Around the time that the Greeks were fighting the Trojans because Menelaos’ wife Helen had run off with Paris, evidence has been found proving that a great battle involving thousands of men was fought over a nearly 2 mile (3 kilometer) front along the Tollense River in Northern Germany.
The conventional perspective is that Northern Europe, in the Bronze Age, was a sparsely-populated wilderness containing only scattered individual farmsteads, no cities, no advanced cultures, no major population centers, just a few pitiful, fur-clad barbarians.
So, how on earth, could there possibly have been two leaders and two societies stretching across such large territories and featuring such potent forms of political organization as to be able to field such large armies prepared to fight to the death?
These questions are absolutely fascinating, but since literacy and written records simply did not exist, we will never know the answers. All this does seem to demonstrate, though, that Barbarous, Prehistoric Europe was a lot more culturally-developed and complex than can be readily imagined.
In 1996, an amateur archaeologist found a single upper arm bone sticking out of the steep riverbankâ€”the first clue that the Tollense Valley, about 120 kilometers north of Berlin, concealed a gruesome secret. A flint arrowhead was firmly embedded in one end of the bone, prompting archaeologists to dig a small test excavation that yielded more bones, a bashed-in skull, and a 73-centimeter club resembling a baseball bat. The artifacts all were radiocarbon-dated to about 1250 B.C.E., suggesting they stemmed from a single episode during Europeâ€™s Bronze Age.
Now, after a series of excavations between 2009 and 2015, researchers have begun to understand the battle and its startling implications for Bronze Age society. Along a 3-kilometer stretch of the Tollense River, archaeologists from the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern Department of Historic Preservation (MVDHP) and the University of Greifswald (UG) have unearthed wooden clubs, bronze spearheads, and flint and bronze arrowheads. They have also found bones in extraordinary numbers: the remains of at least five horses and more than 100 men. Bones from hundreds more may remain unexcavated, and thousands of others may have fought but survived.
â€œIf our hypothesis is correct that all of the finds belong to the same event, weâ€™re dealing with a conflict of a scale hitherto completely unknown north of the Alps,â€ says dig co-director Thomas Terberger, an archaeologist at the Lower Saxony State Service for Cultural Heritage in Hannover. â€œThereâ€™s nothing to compare it to.â€ It may even be the earliest direct evidenceâ€”with weapons and warriors togetherâ€”of a battle this size anywhere in the ancient world.
Northern Europe in the Bronze Age was long dismissed as a backwater, overshadowed by more sophisticated civilizations in the Near East and Greece. Bronze itself, created in the Near East around 3200 B.C.E., took 1000 years to arrive here. But Tollenseâ€™s scale suggests more organizationâ€”and more violenceâ€”than once thought. â€œWe had considered scenarios of raids, with small groups of young men killing and stealing food, but to imagine such a big battle with thousands of people is very surprising,â€ says Svend Hansen, head of the German Archaeological Instituteâ€™s (DAIâ€™s) Eurasia Department in Berlin. The well-preserved bones and artifacts add detail to this picture of Bronze Age sophistication, pointing to the existence of a trained warrior class and suggesting that people from across Europe joined the bloody fray.