Puzzling artifacts found at Europe's oldest battlefield

Archaeologists have spent decades trying to figure out who fought near Germany's Tollense River some 3,300 years ago. Now, an unusual cache deepens the mystery of the brutal battle.

By Erin Blakemore
Published 18 Oct 2019, 13:37 BST
A star-ornamented container, meant to be worn on a belt, is one of 31 ancient bronze ...
A star-ornamented container, meant to be worn on a belt, is one of 31 ancient bronze objects found together on the Tollense battlefield site.
Photograh by J. Krüger, University of Greifswald

Since 1997, archaeologists have been excavating miles of land along the Tollense River in northern Germany and recovering the weapons and remains of hundreds of men who fought on its banks here around 1,200 B.C. The sheer scale and violence at Tollense— considered Europe’s oldest battlefield site—put to rest a stubborn 20th-century idea that Bronze Age Europe was a relatively peaceful place.

But what prompted the fighting at Tollense? Was this a battle between different groups of people from across Europe, or just a very large, localised family feud? Researchers continue to examine clues from bones and weapons found at the site, and a paper published this week in Antiquity looks at an unusual group of artifacts that provide yet another twist in the decades-long search to understand exactly who fought at Tollense, and why.

A stash from far away?

According to the paper, a group of 31 bronze objects was found in river sediment about 1,000 feet away from an ancient causeway believed to be the battle’s starting point. Researchers believe the battle took place on both sides of the Tollense River, and that combatants were killed as they moved downriver, leaving their bones and belongings behind.

The bronze objects were found close to each other, and researchers think they were once held together in an organic container—perhaps a leather bag or wooden toolbox—that has since disintegrated. The objects include a bronze awl, a chisel and knife, bronze fragments, and a small, cylindrical bronze box designed to be worn on a belt. Human remains were also found in the sediment deposit, supporting the idea that the area was part of the Bronze-Age battlefield.

Among the stash are also three bronze cylinders that may have been fittings for bags or boxes designed to hold personal gear—unusual objects that until now have only been discovered hundreds of miles away in southern Germany and eastern France.

“This was puzzling for us,” says Thomas Terberger, an archaeologist at the University of Göttingen in Germany who helped launch the excavation at Tollense and co-authored the paper. To Terberger and his team, that lends credence to their theory that the battle wasn’t just a northern affair. “Now it’s more and more likely that we are not dealing with a local conflict,” he says.

The bronze assemblage included 3,000-year-old tools, ornaments, and metal scraps—likely once stored in a container that has since decayed away.
Photograh by V. Minkus

But the meaning of “local” depends on how large you consider the Tollense Valley’s ancient neighbourhood to be.

A “quite boring” theory

Terberger's group first revealed the results of their work on Tollense in 2011. Since then, they’ve published several papers on the site, including one that confirmed its status as a battlefield through analysis of the lesions on victims’ bones and another that speculated the conflict started on the causeway. Over time, the team became increasingly convinced that the battle took place between two groups of warriors. One group of “locals” originated from the area, they speculated, while a second was made up of a heterogenous group of fighters who may have gathered from hundreds of miles away for a Trojan War-style standoff on the riverbanks.

Preliminary aDNA results fueled speculation that the massive battle was regional, not local. In 2016, Joachim Burger, a population geneticist at the University of Mainz, told Science that initial aDNA analysis suggested a “highly diverse” group of warriors with genetic links from as far as southern Europe.

Isotope analysis of the remains seemed to bolster that conclusion. In 2017, researchers published their analysis of the strontium, carbon and nitrogen isotopes in the teeth of 52 of the over 140 victims whose remains have been recovered so far. They found two groups of fighters: one group of northern German locals and another, more diverse group from somewhere in Central Europe (Bohemia , a historical region located southwest of Germany that covered the western portion of what is now Czechia, is the strongest contender).

But now, more complete DNA results obtained by Burger’s team earlier this year throw water on the theory, at least from a genetic perspective. “We don't see any sign of two different groups fighting against each other from our sample,” he tells National Geographic. (Burger is not an author of the current paper.)

Remains of victims from the Bronze Age battle at Tollense.
Photograh by S. Sauer

Back in 2016, says Burger, one of the bones he was given to analyse actually ended up being from the Neolithic age, which predates the Tollense battle by between 8,750 and 3,250 years. A larger sample size and longer analysis revealed a more homogenous population, DNA-wise, than he initially thought. “They just look like Central and Northern Europeans,” he says.

The new DNA analysis did rule out the possibility of the battle being among family members. But it didn’t make a compelling case for the two-group theory.

“It is the opposite of spectacular,” says Burger. “It’s actually quite boring.”

A dangerous place to live

Burger’s yet-to-be-published analysis may cast a dull shadow on the far-flung warriors thesis, but it doesn’t rule out the possibility of participants from places like Bohemia. “We can exclude Southern Europe—places like Serbia or Hungary,” he says. “But even with modern genomes, you can’t make that much of a distinction between Bohemia and [northern] Germany.”

But the stash still belonged to a warrior, right? Not so fast, says Anthony Harding, an archaeologist and Bronze Age specialist who was not involved with the research. “Why would a warrior be going round with a lot of scrap metal?” he asks. To interpret the cache—which includes distinctly un-warlike metalworking gear—as belonging to warriors is “a bit far-fetched to me,” he says.

In fact, some Bronze-Age warriors did carry around small collections of scrap metal, which they stored in the sockets of their axes. Those axe stashes were likely designed as cultic collections, says Oliver Dietrich, an archaeologist with the German Archaeological Institute. Could that mean a warrior carried the bronze scraps as an offering to the gods?

Think again, Dietrich says: “This assemblage is no scrap hoard.” The time period, site, and likely storage in a container are different enough from the characteristics of known Bronze Age scrap hoards to disqualify their being carried for spiritual reasons, he notes. Dietrich says the objects were likely personal property of someone involved in the fighting, but concedes it’s unclear whether a combatant or someone else carried them onto the battle site. “The bronzes are not giving away clear hints at the persona of their owner,” he says.

The metal’s origins may be unclear, but its loss points to battle chaotic enough to separate a group of valuable objects from its owner. That chaos—and what it says about the violence of the Bronze Age—provides a rare point of agreement for researchers and outside experts alike.

Could the cache mean the Tollense site was used for more than just a battlefield—or just that its warriors carried more items than archaeologists once suspected? Since the site is the only one of its kind (and barring the invention of time travel), it’s hard to say. “We are dealing with the first battlefield site of the Bronze Age,” says Terberger. “We have no parallels for that.”

“When the first example of anything crops up, people don’t know what to make of it,” agrees Martin J. Smith, a lecturer in forensic anthropology at Bournemouth University in the United Kingdom. Smith, who was not involved in the Tollense research, says the battle’s sheer scale illustrates the violence Bronze Age warriors were capable of. More than three millennia after the sun set on the banks of the Tollense, the battle that took place there still inspires intense debate.

After all, says Smith, “The prehistoric past was a dangerous place to live.”


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