Hoplites and typochronology

Currently, I am preparing my lecture for the colloquium on ancient Greek warfare in London on 25 April. My lecture will focus on the development of the hoplite phalanx in the Archaic period.

The hoplite phalanx is of perennial interest and I keep wondering why the two sides in the debate, the “orthodox camp” and the “heretics”, are at such loggerheads. Instead of trying to understand how the minds of others work, I think it is more worthwhile to explore a little why I subscribe to certain ideas and not to others. The reasons are, I think, deeply rooted in fundamental archaeological principles. At the core of archaeological methodology are concepts that emphasize changes and developments through time, such as typochronology.


Archaeologists love typologies. We enjoy cataloguing large numbers of objects and categorizing them according to class or type. Interestingly, objects of a particular kind tend to evolve in the course of time, allowing us to organize objects in a sequence. (And thanks to stratigraphic analysis, we can often determine whether one object or type of object is older or younger than another.) This way, we are able to come up with typochronologies: sequences that reveal the development of a particular kind of object through time. Just think of the development of the phone, from the earliest examples with separate ear and mouth pieces, through rotary phones, phones with keys, wireless phones, mobile phones, and finally – for now, at least! – smart phones.

Typochronologies can be established for any object or even structure if the sample size is big enough, and especially if the object in question is subject to relatively frequent changes and modifications. (Hence, for dating purposes, finely decorated tableware is more useful to archaeologists than course and undecorated pottery used for cooking and storage, since the latter are not subject to changes in relatively short amounts of time.) This principle also extends to art styles. For example, archaeologists have been able to establish very finely-grained typochronologies for Greek painted pottery of the Archaic and Classical periods. Not only do we know that black-figure vase-painting preceded red-figure, but we can also date individual vases relatively accurately within a particular style based on certain characteristics: composition, details, overall flow of the figure’s outlines, and so forth.

Typochronologies can also be created for pieces of armour or weapons. The development of bronze swords during the Mycenaean era is an interesting example. Originally, swords were long and relatively delicate rapier-like weapons, which in the course of time slowly get replaced by shorter, sturdier weapons. Typochronologies are not just useful for establishing the proper sequence of objects through time, but also in revealing stories. The example of the Mycenaean swords suggests that in the course of the Late Bronze Age, swords became increasingly shorter and sturdier: perhaps the frequency of warfare increased or perhaps men increasingly operated at close quarters or in tighter formations. Different types get introduced at different times, change or are replaced by other types, and so forth. This is the evidence from which archaeologists fashion their reconstructions of past societies.

The point that I am trying to make here is that archaeologists are very much interested in processes and developments across time, as demonstrated by the development of things like typochronologies. Archaeologists have – or perhaps ought to have – a very keen sense for diachronic developments. Back in the 1970s, a new archaeological movement developed that is often referred to as Processual Archaeology, which obviously emphasized processes. Since at least the 1990s, many archaeologists have critized the Processual or New Archaeology for various reasons, but the study of processes and change remain integral to what an archaeologist does.

Pushing the discussion forwards

The endless discussions on the hoplite phalanx are not simply based on different interpretations of the same evidence. If we want the discussion to lead to anything we have to look at the causes for why these interpretations are different. The answer to that lies in the preconceived notions of the researchers in question: their own ideas of how they believe that the ancient world functioned, as well as the methods that they use to interpret the evidence. One key reason why I do not subscribe to the notion that the “orthodox” hoplite phalanx developed around 700 or 650 BC is because, as an archaeologist, I have a difficult time in believing that anything comes into being fully formed, like Athena springing, fully grown and clad and armoured, from Zeus’ head.

Historians focus on texts and they are, on the whole, largely oblivious to archaeological methods. To at least some historians, archaeology is just a subdiscipline that furnishes them with nice pictures of excavated objects to illustrate their texts with. Archaeology occasionally “proves” the existence of people, concepts, or objects mentioned in the written sources, allowing historians to include references to archaeological works, sometimes to support a claim that their research is interdisciplinary. Their treatment of the material evidence tends to be simplistic: the Chigi Vase depicts a hoplite phalanx because it confirms their interpretation of the textual evidence. Some historians do not take statistical analysis into account or proper source criticism when it comes to the material evidence, which makes their treatment of it seem almost anecdotal.

Likewise, good historians employ a number of methods involving source criticism that most archaeologists are unfamiliar with, leading to rather literal or naive interpretations of ancient texts. In the same way that historians tend to regard the material evidence as confirming – or, less commonly, denying – certain interpretations based on texts, so too do many archaeologists subscribe a primacy to ancient written sources that is uncritical. In both cases, scholars generally employ good methods when it comes to their primary classes of evidence, but when they veer into another (sub)discipline, they revert back to simplistic or naive treatments of other classes of evidence.

If we want to push forward the debate, in this case, on the hoplite phalanx, it is imperative that we become conscious of our preconceived notions, and pay particular attention to theoretical frameworks adopted and methods used in arriving at our interpretations. Only then can we break out of the impasse that has been reached in discussions on the hoplite phalanx. Hopefully, we will be able to talk about this more in London.

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