Europe’s “oldest known battle” may have been massacre instead

I’m glad I put a question mark on my first post about this story in 2011, because the Bronze Age mass-death site in Tollense, northeastern Germany, may not have been Europe’s oldest known battle after all.

First a recap. Archaeologists have excavated more than 12,000 human bones in the Tollense River Valley since a humerus bone with a flint arrowhead viciously embedded it was discovered in 1996.  The arrowhead dated the fatal event to around 1250 B.C., a date confirmed by radiocarbon analysis of later finds. Initial studies of the skeletal remains of 145 individuals that could be pieced together identified numerous wounds inflicted by long-range weapons (arrows, lances), blunt weapons (wooden clubs) and short-range melee weapons (swords, daggers). The bones also predominantly belonged to young males, some with healed wounds suggesting they had fought before and lived to do it again. Stable isotope analysis and DNA revealed that they were not all local. Artifacts found at the site confirmed an armed clash had taken place. Dozens of weapons were found — more than 50 bronze arrowheads, swords, clubs, an axe. The skeletal remains of several horses were also unearthed from the riverbed.

Then in 2016, divers recovered a cache of scrap metal and tools in the Tollense riverbed. Tightly packed together were fragments of bronze sheets and ingots, a chisel, sickle knife, a bronze awl, brooches, a bronze spiral and a star-ornamented belt box. These was deemed to be the toolkit of one of the combatants, the first personal belongings found on a battlefield. There was no evidence of who they belonged to; the warrior hypothesis was based on the understanding of the battle context.

The discovery of this cache and other tools, plus pewter rings (portable sources of the tin necessary to make bronze), gold spiral rings and smaller bronze spirals believed to have been trimmings on clothes, made archaeologists suspicious that there were civilians in the mix, not just warriors. Recent studies of the bones found the remains of women and even children as well as the men. There were individuals whose legs showed signs of heavy labour but whose upper bodies showed no equivalent stresses. This is evidence that they walked a great deal bearing heavy burdens. Had they been warriors, the bones of the upper body would bear evidence of more developed musculature and repetitive stress.

Isotope and DNA analysis of the remains of 12 men and two women revealed they came from different parts of northern and central Europe. There was no genetic homogeneity in the group so they were not related. This was therefore not a battle between locals and foreigners or an army invading from the south.

Detlef Jantzen, chief archaeologists for the State Office for Education, Science and Culture of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, now believes the encounter in Tollense may not have been a battle, but a massacre. The victims were part of a trade caravan who were ambushed at the bridge crossing over the river. Caravans had armed security which put up a fight, but they were overwhelmed and slaughter ensued.

Jantzen also sees the number of participants in the conflict less today than it was years ago, when it was assumed that thousands of warriors collided. “I’m not repeating the number,” he said. More than 12,000 human bones were recovered and about 140 individuals examined by anthropologists. Most of them died of stab wounds and cuts, and some arrowheads were still stuck in the bones.

Jantzen assumes that the majority of those found were among the defeated. The victors would probably have taken their dead and buried them. However, no Bronze Age graves were found on the surrounding areas. The victims were looted and left lying. Another indication that it was not a cavalry battle is the texture of the horse bones. The investigations would have shown that the horses were actually not old enough to ride. They could have been carried as a trade item.

“The interpretation of the incident in the Tollensetal has not yet been completed,” said Jantzen. “We will continue to investigate.”

6 thoughts on “Europe’s “oldest known battle” may have been massacre instead

    1. Young horses( ponies) would have fallen victim to long range weapons such as arrows and possibly spears as they would have been in the caravan. Yes they would have been a prize to the raiding party but we don’t know the condition of that party ( they could have been hungry in which case “ meat is meat” and a young horse would do!)

      Tollense was a very brutal clash, and the archeological recreation is still in going.

    2. I that is a very good question. But like everything else, someone always wants to get attention through their own interpretation. We know that women were kidnapped between tribes. DNA is a fantastic tool, but it says nothing about a course. Even justifying wear and tear on bones is a bit vague in the context of horses even if they were used for transport. Are they all that are buried not local. Yes, there are many questions, but I would not dare to say anything on the basis of what has been presented here.

  1. Maud, The horses may have been collateral damage. If you open an attack or ambush with a shower of arrows some of them will hit the animals. And if an animal is injured badly enough that it cannot be brought along with the rest of the loot it may be put down.

  2. What counts as ‘massacre’, and what does it take to be a ‘battle’? Two armies, two blokes with feathered hats and loved ones sitting back at home hoping for the best?

    Bronze Age horses in general seem to have been on the smaller side. People from different parts of northern and central Europe, on the other hand, meeting in northern central Europe is no surprise, the question is if there have been people from central Europe involved. The ‘Amber Road’ as trading route has not been doubted by anyone, and as far as the arrow heads are concerned, there were ones made of flint and others made from bronze, i.e. there were no homogeneous arrow heads either. The armed conflicts during the Migration Period, to give an example, do in fact count as ‘battles’, so why not this earlier one?

    To suppose an ambushed caravan on its way from ‘A’ to ‘B’, on the other hand, is indeed not out of the question. However, I presume that the differences might be rather marginal here.

  3. So you suppose looting? Can you imagine even TODAY Polish Army have equipment from USA and CCCP? From years 60-70 till today. Ukraina also – have tanks 72 and javelin 2015. As former bronz and stones, but still some “stick and clubs” against enemy. It is your imaginary good enaf? So ~ 3250 years ago, 1200-1300 before Christ was some BIG CATASTROPHE ( meteorits, volcano, Sun activity?) and there was bad with crops and food! There was war in Tollensee/Dołęża/ and same time was ….Trojan War! Is your imaginary good enaf, to think about? Now Russia-Ukraina war couse, that grain, fertiliser and oil will be not deliver to : Middle East, NorthAfrica, Black Africa. Can you imagine, that in next year there will be such moving people couse now crop/food? From Africa to Europe, in millions? But they have not stones, bronz but macheta and samrtphons.
    Years ago everybody have horse, club, arrows, ax a.s.o.
    So going to another country was figthing. Next few decads will be also- to many color peaple in EU give tension and figth- as in Sweden or France (woman, religion, food….). When food, materials, oil and gas – even now are wars about. Whatif will be bilions of people and luck of materials, oil, food?

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