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Photograph of the assemblage. Credit: Uhlig et al., (2019), photograph by V. Minkus / Antiquity Publications Ltd.

Relics of Fallen Warriors in Germany Reveal Secrets of Bronze Age Battle

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Archaeologists in Germany have made an exciting breakthrough regarding a Bronze Age battle, one of the oldest known in Europe. Divers retrieved more than 30 objects from a river, including weapons and bronze relics lost during combat in a fierce battle that took place around 3,300 years ago. The artifacts have revealed new information about the origins of the warriors who fought in this violent encounter.

In a sensational discovery in 2008, archaeologists found a Bronze Age battlefield in the Tollense Valley of north-eastern Germany. The experts used metal detectors , digs, and even dived in the local river to retrieve items. Numerous artifacts were found including weapons and human and horse remains . They were established to all be evidence of a violent battle that took place around 1,300 BC.

Bronze Age Warriors

A newly-released paper in the journal Antiquity revealed that around “12,000 pieces of human remains” have been uncovered at the site. They belonged to some 140 individuals, all males, who all show evidence of trauma, presumably from weapons. It appears that the dead had suffered blows indicating face-to-face combat. Some had evidence of healed wounds, indicating that at least some of them were experienced warriors, who had survived earlier battles.

The discovery was a truly historic one, as it provided evidence for possibly the first known battle in European history. The number of warriors involved, and the scale of the fighting was proof that Bronze Age society was militarized and even war-like.

The new study published in Antiquity involved DNA and isotopic analyses of the human remains, which revealed “at least some of the group were not from the local area”. This suggests that the battle was not just a conflict between local people in the Valley and may have been part of a multiregional conflict on a much larger scale than previously assumed.

Photograph of the battlefield finds layer. Credit: Antiquity Publications Ltd. / Uhlig et al., (2019), photograph by S. Sauer

Photograph of the battlefield finds layer. Credit: Antiquity Publications Ltd. / Uhlig et al., (2019), photograph by S. Sauer

Origins of the Warriors

The new analyses of previously retrieved artifacts revolutionizes our understanding of who fought in the battle. In 2016, 31 bronze artifacts were retrieved by divers from the River Tollense, which have been called the Weltzin 28 assemblage. They were examined by a multidisciplinary team of German experts.

It appears that they had once been tightly packed in a container that has since been lost or decayed. Among the objects found were bronze tools and implements, pins, ornaments, and a box. A bronze awl, with a wooden handle, was also recovered and this was in very good condition.

The wooden handle was made of birch. This could be tested and dated by an Accelerator Mass Spectrometry. The AMS dated the handle of the awl to approximately 1,300 – 1,250 BC. Therefore, it probably belonged to one of the combatants in the battle. The study authors state that “they may represent a small toolbox containing the personal belongings of a warrior who fell in the battle”.

Star-ornamented belt box of type Dabel (diameter: 0.115m). Credit: Antiquity Publications Ltd. / Uhlig et al., (2019), photograph by J. Krüger.

Star-ornamented belt box of type Dabel (diameter: 0.115m). Credit: Antiquity Publications Ltd. / Uhlig et al., (2019), photograph by J. Krüger.

What allowed researchers to understand the origins of at least some of the warriors were three bronze cylinders made out of sheets. There are bronze nails at each end, and they have been deliberately perforated. It seems that at one point they held organic materials or personal possessions which have long since decayed.

The experts were familiar with these containers. Similar types of objects have been found in southern Germany and central Europe. They have even been unearthed as far away as Migennes in eastern France. These are all quite some distance away from the site of the Bronze Age battle. This is not the first time that artifacts not from the local region have been found at Tollense. Some pins and arrowheads previously found have typological similarities to items found in Bohemia (modern Czech Republic).

Left: The reconstruction of a wooden box including bronze fittings (marked in red). Right: Cylinders with nails. Credit: Antiquity Publications Ltd. / Uhlig et al., (2019), drawings 1–2; after Roscio et al. 2011; 3: photo by V. Minkus.

Left: The reconstruction of a wooden box including bronze fittings (marked in red). Right: Cylinders with nails. Credit: Antiquity Publications Ltd. / Uhlig et al., (2019), drawings 1–2; after Roscio et al. 2011; 3: photo by V. Minkus .

Bronze Age Regional War

The Weltzin 28 assemblage of items has persuaded researchers that at least some of the combatants came from southern Germany or Bohemia. Antiquity states that they were typical of the “personal belongings of a warrior who probably originated from southern Central Europe”. As a result, it is quite possible that the conflict that took place in the Tollense Valley was part of a large, multiregional conflict. Bronze Age societies could have made alliances, which eventually led to wars that engulfed whole regions.

Excavations are ongoing in the Tollense Valley and more finds are almost certainly going to come to light. These could transform our entire conception of Bronze Age warfare . Indeed, they could transform our understanding of the entire era.

Top image: Photograph of the assemblage. Credit: Uhlig et al., (2019), photograph by V. Minkus / Antiquity Publications Ltd.

Source: Uhlig, T., Kruger, J., Lidke, G, Jantzen, D., Lorenz, S., Ialongo, N. and Terberger, T. (2019) Lost in combat? A scrap metal find from the Bronze age battlefield site at Tollense. Antiquity, 93 371 (2019): 1211–1230  https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2019.137

By Ed Whelan

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