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What Europe's most ancient battlefield reveals

Klaus Krämer eg
October 9, 2017

It is the site of a huge battle that took place 3,300 years ago in Germany. A relatively recent discovery, little is known about what actually happened there – but it still changes our perception of the Bronze Age.

Gold sword handle - Exhibit from the show "Blutiges Gold - Macht und Gewalt in der Bronzezeit"
Image: LAKD M-V/Landesarchäologie/S. Suhr

The Gross Raden Archaeological Open Air Museum is presenting an exhibition featuring archaeological artifacts from the Bronze Age, many of them found on the site of a battle which took place in the Tollense Valley, in the northeast of Germany. DW met with Detlef Jantzen, the chief archaeologist behind the exhibition.

DW: Mr. Jantzen, your exhibition documents a violent period of the Bronze Age. What happened 3,300 years ago by the Tollense River near the Baltic Sea, in the present-day Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania region?

Tollense River
The archaeological site by the Tollense RiverImage: Tollensetal-Projekt/Stefan Sauer

Detlef Jantzen: Large groups of young men killed each other in a bloody battle right by the river. There must have been several hundreds – or perhaps even several thousands of participants. In the end, several hundred men died on this battlefield.

Do you know who the people fighting each other so brutally were?

No, we don't know that yet. We know that they were exclusively men; we haven't found any indication that women where there. These men were mostly between the ages of 20 and 25 – basically young men who were able to fight. Unfortunately, we haven't found out yet where these people came from. We can, however, say that they came from a relatively large area.

Read more: Unearthing the mysteries of the 'battle that created Germany' 

How was this determined?

Detlef Jantzen
Jantzen examining one the many skulls found on the siteImage: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Büttner

This could be demonstrated through analysis of the isotopes of strontium in the teeth. It can show if a person grew up in the region. On the battlefield, several people could have been from the region, but there are a few individuals who must have been from far more remote areas – although we couldn't determine where they were from either. That is obviously one of our main goals for the upcoming years; we want to find out who the people on that battlefield were.

Human remains were discovered in the Tollense Valley in the mid-1990s; this led to the discovery of the most ancient battle site in Europe to date. What has been uncovered since the beginning of the excavations in 2007?

Over 10,000 human bones were found. This is the largest series of human remains that we have from this period in this region. It offers outstanding material for research and comparison purposes.

A whole series of bronze weapons, such as lances, arrowheads and knives, were additionally found. We've also found a few wooden clubs which were used for battle as well as – and this is also remarkable – the remains of about five horses. Even though it's unclear exactly how many there were, it does show that horses died on that battlefield.

Only about 10 percent of the battle site has been excavated until now – but that has already revealed enough finds to fill a special exhibition at the Gross Raden Archaeological Open Air Museum, called "Blutiges Gold – Macht und Gewalt in der Bronzezeit" (Bloody Gold – Power and Violence in the Bronze Age). Yet there was hardly any gold found on the battle site…

Body remains at the Tollense archaeological site
This was not random violence, but rather an organized conflict, says JantzenImage: Tollensetal-Projekt/Stefan Sauer

The bodies on the battle site that were accessible were apparently thoroughly looted. They had almost no metal left on them – although they must have been wearing metal, since bronze was also part of men's dress during this period.

The remains of those who fell in the river are different, as we've found metal objects on them, which could either have been part of their dress or items of trade. We have found, for example, two tin rings; this metal provided the raw material which is essential to create bronze. Among the accessories we found in the Tollense River were several gold rings, which were worn by powerful people at the time. We presume they were worn in their hair.

Read more: Germany's sunken 'Atlantis' reappears as tourist attraction

The exhibition combines gold and metal artifacts found on the battle site with other spectacular archaeological finds from the Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania region. What does the combination of these pieces demonstrate?

Up to quite recently, we imagined the Bronze Age as a relatively peaceful period, something of a "Golden Age." A striking aspect of the period is the large quantity of gold that was in circulation and the richly furnished burial chambers. Gold clearly played a role in society; people had access to gold and there were wide interregional networks allowing people to gain access to this material. This abundance of gold has always fascinated researchers.

Then suddenly, the discovery of this battlefield in the Tollense Valley provided a new aspect to consider. Massive violence accompanied the power represented by gold. It wasn't just random violence; rather, the Tollense battle demonstrates a clearly organized form of violence, as it was obviously required to be able to assemble such a large group of young men and issue orders. It demonstrates that power was conditional for such a large violent conflict.

That means your perception of the Bronze Age has changed through the Tollense finds?

Excavation work at the Tollense Valley site
The remains are meticulously excavatedImage: Niedersächsisches Landesamt für Denkmalpflege/Gundula Lidke

It was fascinating to realize that this peaceful image of the Bronze Age clearly wasn't true, but rather that we were dealing with power structures that would also resort to organized violence with such large groups to reach specific goals. We didn't expect this to be the case for the Bronze Age society of our region. We now assume that such large conflicts also took place in other locations. These conflicts contributed to the breakdown of an until then well-functioning trade system within a few generations.

Read more: 15th-century disposable cups found in Martin Luther's Wittenberg

What are the highlights of the exhibition?

The gold artifacts are obviously the main highlights. We have the gold rings from the Tollense Valley. We also have other gold rings that were found in burial chambers. We are displaying the entire inventory of richly-furnished tombs, such as the so-called "Chieftain's Grave from Crivitz," which was discovered a few years ago. His burial equipment included a sword, a gold brooch and several gold rings. This hadn't been shown to the public until now.

Gold brooch, part of exhibition "Blutiges Gold - Macht und Gewalt in der Bronzezeit"
Image: LAKD M-V/Landesarchäologie/S. Suhr

We are also showing fragments of a gold-encrusted sword, which was found a few years ago near Güstrow, as well as complete fashion accessories of two rich women. They didn't contain gold but polished bronze. When the women wore this heavy bronze jewelry, they must have been shining from head to toe.

The exhibition at the Gross Raden Archeological Open Air Museum runs through September 18, 2018.