Right up to the 19th century and perhaps somewhat later, it was common practice for historians and scholars to accept the claims of Classical and Medieval scribes when they spoke of thousands or tens of thousands of warriors fighting in the great battles of the ancient world. However, by the middle of the 20th century most academics had become wary or dismissive of such descriptions, regarding them as literary exaggerations. Instead, it became the norm to believe that most military engagements involved no more than a few hundred or thousand individuals on either side, especially if they took place among the many societies outside the densely populated civilisations of the Mediterranean and Middle East (or further afield). In northern and western Europe in particular, the warfare of the prehistoric and early Middle Ages – the so-called Dark Ages – was normally assumed to have been carried out by “armies” constituting a few dozen armed men and boys at the most. In the case of pre-Christian or early Medieval Ireland, historians concluded that a contest between twenty or thirty opponents would have been a significant event to any contemporary observers.
However, recent archaeological discoveries have called into question the assumptions of old. Far from being incapable of gathering sizeable forces, non- or pre-Classical peoples seem to have committed to “total war” when required, with campaigns involving scores or hundreds of fighters. The Bronze Age battle site found near the Tollense River in northern Germany, which took place around 1250 B.C.E., may have seen the participation of up to 4000 men in hours or days of combat. A staggering suggestion. Now we have evidence of another great clash from the Alken Enge wetlands in Denmark’s Illerup Ådal river valley, where the remains of eighty-two adult males with likely signs of death-in-combat have been found, dating to the 1st century CE. Featured below is the short introduction to the just published study, “Direct evidence of a large Northern European Roman period martial event and post-battle corpse manipulation“:
New archaeological excavations at Alken Enge, Jutland, Denmark, have revealed a comprehensive assemblage of disarticulated human remains within a 75-ha wetland area. A minimum of 82 individuals have been uncovered. Based on the distribution, the total population is estimated to be greater than 380 individuals, exclusively male and predominantly adult. The chronological radiocarbon evidence of the human bones indicates that they belong to a single, large event in the early first century AD. The bones show a high frequency of unhealed trauma from sharp-edged weapons, which, together with finds of military equipment, suggests that the find is of martial character. Taphonomic traces indicate that the bones were exposed to animal gnawing for a period of between 6 mo and 1 y before being deposited in the lake. Furthermore, the find situations, including collections of bones, ossa coxae threaded onto a stick, and cuts and scraping marks, provide evidence of the systematic treatment of the human corpses after the time of exposure. The finds are interpreted as the remains of an organized and possibly ritually embedded clearing of a battlefield, including the physical manipulation of the partly skeletonized bones of the deceased fighters and subsequent deposition in the lake. The date places the finds in the context of the Germanic region at the peak of the Roman expansion northward and provides the earliest direct archaeological evidence of large-scale conflict among the Germanic populations and a demonstration of hitherto unrecognized postbattle practices.