Studies of Conflict: Bridging the Gap”

Rolf Fabricius Warming (PhD Student, Stockholm University)

On June 3rd, 2022, the Department of Archaeology and Classical Studies at Stockholm University hosted an all-day seminar entitled ‘Studies of Conflict: Bridging the Gap’, organised and led by the current author.

Following a series of diverse talks with various PhD students and researchers at Stockholm University, it became apparent that, while there was growing interest in conflict-related matters at the university, there seems to be little interaction between the interested researchers. Hence, the time seemed ripe to arrange a small seminar that would allow us to share and discuss our ideas. Recognizing the situation as part of a larger and more general tendency in the field, the seminar simultaneously provided a good opportunity to address the fragmented nature of studies of conflict in general.

The intention of the seminar thus evolved to also explore how the gap between various conflict-related studies within archaeology and other disciplines could potentially be bridged through an increased focus on social contextualization. More specifically, the aim was to discuss and give examples of how available archaeological and historical sources can be used to address broader and more central issues regarding the relationship between past humans and societies on the one hand and conflicts, violence, weaponry and martial practices on the other. In so doing, the seminar sought to bring together a diversity of seemingly-unrelated case studies and to encourage a dialogue format between researchers and disciplines that could stimulate further discussions and investigations. This social anthropological approach has previously been promulgated by, among others, Ian Armit (Armit et al 2006) and John Carman (2013), who partly inspired the seminar, but it remains to be integrated at a more widespread level. This can only be achieved through repeated practice and dedicated efforts to promulgate such an approach. If the right questions are asked, such studies can make valuable contributions to our understanding of violent practices and their wider social context, including the complex relationships that underlie conflicts, how conflicts relate to the structure and development of culture as well as how humans respond under different sets of conditions in periods of conflict and security. The seminar provided an opportunity to explore these issues from a number of vantage points.

As the overall theme and goals of the seminar resonated with many, the seminar grew on its own accord, resulting in a full-day hybrid seminar with 11 papers from different institutions. Though the papers were mainly from archaeology, history and philology were represented as well. The papers (the abstracts of which can be found here) spanned a wide range of subject matters - from Mesolithic violence to Early Modern warships – but they all sought to explore the many intriguing and complex connections between conflicts and society. To bring further cohesion to the seminar, the speakers were asked to reflect upon two questions as part of their paper: (1) What does the investigated topic say about the relationship between conflicts/violence and society and (2) what is the relevance of conflict studies?

The introductory remarks were given by the current author. These remarks revolved around the reasons behind the seminar, and addressed two major challenges in the field of conflict archaeology, namely: (1) pathological perceptions of violence, where violence is seen as something disconnected from ‘normal’ aspects of society, and (2) the disjointed nature of conflict research, which tends towards fragmentation and rather isolated studies that focus on the documentation of specific cases of violence or conflict-related material. The dialogue format and approach promulgated in the seminar was specifically intended to address these issues.

The first paper, entitled ‘Hunting Humans: Unfamiliar Concepts of Violence and a Method for Conflict Archaeology in the Distant Stone Age’, was given by Fredrik Lundström, a PhD student at the Department of Archaeology and Classical Studies, Stockholm University. The paper explored various problems with identifying large-scale violence in the Mesolithic and how perceptions of violence in Stone Age hunter-gatherer societies may have radically differed from modern day conceptions.

Figure 18: André Nordin (Department of Archaeology and Classical Studies, Stockholm University) relating ethnographic evidence on warfare and conflict management to the depositional practices of Early Iron Age Scandinavia.

The second paper, entitled ‘The Deliberate Destruction and Removal of Weapons from Society’, was presented by André Nordin, a PhD student from the same department. See Figure 18. Focusing on the vast wetland depositions of weapons in Early Iron Age Scandinavia, Nordin’s paper explored the role of conflict management in society and considered the deliberate removal of weapons from prehistoric societies as a potential strategy in this light.

The third paper, entitled ‘Scorched Earth: A Posthole Approach to Iron Age Warfare’, was presented by Anders Bornfalk Back, a PhD student at the Department of Archaeology and Ancient History, Uppsala University. See Figure 19. The paper presented the potential of using burnt houses as diagnostic tracers for times and places of unrest as well as the role of Iron Age warfare in the development of Old Uppsala into a central place by the 7th century AD.

Figure 19: Anders Bornfalk Back (Department of Archaeology and Ancient History, Uppsala University) describing Iron Age settlements and their potential as diagnostic traces for conflicts.

