Like most of the world, Europe has seen its fair share of warfare in its long history. Its oldest battlefield dates back more than 3,250 years, to about 1250 B.C. The battlefield, located in northern Germany, has become a subject of archaeological interest since the 1980s, and scientists may soon have breakthroughs with this piece of ancient history.
Towards the end of the 20th century, people began to find ancient weapons in river sediment in the Tollense Valley in Germany. Some skulls were found as well.
According to Live Science, in 1996 an amateur archaeologist found an arm bone with an arrow piercing it that was sticking up out of the ground. However, it was not until more than ten years later that a systematic exploration of the site began.
Over the last decade, archaeologists have unearthed a veritable battlefield, dating back to 1250 B.C., spread along the banks of the Tollense River, about 75 miles (120 kilometers) north of Berlin. To date, the researchers have found the skeletons of 140 people, mostly men between the ages of 20 and 40, among the remains of military equipment and horse bones.
Archaeologists had lacked evidence of large battlefields from the Bronze Age in Europe, despite all the metal swords, hill forts, depictions of violence and scarred human skeletons from this period. (Around the Mediterranean, this was the era of the legendary Trojan Warand Egyptian warrior kings like Ramesses II, whose tombs document his battle with the Hittites.)
Thomas Terberger, one of the German archaeologists who launched the excavation at Tollense Valley, said his team is now sure they’re looking at a true battlefield.
Terberger stated that “We are very confident that the human remains are more or less lying in the position where they died.” If this was a battlefield, that means that these remains are likely from the losing side of that battle, and only represent a small fraction of the actual scale of the battle. He estimates that nearly 2,000 may have fought at this location those three millennia ago.
“This is beyond the local scale of a conflict,” he said, emphasizing that it was likely something bigger than a group of local farmer defending their land from some bandits, or a neighborhood spat. This site was likely a massive battlefield between actual armies.
One of the issues that archaeologists have faced is the fact that there is nothing that can yet identify the remains. However, the next round of testing they will conduct will be strontium analysis of the bones. Strontium is a naturally occurring element in bone structures, and people from different regions tend to have different strontium signatures.
A person who came from Scandinavia will have a different strontium signature than someone from Spain, Africa, Asia, or North America. The bones so far analyzed suggest that many nonlocals were present in this battle, possibly mercenary soldiers.
The results of the study, which were published in August in the journal Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences, showed that there was a large, diverse group of nonlocals involved in the battle. Unfortunately, strontium analyses are not so exact that archaeologists “can point to a map and say, ‘They came from there,'” Terberger said.
The results do at least suggest that many of these nonlocals came from the south, perhaps from southern Germany and Central Europe. This interpretation agrees with some of the archaeological finds; Central European-style arrowheads and dress pins have been found on the battlefield and nowhere else in northern Germany, Terberger said.
1300 B.C. was a time of cultural upheaval in this region, with the Urnfield culture being an emerging force (the Urnfields buried their dead by cremating the bodies and burying the ashes in urns).
Quite a discovery from the B.C. era! Not much remains of history that far back even in Europe. Maybe these discoveries will give us a better idea of the roots of what is now modern day Europe.