the facilities to sustain deployed forces with logistic, communication,
intelligence, security, or other support. Generally, home stations are removed from
the area of operations, so functionally, that means fighting does not occur at home
stations. While deployed, combat forces may set up or operate from temporary force
projection bases. These bases may be areas of operations, but they also serve as
short-term support bases that sustain deployed combat units. They may provide the
range of support offered by a home base. And they may ‘‘shape’’ or influence the
condition for success of operations. Both home stations and force projection bases
have concrete reality. Even if removed from specific areas of operation, bases are
important in military operations because they influence the activities of deployed
The employment of force in combat is tactics, the realm of direct, close combat.
This level of operations deals with how opposing forces use the resources,
information, and locations available to them to defeat or destroy their enemies.
Tactical operations can be described in terms of battles that involve sets of related
short engagements of specific forces in maneuvers that support the campaign
objectives. Combat operations can be described in terms of a rather small suite of
maneuvers—envelopment, turns, infiltrations, penetration, and frontal attacks, for
example—that can be applied generically. Practically, however, the tactical
resources available to the modern army are vastly different from the military
practice of armies or navies in the past. It thus becomes necessary for archaeologists
to take the broader model of military operations and place it in the context of the era

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under study, employing knowledge from historic or ethnographic sources as to

potential strategy and tactics that were or likely were employed in the past. From
this, hypotheses can be developed and tested against recovered archaeological data.
One of the most easily applied modern military operations analysis tools to the
field of conflict archaeology is terrain analysis. By attempting to understand what
participants could see and how they would transfer those impressions to the
historical record through text and cartographic sources, informed by training and
custom, one can begin to interpret the archaeology of the battlefield. The U.S. Army
and most European powers have employed terrain analysis training since the early
20th century. The U.S. Army has employed terrain analysis as part of its curricula at
the U.S. Military Academy and other schools of advanced training in one form or
another since the late 19th century. Today viewsheds or terrain analysis, known by
the military acronym of KOCOA (Collins 1998; Kim et al. 1994), is becoming an
accepted means to assist the archaeological study of conflict sites (Connor 2005).
KOCOA stands for key terrain, observation and fields of fire, cover and
concealment, obstacles, and avenues of approach. In military parlance key terrain
is any locality or area that affords a marked advantage to the combatant group who
controls it. Observation is defined by what can be seen from a given feature, in
essence viewshed. Cover and concealment is cover or protection from enemy fire or
observation. Obstacles are any natural or manmade feature that prevents, delays, or
diverts movement of military forces. Avenues of approach are natural or manmade
features that allow attacking forces to reach an enemy force. KOCOA analysis can
be applied via GIS in a variety of ways and through time and space, especially when
historic maps or reconstructed landscapes are employed in the analysis. This is an
inversion of the common archaeological approach to historical landscapes; instead
of attempting to understand the meaning built into a landscape, it is an attempt to
decipher the meaning given to a landscape and the events that transpired on that
landscape (for discussions of landscape issues in archaeology, see Anschuetz et al.
2001; Ashmore and Knapp 1999; Athanassopoulos and Wandsnider 2004; Connor
2005; Rossignol and Wandsnider 1992). Naturally, there are serious limitations to
what can be known about certain fields of conflict, but the narrative accounts of
participants and witnesses, as well as the cartographic evidence of military maps,
provide sufficient clues to allow some rough conclusions to be drawn.
An understanding of war making among and in different cultures also can assist
terrain analysis (van Creveld 1989). An understanding of different cultures and their
manner of war making can in turn be used to inform an archaeological landscape.
Coupled with operational models, terrain analysis, and understanding its role in
battles, conflict archaeologists now have a means to appreciate how strategy and
tactics play a role in any given conflict (Fig. 6). The archaeological record contains
clues in the form of physical remains, including artifacts, and their contextual
relationships that are often not present or clear in the documentary record.
Archaeological contextual relationships, including distributions and spatial associ-
ations of various types of artifacts, can reveal a great deal about the activities that
were carried out at a site. All archaeological investigation is based on some
theoretical model that intends to explicate the facts. In the study of combat, warfare,
and cultural conflict, it is not necessary to develop a whole new theoretical concept.