The fourth paper, entitled ‘Hunting Magic and Human Prey: On Portable Art and Violence among Hunter-Gatherers’, was given by Erik Solfeldt, PhD student at the Department of Archaeology and Classical Studies, Stockholm University. Drawing on ethnographic material, Solfeldt’s paper explored the perception of conflicts in hunter-gatherer societies and the question of how animal violence differed from human violence in animistic ontologies. In relation to this, it also discussed whether a distinction could be made between tools and weapons.

The fifth paper, entitled ‘In the Same Boat: A Social Anthropology of Fighting at Sea’, was given by the current author. It revolved around the cultural dimensions of Early Modern naval warfare and the different ways in which the maritime battlespace (and fighting practices therein) were shaped by both environmental and social factors.

The sixth paper, entitled ‘Written Sources on Fighting Practices’, was given by Antti Ijäs, a PhD student at the Department of Languages, University of Helsinki. Taking a philological perspective, this paper presented different types of medieval written sources that made mention of fighting practices and evaluated these in terms of what they could reveal about the actual practices in martial culture and of the societal significance of the fighting activities described.

The seventh paper, entitled ‘Consequences of New Warships’, was presented by Prof. Johan Rönnby, MARIS, Södertörn University. Examining shipwrecks from between the Late Middle Ages and Early Modern Period, Rönnby’s paper saw warships as an important part of momentous societal changes and considered the ways in which warships reflect our intricate entanglement with our technology and material in general.

The eighth paper, entitled ‘Money and Conflict: An Archaeological/Numismatic Perspective’, was given by Prof. Jens Christian Moesgaard, Department of Archaeology and Classical Studies, Stockholm University. Using a series of archaeological examples, Moesgaard’s paper provided a concise and structured overview of the many intriguing connections between money and war.

The ninth paper, entitled ‘Headhunting as Ritualized Violence in Prehistory and Recent Past’, was given by Prof. Ian Armit, Department of Archaeology, University of York. This paper discussed headhunting as a cultural phenomenon – especially its role in promoting, exacerbating and conceptualising inter-societal violence - and explored the intriguing parallels between cases found in the ethnographic and archaeological records.

The tenth paper, entitled ‘Crusades as Sacred War and Cultural Process’, was presented by Nanouschka Myrberg Burström, Senior Lecturer at the Department of Archaeology and Classical Studies, Stockholm University. Focusing on the Baltic Crusades, this paper explored crusading as ideological and societal practices, violence and death as expressions of piety, and warfare and colonisation as processes of acculturation.

The eleventh paper, entitled ‘The Gotlandic Society’s Relation to Warfare with a focus on the Battle of Visby 1361’, was given by Thomas Neijman, PhD student at the Department of History, Stockholm University. Using a combination of historical and archaeological sources, this paper explored the martial practices of the local population on Gotland around the time of the Battle of Visby (1361) and addressed the norms of warfare through an analysis of the push and pull factors acting upon the militia that participated in the battle.

Concluding remarks were given by Prof. Ian Armit, who remarked upon the uniquely diverse subjects that had been discussed during the day and the significance of the underlying reasons behind the seminar. Special emphasis was placed on the importance of acknowledging conflicts as cultural phenomena that are intertwined with all aspects of society and which, therefore, cannot be reduced to isolated practices removed from ‘normal’ aspects of everyday life.

Overall, the papers presented during the all-day seminar (and the many thought-provoking discussions that followed) highlighted the value of studying conflict in relation to social context. The papers showcased the number of vantage points from which conflict can be studied, as well as the rich understandings that can be generated from them. More importantly, as a whole, the seminar demonstrated the chief strengths of historical and archaeological perspectives in studies into conflict, namely their capacity to illuminate (1) the different conditions and practices that are interconnected with interpersonal violence and (2) the role of material culture in conflicts, especially from a long-term and broad comparative perspective. The importance of studying these aspects goes beyond academic theorising and discussions within the humanities, especially in light of the potential to make valuable and meaningful contributions to modern-day issues. Through these studies we can gain deeper insights into the social and cultural dimensions of conflicts and, in the process, approach a humanistic and humanising understanding of its participants. While the results may not necessarily be directly applicable to modern military studies, they can be a point of departure for further reflection and debate.

Currently, we are looking to publishing the seminar papers and to continue our discussions on the social and cultural dimensions of conflict in general. We are also seeking to take further steps to engage in dialogue with other researchers and to foster cooperation between the many disciplines that deal with conflict and violence. Ultimately, we believe that the dialogue format reflected in the seminar will facilitate a valuable exchange of knowledge in this field and we are eager to connect with researchers with similar interests.


  • Armit, Ian, Chris Knüsel, John Robb, and Rick Schulting. 2006. “Warfare and Violence in Prehistoric Europe: An Introduction.” Journal of Conflict Archaeology 2 (1): pp. 1–11
  • Carman, John. 2013. Archaeologies of conflict. London: Bloomsbury Publishing

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