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What Is Military Archaeology?

Maggie Worth
Maggie Worth

Military archaeology is a subfield of archaeology, which is a subfield of anthropology. It deals with the excavation and study of artifacts relating to the military history of various cultures and regions. This can include weaponry, military buildings, and warrior customs such as burials or figure modifications. A military archaeologist may study peoples who lived in any era between prehistoric times and a few hundred years ago.

The primary purpose of military archaeology is to discover how past civilizations fought their battles, defended their lands, and honored their war heroes. This, in turn, can help anthropologists and historians better understand cultures that have died out sometimes thousands of years ago. It can also help trace the development of tools and technologies and create a clearer picture of the power structures of the time.

Man with hands on his hips
Man with hands on his hips

As with most archaeological subfields, much of military archaeology takes place in the field. A military specialist might be called to assist at an excavation site that appears to have military significance. If weaponry, particularly of a unique or rare kind, appears, such a specialist might also be present.

Artifacts may be studied on site and many archaeologists prefer to view finds before they are fully excavated so that they can assess the environment. Site photos and field notes, however, must often substitute for firsthand examination as a dig cannot always be held up until a military specialist is available. It is not uncommon for military artifacts to be transported to an off-site location or lab if a military expert is required.

Most excavation sites are not considered to be of enough military significance to require a specialist. In these cases, the staff archaeologists excavate and assess any ruins or artifacts that may be found. Military archaeology is often part of an archaeologist's formal training, providing him or her the requisite background to handle most sites. Artifacts and structures of interest include those intended to defend territory against attack as well as those intended to wage battle against another people.

Burial customs, particularly those involving heroes and fallen warriors, are of prime interest in military archaeology. The traditions and priorities of a civilization are often illustrated by these customs. Physical anthropologists thus play critical roles in adding to the body of knowledge about past military actions. These specialists often study skeletons of those thought to be warriors or soldiers and look for clues such as jewelry, body modifications, and more.

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