Bog find sheds light on war practices of Germanic tribes

When last we dropped in on the excavation at the Alken Enge bog in East Jutland, Denmark, archaeologists had found the remains of an estimated 200 men killed around 1 A.D. and thrown into a part of Lake Mosso which has now receded leaving the peat bog. The discovery of arranged bones, notably four pelvises on a stick, was evidence that the remains were deliberate sacrifices, not discards after battlefield cleanup. A newly published report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences updates and expands on the discoveries and their larger significance.

All together, 2,095 bones and bone fragments from 82 people were unearthed. Extrapolating from that figure based on the distribution of the remains increases the earlier estimate of people buried in the bog to 380, almost all adult men. The preponderance of unhealed sharp-force trauma indicates they died in battle, and the lack of previously healed wounds of this type means they were not seasoned fighters. Weapons found in the excavation — spearheads, an axe, fragments of swords, shields, iron knives — confirm the military nature of the clash. Metallurgic analysis found that the weapons were manufactured from local Jutish raw materials.

Gnaw marks on the bones indicate the bodies were exposed for six months to a year after death before the skeletal remains were deposited in the lake. There were also cut and scrape marks on the bones, evidence that the remains were treated before they were carefully arranged and deposited. This systematic and stylized approach to a clearing of the battlefield likely had a ritual purpose.

There are only a handful of other battlefields from the the turn of the millennium known, all in Germany and none of them with significant human remains. They are also thought to be the result of clashes between Germanic tribes and Roman forces pressing northwards. The Alken Enge excavation is the sole known example we have of large-scale human remains and from an intra-German battle.

Alken Enge provides unequivocal evidence that the people in Northern Germania had systematic and deliberate ways of clearing battlefields. Practices of corporeal dismemberment, modification, and bone assemblage composition suggest a ritual dimension in the treatment of the human corporeal remains. Taphonomic studies indicate a postmortem exposure interval before a deposition in the lake of 0.5–1 y, which is unprecedented in relation to the known burials and bog bodies.

The estimated MNI in Alken Enge significantly exceeds the scale of any known Iron Age village community and presupposes that the fighting groups of men were recruited from a large area beyond its immediate hinterland.

The preponderance of young adult males suggests that a selected group ended up in the wetland area. High incidences of perimortem trauma show that the conflicts were extremely destructive in character, with consequently comprehensive slaughter.

Overall, the Alken Enge find is exceptional of the period, but it anticipates the comprehensive postbattle weapon depositions from the second to fifth centuries AD in Northern Germania. In this way, Alken Enge provides a new, yet older, testament to the history of the militarization of the Northern Germanic societies and stresses the formative significance of the expansion phase of the Roman Empire at the turn of the era.

5 thoughts on “Bog find sheds light on war practices of Germanic tribes

  1. There is the (much earlier) massive Bronze Age battle site from the ‘Tollense’ valley, and after the ‘Battle of the Teutoburg Forest’ in 9AD, Aulus Caecina Severus was involved in the campaign against Arminius. –According to Tacitus, around 100AD (‘Annals’, I, 61-62):

    “There came upon the Caesar a passionate desire to pay the last tribute to the fallen and their leader, while the whole army present with him were stirred to pity […]. Varus’ first camp, with its broad sweep and measured spaces for officers and eagles, advertised the labours of three legions: then a half-ruined wall and shallow ditch showed that there the now broken remnant had taken cover. In the plain between were bleaching bones, scattered or in little heaps, as the men had fallen, fleeing or standing fast. Hard by lay splintered spears and limbs of horses, while human skulls were nailed prominently on the tree-trunks. In the neighbouring groves stood the savage altars at which they had slaughtered the tribunes and chief centurions. Survivors […] spoke of the tribunal from which Arminius made his harangue, all the gibbets and torture-pits for the prisoners, and the arrogance with which he insulted the standards and eagles. And so, six years after the fatal field, a Roman army, present on the ground, buried the bones of the three legions; and no man knew whether he consigned to earth the remains of a stranger or a kinsman […] At the erection of the funeral-mound the Caesar laid the first sod, paying a dear tribute to the departed, and associating himself with the grief of those around him. […]”

    It is worth to keep in mind that there must have been wide area relations: The guy that the Romans knew as ‘Arminius’ sent the head of Varus to ‘Marboduus’, who had lead his peoples from the Main river -for safety reasons- into what is today the Chech Republic. The offer to join, however, was obviously turned down, as Varus’ head was forwarded to Rome, where he must have arrived in a rather terrible state :skull:

  2. “four pelvises on a stick” sounds like Fair food. Are they breaded and deep-fried? :skull:

  3. … just an idea would have been to send the head in a jar (or pot) with “tannine copper honey” (cf. the previous post on copper).


    Anthony de Lucy, 3rd Baron Lucy, for example, was sent home to St. Bees from his summer trip to the ‘Prussian Crusade’ (Prussia and Lithuania), and there are videos from 1981 (i.e. when his lead coffin was opened) that show the man himself and his intestines in almost perfect condition.

  4. Apparently, there were inscriptions found at the Alken Enge bog:

    a) on three different shield handle plates:

    ‘swarta’ = the black one
    ‘niþijo tawide’ = made by Nithijo (‘envyer’)
    ‘laguþewa’ = low land raker

    b) on a fire striker:

    ‘gauþz’ = ? (‘barker’?)

    c) on a spearhead:

    ‘wagnijo’ = wagener, mover

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