Fields of Conflict: a book review

Fields of Conflict, edited by Douglas Scott, Lawrence Babits, and Charles Haecker

I recently read Fields of Conflict: Battlefield Archaeology from the Roman Empire to the Korean War, edited by Douglas Scott, Lawrence Babits, and Charles Haecker. Having twice visited the site of the Battle of Gettysburg (150 years ago today!), this book caught my eye.

The Gettysburg Battlefield, site of the battle on 1–3 July, 1863

This collection of articles gives a fascinating account of conflict archaeology or battlefield archaeology. Essentially, this discipline treats ancient battlefields as crime scenes, and applies modern investigative techniques. There is a discussion of the site of the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, for example (to quote another book: “To lose one legion, Mr Varus, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose three looks like carelessness”). An amateur archaeologist located the long-lost site of this battle in 1987, by finding Roman coins and sling-shot ammunition. Later investigation showed that many Romans died just in front of an improvised (though extensive) defensive wall constructed by the Germanic tribesmen. Collapse of the wall may have helped preserve the artefacts.

Reconstructed Germanic fortification from the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest (photo: Markus Schweiß)

Such finds provide a way of assessing the accuracy of (and in some cases, re-evaluating) contemporary written accounts, and of better understanding what precisely took place. For example, GIS analysis of ammunition finds can be used to infer where cannon were located

Inferring the location of cannon (photo:

The book includes interesting discussions of the sites of the Battle of Towton (1461), the Battle of Zboriv (1649), the Battle of Fallen Timbers (1794), the Battle of Mackinac Island (1814), the Battle of Lookout Mountain (1863), the Battle of Hembrillo Basin (1880), and several others. There is also an article on the archaeological investigation of Stalag Luft III (famous for the “Great Escape” in 1944).

The book gives many cases where metal detectors have found artefacts such as buttons, coins, lance-heads, crossbow bolts, or these bullets from the US Civil War

A interesting point not raised in the book is that the process of battlefield archaeology can itself be the subject of formal analysis, as discussed in the article “Simulating archaeologists? Using agent-based modelling to improve battlefield excavations” by Xavier Rubio Campilloa, Jose María Celaa, and Francesc Xavier Hernàndez Cardona. The book does note the impact of amateur collecting on battlefield sites, and agent-based modelling may also provide a way of formally studying that.

As the book points out, an understanding of terrain and of lines of sight is essential in battlefield archaeology (Lookout Mountain, Tennessee, 1864)

This book is an excellent introduction to the field (the articles in the book are derived from papers presented at the third Fields of Conflict Conference (a continuing conference series, with the seventh held last year). For related reading, see:

Fields of Conflict: 3.5 stars