Ancient battlefield in Germany reveals unheard of large-scale warfare in the Bronze Age

A massive find in Northern Germany by a group of researchers has confirmed that a battle was fought at the Tollense river and is now the largest verified Bronze Age battlefield in the world.

Despite so much research and many discoveries over the centuries, we still do not know as much about the Bronze Age as we would like to know. We tend to think of humans during that time period as not being very organized socially and belonging to smaller rural tribes.

We certainly do not think of Bronze Age peoples fighting large scale conflicts, especially on the European continent.

“We had considered scenarios of raids, with small groups of young men killing and stealing food, but to imagine such a big battle with thousands of people is very surprising,” Svend Hansen, head of the German Archaeological Institute’s Eurasia Department in Berlin told Science Magazine.

Indeed, it is now estimated that up to 4,000 warriors fought in the battle, which is large and unheard of as far as the European Bronze Age is concerned. After all, when we think of major battles in that time period, we think of the major empires in the Middle East such as the ancient Egyptians. But even evidence for those battles is hard to come by.

“Even in Egypt, despite hearing many tales of war, we never find such substantial archaeological evidence of its participants and victims,” University College Dublin archaeologist Barry Molloy said.

In contrast, Europe was thought to be much calmer.

“Most people thought ancient society was peaceful, and that Bronze Age males were concerned with trading and so on,” Aarhus University archaeologist Helle Vandkilde said. “Very few talked about warfare.”

But ever since an amateur archaeologist stumbled across evidence of a Bronze Age battle at Tollense in 1996, archaeologists have been itching to excavate the site in the hopes of learning something new. They finally got the green light in 2007, and they recently hit the mother-load.

Because just a few meters under the water of the Tollense river under layers of mud and peat, 12,000 human bones were found along with many of the items these warriors carried with them into battle sometime between 1300 to 1200 BC.

The skeletal remains of at least 130 warriors have been excavated at Tollense so far, with hundreds more still waiting to be uncovered. Image via Cambridge University Press.

So far, osteoanthropologist Ute Brinker, from the State Agency for Cultural Heritage in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern has identified more than 130 individuals, most of whom were males aged 20-40, the typical military age range.

And we know these men must have been warriors because many of the bones recovered showed evidence of battle injuries, many of which were obviously fatal, and some bones even still had arrowheads embedded in them.


A skull fragment featuring a Bronze Age arrowhead that pierced it during the battle, killing the warrior struck by it. Image via the University of Gottingen.

“We have 130 people, minimum, and five horses,” Mecklenburg-Vorpommern Department of Historic Preservation chief archaeologist Detlef Jantzen says. “And we’ve only opened 450 square meters. That’s 10% of the find layer, at most, maybe just 3% or 4%. If we excavated the whole area, we might have 750 people. That’s incredible for the Bronze Age.”

Many of the bodies were likely dumped in the river, but many were also killed and fell there, likely while fighting over an ancient bridge that used to cross the Tollense, the remnants of which archaeologists have identified. Parts of the bridge were 500 years older than the battle and likely played a major role in trade.

Several bridges cross the Tollense today, but an ancient bridge that no longer stands played a central role in the battle for control of the river. Image via Wikimedia.

“The crossing played an important role in the conflict,” says University of Göttingen professor Thomas Terberger, who participated in the study. “Maybe one group tried to cross and the other pushed them back. The conflict started there and turned into fighting along the river.”

The two armies would have fought brutal hand to hand combat using all manner of knives, swords, axes, and arrows. Needless to say, the battle was a bloody one. And forensics proves it.

“We can reconstruct exactly what happened,” Brinker said. “These cut marks on the rib show he was stabbed twice in the same place. We have a lot of them, often multiple marks on the same rib.”

This suggests these men were well trained, especially since they wore the kind of armor they were wearing. Make no mistake, these were not just mere farmers volunteering to defend their homes, many were professional warriors.

“They weren’t farmer-soldiers who went out every few years to brawl,” Terberger said. “These are professional fighters.”

“If you fight with body armor and helmet and corselet, you need daily training or you can’t move,” Hansen pointed out. “This kind of training is the beginning of a specialized group of warriors.”

And according to isotope tests, these warriors came from many different places to arrive in Tollense for this battle, from Poland and Holland and possibly even farther. It may not seem like such a distance today with modern transportation, but this kind of travel took days, even weeks, 3,000 years ago. And that makes the size of the battle all the more impressive.

“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,” Terberger said. “There’s nothing to compare it to.”

Aside from the many skeletal remains, the team also found 31 objects of great interest.

A pack of objects that belonged to a Bronze Age warrior as seen under the water in Tollense. Image via Cambridge University Press.

“The discovery of a new set of artifacts from the remains of battle provides important new clues,” the researchers said in a statement. “At the top of the deposit was a bronze awl with a wooden handle and a knife. Below, were a chisel, fragments of bronze sheet, three cylindrical objects, at least three ingot fragments and an array of small bronze pieces, such as casting waste and scraps. In addition, a decorated belt box as well as three dress pins, a bronze spiral, a human skull and a rib, were recovered from the same findspot.”

The collection of items as seen after being excavated and cleaned up for presentation. Image via Cambridge University Press.

What they found is likely a cache of items that belonged to a warrior who took his belongings to the bottom of the riverbed with him when he was struck down in battle. Luckily, looters had not been able to find the collection for themselves, giving us quite a bit of information about Bronze Age warriors and life at that time.

“This is the first discovery of personal belongings on a battlefield and it provides insights into the equipment of a warrior,” Terberger said in a press release. “The fragmented bronze was probably used as a form of early currency. The discovery also provides us with clues about the origins of the men who fought in this battle and there is increasing evidence that at least some of the warriors originated in southern Central Europe.”

Ornamented belt box, one of the items found in the cache at Tollense. Image via Cambridge University Press.

Furthermore, the battle at Tollense occurred during a change in European society that helps it fit in context.

“Around 1200 B.C.E. there’s a radical change in the direction societies and cultures are heading,” Vandkilde says. “Tollense fits into a period when we have increased warfare everywhere. It could be the first evidence of a turning point in social organization and warfare in Europe.”

But the important thing is that at a time when definitive evidence is in short supply to prove Bronze Age events, the staggering amount of evidence found at Tollense, from the thousands of bones to the items uncovered, the evidence does not get any better.

“When it comes to the Bronze Age, we’ve been missing a smoking gun, where we have a battlefield and dead people and weapons altogether,” Molloy said. “This is that smoking gun.”

This is a special discovery that will be teaching us much about Bronze Age warfare and life for decades to come. For the time being, excavations are on pause due to lack of funding, but continued exploration would be well worth further funding if it means we can unlock some of the mysteries and answer questions that have gone unanswered for so long. Until someone else stumbles upon another Bronze Age battlefield in Europe featuring similar revelations, Tollense is the best one available to study. And what the researchers have found so far could be just the tip of the iceberg.

Featured Image: Wikimedia

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