A little more than three millennia ago, hundreds, maybe thousands, of warriors using clubs, swords and arrows clashed along the marshy banks of the Tollense River on Germany’s Baltic coast, staining the grounds with blood.
On what may be the oldest battlefield in Europe, archaeologists have been uncovering remains and attempting to recreate what happened during that violent conflict. Chance discoveries started at the site in the 1990s, and then, over more than a decade of fieldwork that started in 2008, researchers began to understand that they were looking at a veritable battlefield, which came as a surprise as much archaeological evidence from the Bronze Age in Central Europe comes from ancient settlements or cemeteries. Finds of weapons and sturdy fortifications at other sites had suggested that combat was a part of life during this era. But a battlefield, revealing a snapshot of gruesome violence that occurred over a matter of days, offered much more definitive proof about the scale of such warfare.
Along a rural stretch of the Tollense Valley about 1.5 miles long, a group of German researchers have found the remains of more than 140 individuals to date. Most were identified as young men and many displayed clear signs of wartime injuries, like bronze and flint arrowheads still lodged in their bones and fractures from blunt force trauma. Some had broken bones that showed signs of healing, suggesting this final fight wasn't their first battle. Archaeologists suspect they've only excavated a small fraction of the battlefield. Considering how many soldiers may have survived—and how many of the dead are yet to be found or may have been carried away for burial elsewhere—researchers estimate that upwards of 2,000 people were involved in the battle.
More recently, archaeologists have been diving to the bottom of the Tollense River, where shifting currents have peeled away layers of mud to reveal new artifacts from the conflict. Now, in a study in the journal Antiquity published this week, researchers found that a bundle of personal items from a soldier suggests that warriors traveled hundreds of miles to fight in this major battle.
"It was a surprise to find a battlefield site. It was a second surprise to see a battlefield site of this dimension with so many warriors involved, and now it's a big surprise that we are dealing with a conflict of a European scale," says Thomas Terberger, a co-author of the new study and an archaeologist with Lower Saxony's State Agency for Cultural Heritage in Hanover.
Terberger and his colleagues think these newly discovered items would have been stuffed inside a wooden box or cloth bag that has since decayed. The little toolkit includes scrap metal as well as tools that would have been used in daily life, such as a chisel, an awl with its birch handle still preserved, a knife and a small sword. The whole package of artifacts resembles hoards found in warrior burials from southern Central Europe, from eastern France to the Bohemia region of the Czech Republic, the researchers say. All these sites are hundreds of miles from the Tollense Valley. The sword closely resembles a type of weapon typically associated with Bavaria, in southern Germany, and three bronze cylinders that would have helped hold the container shut have parallels in France.
"We had before speculated that some of these people might have come from the south," Terberger says. "Now we have, from our point of view, a quite convincing indication that people from southern Central Europe were involved in this conflict."
A previous chemical analysis from 2017 of the remains found at Tollense in the journal Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences showed that a diverse group of non-local warriors were slain at the site, but the researchers couldn't pinpoint the exact origin of the soldiers.
"The natural science, together with the archaeological evidence, suggests that at least some of these men came from far away," says Helle Vandkilde, an archaeologist at the University of Aarhus who was not involved in the research but studies Bronze Age conflict.
Terberger and his colleagues have interpreted the fragments of copper found in the artifact bundle as raw materials that could have been fragmented into even smaller pieces with a chisel to be used as a form of money. "We see this as part of the story of early currency for Bronze Age people," he says.
Archaeologist Barry Molloy of University College Dublin, who wasn't part of the study, thinks it's significant that this scrap metal would have belonged to someone on the battlefield, whether it was lost in the midst of combat or deposited later as an offering. It's plausible that someone traveling far from home would have been carrying a form of portable wealth, he says.
"How might one fend for oneself so far from the comforts of their own community and its material resources?" Molloy asks. "The Tollense finds do seem to support then the idea of mobile groups, traveling long distances into hostile environments, and bringing with them personal resources, what some may call a proto-currency, in the form of scrap metal to see to their needs on this journey."
The researchers may never get an answer about what caused the conflict, but Terberger is excited by the new questions raised by the knowledge that fighting armies were stacked with foreign soldiers. "How can we explain that such a large group from the south was coming to the north? How was it possible to organize something like that?"
Vandkilde says that archaeologists for a long time saw only peace in the Bronze Age. That changed around the late 1990s, but researchers still don't know much about the organization of war and how and why it changed during the Bronze Age. "I'm pretty sure that we have armies at the time of Tollense—the site itself does seem to show that much. But we need a lot more knowledge about these things."
Rather than the conflict being exceptional for its time, it’s more likely that Tollense is just an exceptionally well-preserved example of an era when violence was "a predictable, expected and planned-for activity," according to Molloy. "We are past debating whether violence was rare or highly ritualized and coming closer to a point when we can begin to understand how and why the scale and character of warfare was so utterly transformed in the Bronze Age."