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The remains of warriors lie scattered on the battlefield of Tollense.

Scientists Discover Clues to Identities of Mystery Warriors Lying on an Ancient Battlefield

Archaeologists have begun piecing together evidence that may finally reveal the identities of the mystery warriors whose remains lie scattered across a 3,300-year-old battlefield at the Tollense River in Germany. Until now, scientists and historians had no clue as to who fought on either side of this ancient battle, which ended in complete carnage.

Tollense’s Bloody and Violent Secret  

Tollense River is the site of a huge battle that took place over three millennia ago in Germany. A relatively recent discovery, little is known about what actually happened there, even though most historians will agree that it was definitely a battle to the death. However, it is estimated that around ninety percent of the battlegrounds in the region in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania have yet to be properly excavated by archaeologists. As Live Science reports , it was a little over thirty years ago when people started discovering  ancient daggers, human skulls, knives and other weapons in the river sediment around Tollense.

In 1996, an amateur archaeologist found a single upper arm bone, with an arrowhead lodged in it, sticking out of the steep riverbank – the first clue that the Tollense Valley was keeping a violent secret for thousands of years. Still, to many archaeologists it wasn’t really clear that Tollense was a battlefield. Some of them suggested that the skeletons might be from a flooded cemetery, or that they had accumulated over centuries.  Eleven years later, however, a team of archaeologists decided to dig a small test excavation that yielded more bones, a bashed-in skull, and a 73-centimeter club resembling a baseball bat. The artifacts were all radiocarbon-dated to about 1250 BC, suggesting they stemmed from a single battle during Europe’s Bronze Age.

Flint arrowhead in the joint end of a right humerus from the Bronze Age battlefield in Tollense Valley, Photo: S. Suhr, LAKD M-V, Landesarchäologie

Flint arrowhead in the joint end of a right humerus from the Bronze Age battlefield in Tollense Valley, Photo: S. Suhr, LAKD M-V, Landesarchäologie

Battlefield Status of Tollense River Confirmed

ScienceMag reports that after a series of excavations between 2009 and 2015, archaeologists discovered an astonishing number of bones: the remains of at least five horses and more than 140 men. What’s more interesting is that experts appear to be sure that more bones from hundreds more soldiers probably remain unexcavated, and thousands of others may have fought but survived. It is also likely that the winning side removed their dead.

Thomas Terberger, one of the German archaeologists who launched the excavation at Tollense Valley, appears to be sure that he and his team are looking at a true battlefield and not just a fight between neighbors, "We are very confident that the human remains are more or less lying in the position where they died," Terberger, of the Lower Saxony State Office for Cultural Heritage, told Live Science .

Terberger added that what has been founded so far, may be just a fraction of the massacre, as the victors of the battle may have stripped valuables from the bodies they could reach, then tossed the corpses into shallow water, which protected them from carnivores and birds. The bones lack the gnawing and dragging marks typically left by such scavengers.

This skull unearthed in the Tollense Valley shows clear evidence of blunt force trauma, perhaps from a club. Landesamt für Kultur und Denkmalpflege Mecklenburg-Vorpommern/Landesarchäologie/D. Jantzen

This skull unearthed in the Tollense Valley shows clear evidence of blunt force trauma, perhaps from a club. Landesamt für Kultur und Denkmalpflege Mecklenburg-Vorpommern/Landesarchäologie/D. Jantzen

Majority of the Warriors Involved in the Battle Were Not Locals

After Terberger and his colleagues conducted a chemical analysis of the skeletons, they concluded that most of the Tollense warriors came from hundreds of kilometers away. How did they come to this conclusion? The researchers searched for elements like strontium, oxygen, and carbon isotopes in twenty teeth from Tollense, with a few of them showing values typical of the northern European plain, which sprawls from Holland to Poland. The other teeth came from farther afield, even though they can’t be 100% certain as strontium analyses are not as accurate as Terberger told Live Science .

Ancient DNA could potentially reveal much more. When compared to other Bronze Age samples from around Europe at this time, it could point to the homelands of the warriors as well as such traits as eye and hair color.

The Importance of the Nationality of the Warriors

But why is the nationality of the warriors involved in the battle so important to archaeologists? According to Terberger, if the warriors in the battle at Tollense had indeed multiethnic origins, this would automatically mean that "These were warriors who were trained as warriors. They were professionals, not simply villagers defending their farmsteads in a local dispute,” he tells Live Science .

Furthermore, Tollense looks like a first step toward a way of life that is with us still. From the scale and brutality of the battle to the presence of a warrior class wielding sophisticated weapons, the events of that long-ago day are linked to more familiar and recent conflicts. In other words, it could be the first evidence of a turning point in social organization and warfare in Northern Europe.

Top image: The remains of warriors lie scattered on the battlefield of Tollense. Credit: Landesamt für Kultur und Denkmalpflege Mecklenburg-Vorpommern/Landesarchäologie/C. Harte-Reiter

By Theodoros Karasavvas

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