116 J Archaeol Res (2011) 19:103–132

Fig. 6 An example of a military terrain field of fire or viewshed, a part of KOCOA analysis applied to
the Last Stand Hill at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. This 600-m view shows the field of
fire of a group of soldiers occupying a hilltop. The voids are areas that could not be seen by those on the
hilltop and could have been effectively used by the warriors to protect themselves from the soldiers’ fire
and, in turn, shoot at the soldiers. The 600-m-diameter field of fire takes into account the lethal range of
the weapons used by both sides in the battle (image by Douglas Scott)

One is readily available and testable; an excellent example is the application of

GIS-based key terrain analysis to the 1714 Spanish battle of Talamanca (Rubio
Campillo 2008) and the general War of Spanish Succession (Rubio Campillo 2009).


Conflict and battlefield archaeology is now a legitimate field of inquiry in

archaeology, anthropology, and history. From its earliest manifestations as a method
to find relics or gun emplacements, it has matured to be an independent source of
data that can be compared to historical documents, participant accounts, maps, and
other sources to build a more complete and accurate picture of an event or develop
new views of strategy and tactics. As the discipline has grown and gained
acceptance, it also has captured the public’s imagination through various television
documentaries and series featuring battlefield archaeology as a means to study and
learn about the past. This awareness and growth of interest in historic and
contemporary conflict has prompted a large number of scholars to conduct field
investigations and recover the physical evidence of battles and conflicts.
A basic anthropological tenet is that human behavior is patterned, constrained by
norms, values, morals, and sanctions of society. Individual behavior may deviate
from the expected to a certain degree, but to maintain a membership in a group,
society, or culture an individual must generally conform to group standards.

J Archaeol Res (2011) 19:103–132 117

Archaeologists extend this premise to the physical remains of a society. Group

and individual beliefs and behavior are reflected in material culture, which can be
studied by archaeological means. One aspect of conflict and battlefield studies is the
level of detail about individual weapon use and weapon movement, particularly
with firearms components, that can be teased from archaeological data. This level of
precise knowledge gives the researcher not only the big picture of strategy and
tactics carried out on a field of battle but allows a look at the role of the individual,
which is unique in most archaeological investigations. Conflict archaeologists can
study, analyze, and interpret the context in which artifacts of war or conflict are
found and perhaps gain an increased understanding of the role of the warrior in
warfare, even the warrior’s lifestyle through time and space, if not the allure of war
Regardless of the level of precision that can be garnered from the artifacts and
context, there is still the matter of how best to study these violent episodes of the
past. The underlying theory driving the research can be diverse. Most of the research
presented here has, as its basic approach, one of understanding processes and events.
Among those advocating a processualist approach to the study of military sites is
Lewis (1984), who placed the military as a settlement pattern on the American
frontier. Lewis was influenced by Steffen (1980), who espouses the concept that
cosmopolitan frontiers are regions of specialized economic activity that exhibit
minimal cultural diversity as colonization occurs. Steffen has stressed the structural
similarity and cultural continuity of these frontiers within the colonization process.
In this economic model military sites are seen as a slight deviant to the cultural
norm in that they were not developed for direct economic exploitation. Instead, they
stand as bastions of protection and symbols of power that are meant to ensure that
the parent culture can exploit those resources without undue interference from
native cultures or other competing cultural groups. Lewis stresses that military
frontiers are not found in all areas of colonization but only where threats to the
peaceful extraction of resources are seen and a structured pacifying force is
required. The cosmopolitan frontier concept is an excellent umbrella theory through
which to view the military establishment. The economic thrust of the concept
appears to be valid and is one that can be subject to archaeological and historical
investigation, particularly in light of today’s Marxist and postprocessualist
theoretical paradigm.
Battlefields may seem to be a simple type of archaeological site. Like other
archaeological endeavors, the site is often more complex below the surface. Noel
Hume (1968) once considered battlefield sites to be a poor place for archaeological
investigations. He considered them to be good places to find cannon positions and
war relics for museum displays, but not sites worthy of serious archaeological
investigation. Recent battlefield archaeology at Olynthos, Greece, Naseby, and
Flodden Field in the United Kingdom, American Revolutionary War sites at
Saratoga, New York, and Monmouth, New Jersey, the Mexican-American War Palo
Alto Battlefield in Texas, Crimean War sites in Finland, an early American Indian
Wars site at Fallen Timbers in Ohio, the American Civil War battlefield of Mine
Creek in Kansas, the late Indian Wars site of Little Bighorn battlefield in Montana,
Zulu war sites in South Africa, the Arizona Apache campaign site of K-H butte, and

