Unexpected and Gruesome Battle of 1250 BC Involved 4,000 Men from Across Northern Europe
A battlefield of 3,250 years ago in Germany is yielding remains of wounded warriors, wooden clubs, spear points, flint and bronze arrowheads and bronze knives and swords. The gruesome scene, frozen in time by peat, is unlike anything else from the Bronze Age in Northern Europe, where, researchers thought, large-scale warfare didn’t begin until later.
As it is, no one knows who these people were who fought on the banks of the Tollense River in northern Germany near the Baltic Sea because there are no written records from the time.
The Tollense River near the village Weltzin. ( Public Domain )
But analysis of the remains of the 130 men, most between ages 20 and 30, found so far shows some may have been from hundreds of kilometers away—Poland, Holland, Scandinavia and Southern Europe.
The hand-to-hand combat of the battle, which may have involved thousands of people and may have taken place in just one day, was brutal, according to an article about archaeological research at the Tollense site in Science magazine. And it involved horses. Today, although the researchers believe they’ve unearthed just 2 to 3 percent of the battlefield, they have found the remains of the humans and of five horses.
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The victors stripped some bodies of their valuables, but others sank under the water and were eventually buried in peat moss.
Two gold rings detected in the Tollense valley (a: Weltzin 32, l. 2,9 cm. Photo J. Krüger; b: Weltzin 4, l. 3,1 cm. ( S. Suhr, Landesamt für Kultur und Denkmalpflege)
There was no writing system then, so there was no way to record who these men were or why they were fighting. An old axiom says in the ancient world that there were three main reasons wars were fought: land, cattle, and women, but there is no way to tell the reason behind the bloodshed here.
The battlefield was discovered in 1996 by an amateur archaeologist, who saw an arm bone sticking out of the riverbank. Embedded in the bone was a flint arrowhead. Archaeologists did some minor digging there at the time and found a bashed-in skull and a wooden club of 73 cm (29 inches). Radiocarbon dating showed they were from around 1250 BC.
One of the finds from the site includes this human skull with a large fracture. (D. Jantzen/ Never Yet Melted )
Between 2009 and 2015, researchers from the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern Department of Historic Preservation and the University of Greifswald found additional bones of horses and men, many of them grievously wounded. They also excavated wooden clubs, flint and bronze arrowheads and bronze spearheads.
They say there may be hundreds more men whose remains haven’t been excavated.
A skull that was found with a bronze arrowhead found firmly embedded into it, entering the brain. ( Old European Culture )
“If our hypothesis is correct that all of the finds belong to the same event, we’re dealing with a conflict of a scale hitherto completely unknown north of the Alps,” excavation co-director Thomas Terberger, an archaeologist with the Lower Saxony State Service for Cultural Heritage in Hanover, told Science. “There’s nothing to compare it to.”
Science magazine adds that the battle may be the earliest direct evidence of a battle of this magnitude in the entire ancient world.
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Previously researchers theorized there was raiding by young men to steal food and kill, but the carnage, stretching along 3 kilometers (1.86 miles) of the river, surprised the researchers. From the size of the site and remains found so far, they estimate there may have been 4,000 people involved in the battle.
This points to a warrior class and participation in war across Europe—previously unheard of, Science says. There are historical descriptions of Bronze Age epic battles from the Near East and Greece, but there has been little archaeological evidence found of any large-scale battles. And there are of course no written records from Northern Europe from the time.
Artist’s depiction of how warriors were equipped for the battle. ( Science Mag )
“When it comes to the Bronze Age, we’ve been missing a smoking gun, where we have a battlefield and dead people and weapons all together,” University College Dublin archaeologist Barry Molloy told Science. “This is that smoking gun. Even in Egypt, despite hearing many tales of war, we never find such substantial archaeological evidence of its participants and victims.”