Late in the summer of 2011, archaeologists examining the site of the Battle of Lützen discovered a mass grave thought to contain up to 175 soldiers. The battle between the Protestant forces of King Gustav II Adolf of Sweden and the Catholic Habsburg imperial army led by Czech General Albrecht von Wallenstein took place over four hours in the afternoon of November 16 (according to the Gregorian calendar used by the Catholic Holy Roman Empire and us; November 6 according to the Julian calendar used by the Protestant Swedes), 1632. Although the battle was one of the bloodiest of the Thirty Years’ War, claiming the life of Gustav II Adolf (commissioner of the ill-fated Vasa warship) and 6,000 to 9,000 other men, no bodies have been found before.
Archaeologists have already excavated a third of the 1.1 million square meter (3.6 million square foot) field and have discovered thousands of artifacts from the battle. They’ve taken a more high-tech approach to the recovery of the human remains, however. To excavate the mass grave under ideal conditions, without interference from bad weather, hooligans, and environmental contaminants, the entire grave, all 452 square feet and 55 tons of it, was cut out of the earth by heavy machinery. The solid block of soil and human remains was split in two to make it easier to transport, then carried on flatbed trucks to the laboratory of the Saxony-Anhalt State Office for Heritage Management and Archaeology 45 minutes away in Halle.
At first archaeologists estimated there were around 75 bodies buried naked, unarmed, close together in layers. After months of close examination in the lab that estimate has more than doubled, but they’re still in the early stages of excavation and only 20 bodies have been unearthed thus far, one layer from one of the blocks. They were indeed buried naked, without weapons or personal effects, close together with their legs facing each other.
It was the people of Lützen who removed the dead from the battlefield and buried them carefully on the side of the road. The soldiers who survived the battle were immediately shipped off to the next battle. The job was so overwhelming the townspeople asked soldiers in the nearby garrison of Weissenfels to help them. The field and adjacent area is probably dotted with mass graves like this one.
Scientists are hoping they’ll be able to determine the nationality of the dead. Soldiers from Scotland, England, Croatia, Germany, Austria, Finland and Sweden all fought in the battle. Strontium isotope analysis on their bones will hopefully provide information on their recent travels, and strontium isotope analysis on their teeth will shed light on where they spent their childhoods. Osteological examination has already returned evidence of perimortem injuries, like skull fractures and a lead bullet recovered from a pelvic bone.
The Battle of Lützen was in theory a Protestant victory. Wallenstein’s imperial forces left the field to the armies of the Swedish King who accomplished their primary goal of stopping the Catholic advance into Saxony. However, the Catholics lost fewer men and most saliently, they didn’t lose their leader. Gustavus Adolphus’ death left the Protestant forces confused and demoralized, leaving the French to take the dominant role in the anti-Hapsburg alliance. The war went on for another 16 years until the Peace of Westphalia finally put an end to it in 1648.
The spot on the Lützen battlefield where King Gustav II Adolf fell was marked by a granite boulder the day after the battle. It’s called the Schwedenstein, or Swedes’ Stone, and is still marking the spot today.