May 27, 2011 -- The earliest probable evidence for a large-scale battle, described in the latest issue of Antiquity, reveals in gory detail what warfare was like during the Bronze Age.
The 3,200-year-old likely battlefield freezes in time the face-to-face combat that took place in northeastern Germany's Tollense Valley along the banks of the River Tollense.
"From the river valley (a stretch of about one mile), we have a minimum number of around 100 individuals," co-author Thomas Terberger told Discovery News.
"More than 40 skulls are present," he added. "Because we have excavated only a very small part it seems reasonable to estimate hundreds of individuals."
Artifacts found at the site include wooden clubs, flint arrowheads, a bone point and the remains of horses. Skeletons for some women and children were found, but the majority of the victims were young males.
Terberger, an archaeologist and professor of prehistory at Germany's Greifswald University, said that he and his colleagues believe the Tollense Valley finds are the "remains of repeated conflicts within a short period of time -- some days, others a few weeks -- at one site where victims were thrown into the river or at various places in a limited stretch of the valley."
A collection of some of the wooden weapons found at the site appears in this photo.
There is no question that these individuals died at the hands of other humans.
For example, one person was hit in the head with a heavy object, likely one of the nearby wooden clubs, which looked like sturdy baseball bats. The blow was enough to smash the skull.
Another person also suffered head bashings, but may have died due to other bodily injuries. Yet another person was shot in the head by an arrow. Partial healing suggests this victim survived with a hole in his head, but only for a few days.
Yet another person may have been stabbed in the head with a spear.
Three-dimensional scans of one of the lesions on the skull and bone are shown here.
These and other human remains prove what Hollywood has suggested in recreations of ancient battles. Men fought head on using clubs and spears, with some on horseback. Arrows were shot from both close range and at a distance. There is, as of yet, no evidence of shields or other protective gear.
"Nowadays, the Tollense River is a remote region, but in the Bronze Age, the region was of more relevance," Terberger said. "It is possible that the river formed a border between different regions and it is also possible that control of the river and crossings of the river were important."
Wooden weapons mixed with human remains appear here.
Due to the large number of victims, with more likely to be found, he doubts the conflict(s) were fights among local small villages. Preliminary evidence suggests some of the victims consumed a millet-based diet, more typical of southern Germany at the time.
The warfare might then have been over control of this key northeastern spot. The earliest evidence for silk in Central Europe was discovered in a nearby grave of a woman, suggesting that extensive trading took place.
Archaeologists have unearthed evidence for earlier probable battles, but nothing approaching this scale. For example, 35 people are known to have died during a Stone Age battle in Bavaria dating to 6300 B.C. Remains from another conflict in Germany date to 5000 B.C.
Rick Schulting of the School of Archaeology at the University of Oxford hopes additional research will clarify exactly what took place in the Tollense Valley.
"What perhaps surprises me most is the claim (made in the research paper) that some individuals survived their injuries for up to weeks," Schulting told Discovery News. "This would be unusual in the context of a battle at this time, which we would expect to be more of the nature of 'hit and run,' though of course we may be wrong about this, or the Tollense case may be an exception. The presence of young infants also requires some explanation."
Anthony Harding, a professor of archaeology at the University of Exeter, is convinced that the site and associated remains represent an ancient battlefield.
"Given the large number of human bones with trauma, including some obviously inflicted by blows from clubs, arrows and even swords, I do think that (Terberger's) interpretation as a conflict site is reasonable, indeed probably the only viable one."
Finally, Nick Thorpe, head of the Department of Archaeology at the University of Winchester, raised an interesting question: Why isn't there more evidence for bronze weapons, given that this was the Bronze Age?
"Instead," he told Discovery News, "most of the evidence is of people being dispatched with wooden clubs, which may imply that the dead are mostly victims of a post-battle massacre. Perhaps those who surrendered were not deemed to be worthy of being killed like warriors."
A collection of other bronze finds found in Tollense Valley appear here. Researchers have yet to determine if any of them were used in battle.