118 J Archaeol Res (2011) 19:103–132

World War I sites have shed an entirely different light on accepted notions of the
events (Bulgrin 2005; Doyle 2001; Foard 1995; Fox 1993; Haecker 1994;
Harrington 2005; Lee 2001; Lees 1994; Londahl et al. 2001; Ludwig and Stute
1993; Parsons 2001; Pollard 2001; Pratt 2007; Scott and Connor 1986; Scott and
Fox 1987; Scott et al. 1989; Sivilich 1996; Snow 1981; Stichelbaut 2005). These
and many other studies have clearly demonstrated the viability of battlefield
archaeological studies to uncover new information about a particularistic piece of
the past and to elucidate broad patterns of cultural continuity and change in war
making and conflict through time and space.
A battlefield may seem the least likely place to find archaeologically definable
behavioral patterns. But those who engage in combat fight in established manners
and patterns in which they have been trained (van Creveld 1989), and it is precisely
this training that results in the deposition of artifacts that can be recovered by
archaeological methods and interpreted through an anthropological perspective
(Dyer 1985; Fox and Scott 1991). Gould (1983) pointed out that shipwreck sites are
documents of behavior; as warfare-related wrecks are documents, land battlefields
also are archaeological documents of past behavior. Battlefields are no less an
expression of culture, albeit a violent one, than are architectural elements.
Battlefield studies can yield information on combatant positions during the
course of battle. They also provide details of dress, equipage, and in some cases
individual movements. Archaeological data can retrieve information on troop
deployment, firing positions, and weapon types. Studies of artifact projectile
patterning can reveal unit or individual movement during the battle, weapon
trajectory, fields of fire, and range of firing by determining forces of impact. In an
anthropological context, battlefields are the physical and violent expression of a
culture or cultures in conflict.
Wars are not fought without some explicit or implicit goal. Military entities
around the world use one form or another of theory of war and operationalize these
as tenets of operations and tactics. The tenets of modern military operation provide a
ready-made set on which to build models and hypotheses for anthropological and
archaeological inquiry (Scott 2001).
Whatever the underlying theory used to study them, there are two basic types of
battlefields—siege and transitory (van Creveld 1989). Although the archaeological
evidence is similar in some respects, the siege site can be expected to be associated
with towns or fortifications (home stations) where one of the combatant parties
fortified themselves and where the other party attempted to acquire that locale (force
projection bases). The defensive side of a siege battlefield should be associated with
some type of relatively permanent fortification or a town with defenses thrown up
around it. English Civil War sites and American Civil War sites are among those
that have archaeological expressions. The archaeological features associated with a
siege site are the fortifications, artillery positions, long-term camps for both
combatants, and extensive trash deposits. Normally, large bodies of men were
employed in a siege, so the camp and trash-related artifacts should be extensive. The
possibility of a formal burial ground should not be overlooked.
The transitory battlefield (battlespace), the most common, is more ephemeral in
nature. Normally these involve a limited engagement of opposing forces in both

