About 3,300 years ago, a terrible battle raged in Germany’s Tollense Valley. The Bronze Age site has been excavated since its discovery in 2008 and every bone and artifact adds to the tragic narrative of what unfolded on the battlefield.
To date, more than 12,000 human bones have been found and identified as belonging to 140 young adult men who fell in battle.
Now, researchers have uncovered the belongings of one of the Bronze Age warriors. They detailed the findings in a new study published Tuesday in the journal Antiquity.
The men were young and in good shape and their bones reveal impacts from close and long-range weaponry. Some of them bear lesions that healed, suggesting they were fighters who were trained for combat.
And the more the researchers discover, the more they believe that this was a much larger conflict than had previously been thought.
“Ten years ago nobody could believe that during the European Bronze Age violent conflicts of this scale took place,” study author and University of Göttingen professor Thomas Terberger said in an email. “The Tollense Valley site has completely changed our perspective and today warfare is an accepted part of Bronze Age society. Looking at the extension of the site we believe that about 500 individuals lost their lives in the valley and more than 2,000 warriors participated in the battle.”
Investigating the river in the valley has revealed where different warriors fell. Many were killed in action as they fell along the riverbank and the water moved their bodies. Some of the human bones have been found without any objects, suggesting they fell on the banks and were looted for goods after they died.
Others fell into the river and their bronze objects and personal effects remained behind.
In 2016, the researchers found 31 bronze objects after diving in the Tollense River. They found it intriguing that all of the items were closely grouped together, as though they had once been in a container. But the container, likely made of organic material, probably disintegrated a long time ago.
The items included a knife, chisel, bronze sheet fragments, three dress pins, a decorated belt box, a bronze awl with a birch handle, a bronze spiral and other pieces.
The researchers suggest they are the pieces of a small toolbox.
They were able to date the wooden handle of the awl to between 1250 and 1300 BC, which is the same time as the conflict on the battlefield. This means it likely belonged to a warrior.
Each item provides a piece of information. The knife is curved, an unusual find for the area and the time, looking more like a sickle. The chisel was well used. The wooden handle of the awl has triangle and ladder motifs, common for other objects found from the same time period, according to the study.
There are also pieces of bronze, like a twisted piece of wire that may have been part of an ornament or jewelry. Some of the pieces suggest that these men not only worked with metals but traded in them and used them as currency.
But the bronze sheets hold the most interest for the researchers. The perforated cylinders still have bronze nails embedded in them. They may have been used along with wooden boxes or bags to hold items.
All of the items resemble similar finds from the south of Central Europe, so the warrior carrying them likely came from Bohemia or southern Germany. That suggests that the battle was important and large enough to draw warriors across Europe to northeast Germany.
“The finds from Tollense Valley indicate that high ranked warriors took part in the battle and some of them … were probably originating in the South,” Terberger said. “However, we should not expect groups organized like the Roman army, but warriors organized in many smaller bands based on kinship or status group.”
The researchers hope to conduct DNA analysis of the warriors to learn more about the men who fell in battle.