Various human-shaped stelas with jewelry, weapons and tools.
Various human-shaped stelas with jewelry, weapons and tools.

Birth of the Warriors

Stone stelas from Neolithic Europe tell of a new social class: the heavily armed warriors who were supposed to protect the property of the elites.

Alexander Rechsteiner

Alexander Rechsteiner

Works at the PR department of the Swiss national museum and holds an M A in modern English literature and political science.

Life 6,000 years ago was dangerous. It was only for a comparatively short period of time that people in Europe had settled down. They farmed, kept animals and began to mine metals from the Earth. As slowly as this change took place, the more drastically it changed people's lives. Sedentary people did not have to gather or hunt their food every day, because new foods such as grain could feed a larger number of people, while cattle were a safe and constant source of meat. Sedentariness also made it possible to accumulate resources: for the first time in human history, certain people were richer than others.
But wealth was also dangerous. A lush field or access to the newly discovered copper mine aroused envy and the desire to conquer the other's property. Anyone who owned something therefore had to defend him or herself. It is therefore not surprising that the archaeological finds from the Neolithic Age show a marked increase in violence. Evidence of this are marks of the blows of an ax on a skull or the remains of arrow wounds on skeletons.
Skull of a 20 to 25 year old woman with a blow injury. 3,345–3,095 BC. Germany, Saxony-Anhalt, Salzmünde.
Skull of a 20 to 25 year old woman with a blow injury. 3,345–3,095 BC. Germany, Saxony-Anhalt, Salzmünde. Landesmuseum für Vorgeschichte, Halle
Sternum of a man who was shot with a bow and arrow. In addition to the arrow injury, the skeleton shows other injuries to the skull and hip that were inflicted at the time of death. Maybe he was fighting with a person or two.
Sternum of a man who was shot with a bow and arrow. In addition to the arrow injury, the skeleton shows other injuries to the skull and hip that were inflicted at the time of death. Maybe he was fighting with a person or two. © Landesamt für Denkmalpflege und Archäologie Sachsen-Anhalt, Juraj Lipták
Not only the human remains are evidence of the increasing violence. Objects processed by humans also tell this story. Carefully worked stones depicting armed people are found in abundance in the Neolithic Age. What all stelas have in common is the geometric-schematic representation of body parts such as eyes, nose and arms, reduced to the bare essentials. Some of them show heavily armed warriors. The male figure on a stela from South Tyrol, for example, carries no fewer than seven daggers, several hatchets and a battle ax. The stela is not only a homage to the person depicted; it is also a symbol of power. In addition to technical achievements such as weapons or agricultural equipment, the stelas also depict riches such as jewelry or patterned clothes.
Male stela “Petit-Chasseur 25” with T-shaped face, patterned garment, bow and arrow. Marble. 2,500–2,200 BC. Switzerland, Canton of Valais, Sion.
Male stela “Petit-Chasseur 25” with T-shaped face, patterned garment, bow and arrow. Marble. 2,500–2,200 BC. Switzerland, Canton of Valais, Sion. © Musées cantonaux du Valais, Sion. Hervé Paitier
Human-shaped stela “Don Bosco 2” with arms and hands, broad belt and neck ornament with double spiral pendants. Marble. 3,000–2,500 BC. Switzerland, Canton of Valais, Sion.
Human-shaped stela “Don Bosco 2” with arms and hands, broad belt and neck ornament with double spiral pendants. Marble. 3,000–2,500 BC. Switzerland, Canton of Valais, Sion. © Office cantonal d’Archéologie VS / Yves Leresche
Male stela with necklace, hatchets, daggers, battle ax and multi-row belt. Limestone. 3,000-2,500 BC. Italy, Trentino-Alto Adige, Arco.
Male stela with necklace, hatchets, daggers, battle ax and multi-row belt. Limestone. 3,000-2,500 BC. Italy, Trentino-Alto Adige, Arco. © MAG Museo Alto Garda
Stela «Arco 2» mit drei Dolchen, Axt, Gürtel und Manteldarstellung auf der Rückseite. Marble. 3,000–2,500 BC. Italien, Trentino-Südtirol, Arco.
Stela «Arco 2» mit drei Dolchen, Axt, Gürtel und Manteldarstellung auf der Rückseite. Marble. 3,000–2,500 BC. Italien, Trentino-Südtirol, Arco. © MAG Museo Alto Garda
New weapons such as daggers and hatchets are the basis for securing the wealth of the elite. They are used for defense, but also for attack. A change in fighting style is also evident. In contrast to bows and arrows, daggers and hatchets are only useful in close combat, where they are all the more effective. Using them requires strength and determination. This is not for everyone. So, specialized warriors met for the first time in the Neolithic Age. They allow the chief of a clan to preserve or even conquer new wealth. The warriors therefore enjoy a special reputation in the increasingly hierarchical society of the Neolithic Age. Their image has been preserved on the stone stelas to this day.

Humans. Carved in Stone

17.09.2021 16.01.2022 / National Museum Zurich
6,000 years ago, people in Europe started erecting large stone sculptures. These sculptures were in the shape of women and men with faces and arms, hairstyles and even tattoos. They also carried or wore highly desirable items such as weapons, jewellery or clothing that depicted the innovations of their time. But the stelae were also symbols of power and status, and were used for ancestor worship and rituals. These likenesses were created in an age when people were increasingly engaging in agriculture and animal husbandry, coming together in village communities and beginning to use metal. The temporary exhibition in the National Museum Zurich’s extension wing brings together stelae from a number of European countries, including new finds from the cantons of Zurich and Valais, and offers a unique insight into the world of people in the Neolithic period.

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