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time and space. This battlefield type is not associated with permanent fortifications,
but temporary breastworks may be found, such as in the Anglo-Zulu fort at Eshowe
or the Thirty Years War site in the Czech Republic (Matoušek 2005; Pollard and
Banks 2005). Camps and burial areas may be located near the battle site. Even the
route of retreat or movement can carry an archaeological signature (Dimmick 2004).
The primary archaeological deposits associated with a transitory battlefield are parts
of uniforms, equipage, and especially spent cartridges, bullets, artillery shells, and
other weapons such as arrows or spears.
Where similar cultural groups or a cultural group in conflict have fought a battle,
the artifact patterns may be more difficult to identify. Yet differences in combatant
patterns are discernable. Civil wars pit people of the same culture against one
another, but opposing combatant camps and positions can be fairly easily identified
through material culture remains (Doyle et al. 2005; Harrington 2005). Military
forts and encampments can be examined in the same way. Material culture remains
often can be associated with specific occupations, even if the personnel were from
different cultural groups (Maxwell and Binford 1961; Saunders 2004).
Battlefields of the American Indian Wars have yielded artifact patterns that are
interpretable. The cultural differences in the manner and practice of warfare by U.S.
Army personnel versus Native American groups are clearly delineated in the artifact
dispersal patterns at Indian-soldier battle sites. Indigenous peoples may use the war
material of their enemy, but the manner in which they fought is left behind as
physical evidence that is recoverable and interpretable using archaeological theory
and method.
Conflict among societies and people is likely as old as humankind, and into the
21st century, conflicts of horrific proportions have been documented. Archaeologists
are not new to assisting forensic and medicolegal investigations of crime, but only
since the 1990s has forensic archaeology really developed (Bass and Birkby 1978;
Connor 2007; Connor and Scott 2001a; Dirkmaat and Adovasio 1997; Hoshower
1998; Hunter 1994; Morse et al. 1983; Sigler-Eisenberg 1985; Skinner and Lazenby
1983). Forensic archaeologists are now routinely employed in mass grave
excavations and exhumations to aid in documenting the physical evidence of
modern war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide (Connor 2007; Juhl
2004; Middle East Watch 1992). The move into the world of forensic investigation
requires a paradigmatic shift in thinking (Connor and Scott 2001b); nevertheless,
many archaeologists have done so, and they have taken the concepts and methods
employed in conflict studies into those investigations (Scott 1993, 2001, 2007;
Webster 1998).
The theory and practice of modern battlefield and conflict archaeology have not
been eagerly embraced by prehistorians studying prehistoric war, warfare, and
conflict. Yet the abundant literature on prehistoric war and conflict shows there is no
lack of anthropological interest (Bamforth 1994; Golitko and Keeley 2007; Guilaine
and Zammit 2005; Haas 1990; Kay 1996; Keeley 1996; Kuckleman et al. 2002;
LeBlanc 1999, 2003; Lowell 2007; Oosterbeek 1997; Otterbein 2004; Rice and
LeBlanc 2001). But as a group prehistorians eschew the methods, models, and
theory of ancient or classical, early modern, and modern or historic studies of
battlefields and conflict. Prehistorians, we believe, are remiss in ignoring the

120 J Archaeol Res (2011) 19:103–132

archaeological studies of classical and modern wars and warfare. That people fight
in the manner in which they were trained and that such fighting leaves behind
physical and artifactual residues that can be interpreted are the fundamental bases of
understanding an archaeology and anthropology of war in any time or space.
Prehistorians have concentrated on gross evidence of warfare in the past, such
as burned and destroyed houses or villages, human remains exhibiting evidence of
violent and traumatic injury as a cause of death, and interpretations of rock art
panels depicting potential conflicts (Guilaine and Zammit 2005; Haas 1990;
Keeley 1996; LeBlanc 2003). These are excellent lines of evidence and are the
basis for sound analytical works on current reinterpretation of the role of warfare
in the past. Prehistorians deal well with broad anthropological concepts of conflict
and war as existing in the past, and they build exciting intellectual arguments
around rock art, human remains, and mass destruction as physical evidence for
war in the prehistoric past (Armit et al. 2006). But they cannot seem to find a
methodological means to explore the field of battle in prehistory. A modified
version of the historic battlefield metal detector and other methods should have
utility on potential conflict sites of Iron or Bronze ages. Such methods have been
used recently at a number of sites in Europe and the Middle East (Harms 2007;
Lee 2001; Wilbers-Rost 2007). Although technically in the historic or contact era,
early conquest sites in Mexico and the United States, dating to 1540–1541, have
been found through metal detection and traditional archaeological investigative
methods with excellent results (Haecker et al. 2007). Snead (2008) has employed
the concept of landscape to make compelling arguments for the presence of
violence and conflict in one area of the American Southwest during the late
Ancestral Pueblo period.
A hypothetical example for investigating a purely prehistoric battlefield is a
prehistoric village that has been systematically sampled by excavation. Houses,
storage areas, plazas, and other public spaces have all been sampled. Archaeological
remains include typical household ceramic assemblages, food debris, and a varied
lithic assemblage. Among the finds are human remains with perimortem traumatic
injuries, some hastily buried in communal graves, others in isolated areas or near
houses. The archaeological evidence indicates wholesale intentional destruction of
the site at a specific point in time. One means to test the warfare hypothesis, beyond
the human remains, would be to look at the lithic assemblage, focusing on whether
there are projectile points (spears, arrowheads), knives, and blades that could have
been used in fighting present in the assemblage or associated with the human
remains. Is there lithic debitage that reflects tool manufacture or maintenance of
these tool types? If not, perhaps the investigator is seeing the evidence of the
opposing forces’ armament that was left behind or discarded after the conflict. In
fact, Saville (2004) has employed the concept of exotic lithic projectile point
distribution in a Neolithic site to suggest that warfare was responsible for the
distribution. The hypothetical example is admittedly simplistic, and finding,
excavating, and analyzing a prehistoric conflict site is no easy task, as demonstrated
in Saville’s (2004) work. The point is that prehistorians should look to the general
field of battlefield and conflict archaeology for models that can be modified and
tested in their venue, or those that might inspire new ideas of how to discover the

