In the 13th century BC, the banks of the river Tollense near the Baltic coast in north-eastern Germany (Fig.1) witnessed a battle of a scale previously undocumented for any region north of the Alps in prehistoric Europe – and perhaps the earliest of this scale so far discovered anywhere in Europe.
The area surrounding the banks of the river was known for finds of bronze objects since the 1980s, but it wasn’t until 1996, when amateur archaeologist Ronald Borgwardt found a human arm-bone with an embedded flint arrow emerging from river-sediments that the site’s potential significance was realised. Subsequent investigations recovered further skeletal remains (including fragments of four horses) and several weapons, including bronze spear- and arrow-heads, knives, adzes, a dagger-blade, and a sword, as well as a wooden club made from ash (situated next to the arm bone discovered by Borgwardt) and a hammer-like weapon made from sloe (Fig.2). An extensive project investigating the site was launched in 2007, with further searches of the riverbed and detailed study of the skeletal remains providing insights into what took place at the site more than 3000 years ago.
The site of the battle, as represented by finds, stretches for roughly 1.5km on both sides of the river, but some individual finds of human remains and bronze objects further north along the river suggest that the battle-site may have extended further. Archaeologists estimate that only 1-3% of the site have been archaeologically documented so far, with finds of skeletal remains indicating the number of dead would have totalled between 125 and 1000, with an estimated several thousand people involved in the battle.
The location of the battle suggests that the fighting may have taken place at a river- or valley-crossing, a point supported by the discovery of the remains of a bronze-age road, surfaced with timber planks and lined with stones, which crossed the valley from the east. Nearing the river, the road appears to have given way to a timber-construction that may have functioned as a bridge. The road has been dated to the 19th century BC, meaning that it was around 500 years old at the time of the battle. That it was still in use during this time is indicated by the find of a horse tooth dated to the 13th century BC.
The finds at the battle-site itself indicate that at least one of the parties involved in the battle may have come from far afield. Analysis of skeletal remains suggest that a significant number of individuals present at the site lived on a diet high in millet, a cereal that was not common in northern Europe at this time. However some examples of millet-cultivation are known from contemporary northern Germany, so this is an unreliable piece of evidence. The presence of Silesian-style bronze pins at the site suggests links with the region of Silesia some 400km to the south-east. Several other bronze objects found at the site also indicate a south-eastern origin, with close parallels in the region reaching from Bavaria to Moravia. Whether these objects indicate the presence of people coming from these regions, or whether they were items that had come into the possession of local tribes via trade is impossible to say at present. The presence of simple weapons such as wooden clubs, hammers and flint arrows alongside finds of more prestigious bronze-objects, such as bronze arrow-heads, a dagger-blade, knives, spearheads and adzes indicates that the participants of the battle were economically heterogeneous. This indicates either that one or both groups comprised of a mix of elite warriors and less well-equipped fighters, or that the opposing parties in this conflict came from two different cultural and economic backgrounds. Wooden clubs are known from sites in Northern Germany, and appear to have been a common weapon during the Neolithic and early Bronze Age. It is tempting therefore to envision a conflict between a local population with limited access to bronze (or with a pre-bronze-age culture), and a group in possession of bronze. Either one may have been migrating, or travelling along one of the ancient trading routes passing along rivers from south-eastern to northern Europe. The Tollense valley lies more or less directly along the Amber Route (one of several), by which amber was traded from the Baltic coast into south-eastern Europe. Amber from the northern European coasts reached as far as Mycenae in Greece, and objects from Greece and even Egypt found their way into northern Europe.
Can anything be inferred from the remains of those who died in this battle? The majority of the dead were young adult males between 20 and 40 years of age. But there are also examples of older men, as well as of women and children, even infants. I have so far seen no reports on the causes of death of the women and children, but their remains are dated to the same period as the male samples, most of whom show signs of death by combat. It can therefore be assumed that the women and children died as a result of the same event. Ethnographic data and historical accounts of ancient battles (e.g. between Romans and Celts) record the participation of women in battles in supporting positions, including the organisation of food and carrying of supplies, as well as the use of magic. It is possible that the presence of women in this case is of a similar nature. Alternatively, if one of the parties was a migrating group or a trading-caravan, it would have been likely to include women and children. There are a few cases of skeletal remains with injuries that show signs of healing over a few days, weeks or even months. This implies that these individuals had previously been involved in armed conflict, and in some cases, had been wounded just a few days or a couple of weeks prior to this battle. This suggests that rather than a short-lived, one-off battle (such as a sudden ambush), this conflict may have taken place over several days or weeks. Some examples of combat injuries that were survived by several years may represent the activities of an organised warrior class, or simply that participants of this battle lived through a time of repeated armed conflict and upheaval.
The 13th century BC was indeed a period of marked cultural and economic change, during which several power centres in the Mediterranean, such as that of Mycenae and the Hittite Empire, came to an end. Given the wide-ranging economic contacts of the time, the effects may have felt throughout Europe. In Central and Northern Europe, the Tumulus Culture (named after its burial mounds) was replaced by the Urnfield Culture (named for its burial rite of burying cremated remains contained in urns). An increase in fortified settlements and hillforts across Central Europe during this period suggests an heightened need for defence. From 1200 BC onwards, the period also saw a deterioration in climate, which grew colder and wetter. This is likely to have contributed to population shifts and tension. The region surrounding the Tollense was relatively densely populated (by Bronze Age standards) during this time, with several settlements located east of the river, and a number of burial mounds situated further north and west of the river (Fig.3). The material culture of the region shows that it had wide-ranging trading contacts, and that bronze objects were both imported and manufactured locally. Bronze-working tools, including a hord of what appears to be a whole set, were found at the site, and may indicate the presence of individuals involved in bronze-working.
The precise nature of the conflict is impossible to tell. Given its location and context, an attack on a trading caravan, perhaps comprised of locals involved in the Amber trade, or of people coming from the south-east bearing their wares seems likely. However, a long-distance caravan would have carried not only their goods and weapons for defence, but also everyday items such as cooking equipment. Such items are completely absent from the site and would have been unlikely to be taken as loot (unlike bronze items, such as swords, whose absence save for one example may be explained by looting). The apparent prolonged duration of the battle, over several days or weeks, indicates that the event formed part of a longer-standing conflict that may have formed part of ongoing tensions in this period. Future investigations of the surrounding region, including its contemporary settlements, may provide insight into whether other sites were affected by conflict.
Prior to the Tollense site’s discovery, archaeologists assumed only small-scale inter-tribal conflicts for Bronze Age Central and Northern Europe. The battle of Tollense, with participants thought to have been in their thousands, shows otherwise. As such, it is one of many examples that there is much still to be discovered about the distant past, underlining that “absence of evidence” does not equal “evidence of absence”.