The Roots of Warfare


Twentieth Annual Darwin College Lecture Series 2005


Lecture 5   :   18 February

Barry Cunliffe





The Roots of Warfare

The debate ranges wide - philosophers, natural historians, anthropologists and archaeologists - all have thought deeply about the question from their different viewpoints. To the philosopher Hobbes, humanity had a natural propensity for violence. Not so said Rousseau, 'nothing could be more gentle' than man in his natural state. And so the lines were drawn up - is aggression innate and selected for or conditioned by social or environmental constraints? Anthropologists, in detailed studies and cross- cultural surveys, mostly conclude that warfare is endemic, the great variety of behaviour they observe resulting from different ways of containing and controlling that violence. But how recent is the phenomenon? Here archaeologists can produce a deep-time perspective. At first the evidence is anecdotal but it becomes increasingly systematic allowing us to see how conflict resolution is embedded in social systems, becoming more complex over time. Perhaps the perspective helps us to understand our own world better.



Barry Cunliffe is Professor of European Archaeology at Oxford University. After school in Portsmouth he studied Archaeology and Anthropology at Cambridge (St. John's College) continuing there to complete a Ph.D. His first university post was in the Department of Classics at Bristol. In 1966 he left for Southampton University to set up a new department of archaeology and in 1972 took up his present post at Oxford. He takes pride in being a 'dirt archaeologist' spending the summer vacations involved in fieldwork and excavations. He has worked in Andalusia, La Rioja, Brittany and the Channel Islands, and in Britain has been responsible for excavations at Fishbourne, Bath, Hengistbury, Danebury, Portchester Castle and a number of other sites. Most of the work is designed to explore social and economic change in Iron Age and Roman communities with a special emphasis on the peoples of the Atlantic seaboard.

He has been particularly concerned to communicate the results of archaeological research to a wide public through TV and radio appearances, setting up museums and writing books. Recent books include Facing the Ocean (for which he was awarded a Wolfson Foundation Prize), The Extraordinary Journey of Pytheas the Greek, The Ancient Celts, The Celts: a Very Short Introduction, Iron Age Britain and readable accounts of his excavations at Bath, Fishbourne and Danebury as a light relief to complement the more solid academic tomes.

He has served as a Commissioner for English Heritage, a Governor of the Museum of London, President of the Society of Antiquaries and of the Council for British Archaeology, and is currently a Trustee of the British Museum. He was awarded a C.B.E. in 1994. 

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