J Archaeol Res (2011) 19:103–132 121

extent and nature of violence in the prehistoric past, as exemplified by current

publications (e.g., Runnels et al. 2009).
Hacker’s (2006, p. 214) plea to prehistorians is worth quoting here: ‘‘keep in
mind that organized mayhem is endemic to the human condition through time and
space, which implies underlying similarities in violent behavior and, by extension,
basic similarities in its physical patterning. Thus, archaeologists interested in
warfare as a research topic should review and, where applicable, adapt pertinent
data and well-developed interpretations regardless of region and/or time period
under discussion.’’


Sites exhibiting evidence of conflict do have patterns of artifact deposition

coincident with the training provided to the participants. Combatants fight as they
are trained and under the rules of that culture’s perception of warfare behavior.
Opposing combatant positions, movement, armament, and method of warfare are
discernable in artifact deposition patterns.
In essence, military sites are revealed in the archaeological record by their
institutionalized architecture, equipment, and patterns of artifact deposition. They
also reflect the tenets of the parent culture in the artifactual record. Personal goods
reflect social and economic status within the military community and the culture at
large. Artifacts and patterns of deposition also reflect the role of the military in
society—the making of or prevention of war.
The importance of the archaeological or physical record is not its richness but
that it is an independent line of evidence that tells a different story or enhances the
documentary record and oral tradition. The value of archaeological research and the
recovery and documentation of physical evidence of past conflict lies not in the
artifacts alone but in the context in which they are found. Historical documents and
oral testimony are accounts derived from human memory and can contain
intentional or unintentional bias. The archaeological record has its own bias, one
of preservation, not one of intent. The archaeological record of a conflict is not
dependent on human memory; rather it is the debris and evidence left behind by
violent events. It is there and recoverable. The archaeological record cannot speak
for itself, but it is interpretable. This independent line of evidence can be recovered,
recorded, and interpreted. Its real power is that it can be used to correlate,
corroborate, or contrast documentary sources or oral testimony to determine the best
fit or the accuracy of various information sources.
A crime scene analogy explains the value of archaeology best. The historical
sources and oral tradition are akin to the statements of the witness, victim, and
alleged perpetrator in a criminal investigation. The archaeological record is
analogous to the physical and trace evidence gathered by forensic scientists.
Compared and contrasted, the physical evidence shows who is a reliable witness and
sometimes leads to new lines of inquiry. The archaeological evidence of conflict and
warfare has this power, to test the reliability of various sources, to find new

122 J Archaeol Res (2011) 19:103–132

information about the past, and, as a partner to history, to build a more complete and
accurate story of past events.
The study of war has occupied historians and other scholars for centuries, but
archaeologists have only recently begun to study the physical evidence and the
anthropological theory of war. Since 1984, dozens of battlefields worldwide have
been studied using modern archaeological theory and methods. In a related arena,
hundreds of sites have recently been documented for forensic and medical-legal
purposes. We can, and should, begin to use this accumulation of data to examine
overarching anthropological patterns of conflict. Battlefield and conflict archaeology
is at that cusp of the evolution of the field, and it is just coming to grasp these larger
theoretical issues and constructs.

Acknowledgments We express our appreciation to the editors and editorial assistant Linda Nicholas for
their keen eye and assistance in the preparation of this article. We also thank Peter Bleed, Tony Pollard,
Charles Haecker, and Richard Diehl, as well as several anonymous reviewers, for their comments on
earlier drafts of this work. We are grateful for their comments and suggestions, which we have
endeavored to incorporate as much as possible. No topical review of current literature in an on-going and
dynamic field can ever be complete, and we had to be somewhat selective in the literature citations we
chose to include, which we hope, if not fully inclusive, is at least representative of the diversity in both
time and space of the field of conflict archaeology.

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