Evidence Of The Biggest Battle Known From Bronze Age Europe

The magazine, Science, has a fantastic in-depth article reporting on research carried out into a treasure trove of prehistoric finds from northern Germany which have turned the world of Bronze Age archaeology, and what we knew of warfare and society in western Europe some three millennia ago, on its head:

“About 3200 years ago, two armies clashed at a river crossing near the Baltic Sea. The confrontation can’t be found in any history books—the written word didn’t become common in these parts for another 2000 years—but this was no skirmish between local clans. Thousands of warriors came together in a brutal struggle, perhaps fought on a single day, using weapons crafted from wood, flint, and bronze, a metal that was then the height of military technology.

Struggling to find solid footing on the banks of the Tollense River, a narrow ribbon of water that flows through the marshes of northern Germany toward the Baltic Sea, the armies fought hand-to-hand, maiming and killing with war clubs, spears, swords, and knives. Bronze- and flint-tipped arrows were loosed at close range, piercing skulls and lodging deep into the bones of young men. Horses belonging to high-ranking warriors crumpled into the muck, fatally speared. Not everyone stood their ground in the melee: Some warriors broke and ran, and were struck down from behind.

When the fighting was through, hundreds lay dead, littering the swampy valley. Some bodies were stripped of their valuables and left bobbing in shallow ponds; others sank to the bottom, protected from plundering by a meter or two of water. Peat slowly settled over the bones. Within centuries, the entire battle was forgotten.

In 1996, an amateur archaeologist found a single upper arm bone sticking out of the steep riverbank—the first clue that the Tollense Valley, about 120 kilometers north of Berlin, concealed a gruesome secret. A flint arrowhead was firmly embedded in one end of the bone, prompting archaeologists 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 all were radiocarbon-dated to about 1250 B.C.E., suggesting they stemmed from a single episode during Europe’s Bronze Age.

Now, after a series of excavations between 2009 and 2015, researchers have begun to understand the battle and its startling implications for Bronze Age society. Along a 3-kilometer stretch of the Tollense River, archaeologists from the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern Department of Historic Preservation (MVDHP) and the University of Greifswald (UG) have unearthed wooden clubs, bronze spearheads, and flint and bronze arrowheads. They have also found bones in extraordinary numbers: the remains of at least five horses and more than 100 men. Bones from hundreds more may remain unexcavated, and thousands of others may have fought but survived.

Before Tollense, direct evidence of large-scale violence in the Bronze Age was scanty, especially in this region. Historical accounts from the Near East and Greece described epic battles, but few artifacts remained to corroborate these boastful accounts.

…if one in five of the battle’s participants was killed and left on the battlefield, that could mean almost 4000 warriors took part in the fighting.”

Historians have believed for many years that large-scale military operations in northern Europe before the Roman conquests of the late centuries CE were extremely rare. Where such events did occur it was generally understood that they involved little more than seasonal “armies” with participation in the dozens rather than the hundreds. This was assumed to have been especially true of the Bronze Age period when regional population densities were both lower and more widely spaced. A contest with a fifty warriors on both sides would have been the stuff of epics. The new research from the sites along the banks of the Tollense River requires us to reassess the old assumptions about what was actually achievable by the communities of Bronze Age Europe.