Naval Warfare

Naval Warfare

A larger Swedish and smaller Danish warship engaged in ordnance battle. The depiction is taken from Rudolf Dewenter’s Bericht von Pulver und Feuerwerken from 1585, a manuscript dedicated to King Frederik II and used in the education of Prince Christian (later Christian IV). The essence of this - that well-armed and maneuverable smaller vessel can do great damage to a larger vessel (grossen abbruch und Schadten) - reflects a philosophy that came to be embraced in northwestern Europe in the late 16th century, marking the inception of impersonal warfare (adopted from Wittendorff 2012).

Through ambushes and main force assaults, mankind has persisted in their violent conceits throughout history. Violent escapades rooted in rivalry and hatred have certainly added their share to the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” For many, the taking up of arms entailed not only opposing a sea of troubles but also coming face to face with the sea itself.  Naval warfare is both a fascinating and instructive genre; however, as part of an era when it is preferable to emphasize similarities of people rather than their differences, there is also certain unattractiveness of studying such violence today (Carman 2013: 170). But conflict studies have much more to teach us than just that people can be violent toward one another. Maritime archaeology, a discipline which preoccupies itself with investigations into humanity’s interaction with waterways, recognizes the significance of naval warfare studies and takes it as a central focus, perhaps as an inherent consequence of the bellicose origins of much of the archaeological material. Although the discipline entails a lot more than sunken warships and cannons, it is certainly evident that much of the research has been centered on subjects related to naval warfare. Far from being a narrow field, the research is fuelled by a wide range of topics which have been made possible to investigate by the material left behind by the long history of humans causing havoc and mayhem on the seas.  Given the multifaceted aspects of naval warfare and the longstanding, multi-generational social structures that underlie it, there is ample room for maritime archaeology to investigate and uncover unwritten chapters of naval warfare on both a micro and macro level. This section is dedicated to naval warfare in the most general sense and aims at bringing together those interested in any aspect of this genre, regardless geographical or periodical focus, not least whether ones interests are technologically or culturally oriented.


Carman, J. 2013. Past War and European Identity: Making Conflict Archaeology Useful. Ch. 9 in S. Ralph (ed.) The Archaeology of Violence:  Interdisciplinary Approaches: pp. 169-179. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Wittendorff, A. 2012a. På Guds og Herskabs nåde (1500-1600): Syvårskrigen. Gyldendal - Den Store Danske. Available here. [Accessed: 19.08.2014].

About the Author


Rolf W. Fabricius is the founder and director of Combat Archaeology. He holds an MA degree in Maritime Archaeology from the University of Southampton and a BA in Prehistoric Archaeology from the University of Copenhagen. Currently, he is writing his dissertation for a MA degree in Prehistoric Archaeology at the University of Copenhagen. His studies have preeminently been on the subject of combat and conflict in the past, ranging from Mesolithic violence to organized state formation in the Renaissance.


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