Remains of 82 individuals have be recovered from the Alken Enge site.

Finds from Alken Enge Provide New Perspective on ‘Barbaric’ Germanic Tribes


Researchers from Aarhus University in Denmark have made a remarkable discovery concerning the human remains of Alken Enge, Jutland. A study published by PNAS that the size of barbarian armies in Iron Age Europe were much bigger than previously thought and that in this region the main warfare was ‘barbarian on barbarian’.  In particular, the find questions the received wisdom on the nature of warfare and sophistication of local societies at this time.

Discovery Site is NOT the Battlefield

Archaeologists uncovered bones of dead warriors from an Iron Age battle , dated to approximately 2000 years ago in a 75-acre wetland area. Over 2100 bones and fragments were discovered, and the find was hailed as a significant one as it is expected to add much to our knowledge of Iron Age Scandinavia and Germanic culture.

The place where the remains were found was not the battlefield, however, Mads Kähler Holst , co-author of the study, archaeologist at Aarhus University and executive director of the Mosegaard Museum says, "could actually be very close to the actual battle site," records the National Geographic .

LiDAR elevation model of Alken Enge showing excavation areas, previously uncovered finds (, and sand spits ( 42). ( Upper Right ) Maximum extent of the Roman interest zone during the Augustinian campaigns ca. AD 4–9. Numbered finds are listed in SI Appendix , Supplementary Information 14 . Graphics assistance courtesy of Casper S. Andersen (Aarhus University, Højbjerg, Denmark). (Image: PNAS)

The find revealed disarticulated human remains which had been deposited in the location from elsewhere. At least 82 individuals have been uncovered and the total number of people buried at the location is now estimated to be in the range of 320. The bones show evidence of unhealed trauma from sharp-edged weapons, which, together with finds of a martial nature indicate that the deceased were connected to some form of conflict. The study notes there is some evidence of ‘an organized and possibly ritually embedded clearing of a battlefield’ as part of a ceremony to memorize the battle, most likely by the victors.

Skulls are scattered around thighbones and joints in the great mass grave at Alken. Image: Skanderborg Museum

Skulls are scattered around thighbones and joints in the great mass grave at Alken. Image: Skanderborg Museum

Barbarian-on-barbarian Warfare

The find in Jutland had been carbon dated to the early years of the 1 st century AD.  This was an important period in Germanic lands as the Roman expansion was at its farthest extent in Northern Europe. The legions of Augustus at that time occupied large areas of present-day Germany according to the literary sources and archaeological funds. Despite this, the remains from the battlefield are almost certainly not from a battle between local tribes and Roman invaders, as the latter never reached Southern Scandinavia.

Pre-migration Period Germanic Tribe and Roman Empire territory. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Pre-migration Period Germanic Tribe and Roman Empire territory. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

According to a report in USA Today ,  the battle was most ‘likely between German "barbarian" armies’. Warfare between Germanic tribes was common and Roman historians commented on the brutal nature of such conflicts. Various groups, often clan-based, would battle for control of territory or as a result of large-scale raiding. It is possible the expansion of Rome to the south had in some-way destabilized the area leading to greater conflict. However, it seems more likely that the battle that took place at Alken Enge, Jutland, was part of a local tradition of fighting and warfare that had probably taken place for centuries.

Incongruent Numbers

The number of skeletons was much larger than would have been expected from a battle at this time.  It was commonly held that most battles at this time were between war-bands who only numbered in the dozens but the finds at Alken Enge, Jutland, would indicate that possibly over three hundred individuals died in the battle. This was much larger than expected based on previous finds and sources. The discovery would indicate that this is the earliest evidence yet of large-scale warfare in this part of Europe.

Four pelvic bones on a stick are shown (Alken Enge). Credit: Peter Jensen, Aarhus University

Four pelvic bones on a stick are shown (Alken Enge). Credit: Peter Jensen, Aarhus University

The finds from the unknown and unrecorded battle have implications for our understanding of the nature of Germanic society.  If local groups had the capability to mobilize large forces of men and to provision them, this suggests that they had a higher level of organization than previously believed. Based on the number of dead from the site it seems that local societies could field large armies, indicating that they were more sophisticated, politically and militarily. This would show that the Roman sources that portrayed the Germans as wild and uncivilized are not entirely correct and that the local society was much more advanced than previously estimated.

More Sophisticated Barbarians

The burial site that has been discovered at Alken Enge offers researchers a fresh perspective about the nature of war and society in Iron Age Europe, offering alternative evidence from the often-biased Roman sources. What the find tells us is that ‘barbarian’ on ‘barbarian’ warfare continued even as the Romans expanded and that local society was probably war-like. It also offers evidence that the barbarians might have been less barbaric than previously portrayed and that they were both larger and more complex than is traditionally held.

Top image: Remains of 82 individuals have be recovered from the Alken Enge site. Source: Skanderborg Museum

By Ed Whelan

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