Tollense River Site – Archaeology done right

NOTE:  One reader made a valid point about the title of this post.  He took exception to the use of “amateur” to qualify “archaeology”.  And he is correct.  In the case of Tollense River, the amateur did discover the site and bring it to the attention of professionals who have worked the site.  But that is about all. Otherwise, the discovery work detailed here was done by professionals. It was my intent to demonstrate how that amateurs should interface with the professionals of the field.  I still think that point stands. If all relic hunters / amateur archaeologists approached such sites with a similar attitude, it would benefit all.   But, accepting the valid critique of the title, I’ve dropped “amateur” from the header of this post.

A story making the rounds of late reminds us that warfare is a human activity from the earliest times:

Slaughter at the bridge: Uncovering a colossal Bronze Age battle

About 3200 years ago, two armies clashed at a river crossing near the Baltic Sea. The confrontation can’t be found in any history books—the written word didn’t become common in these parts for another 2000 years—but this was no skirmish between local clans. Thousands of warriors came together in a brutal struggle, perhaps fought on a single day, using weapons crafted from wood, flint, and bronze, a metal that was then the height of military technology.

Struggling to find solid footing on the banks of the Tollense River, a narrow ribbon of water that flows through the marshes of northern Germany toward the Baltic Sea, the armies fought hand-to-hand, maiming and killing with war clubs, spears, swords, and knives. Bronze- and flint-tipped arrows were loosed at close range, piercing skulls and lodging deep into the bones of young men. Horses belonging to high-ranking warriors crumpled into the muck, fatally speared. Not everyone stood their ground in the melee: Some warriors broke and ran, and were struck down from behind.

When the fighting was through, hundreds lay dead, littering the swampy valley. Some bodies were stripped of their valuables and left bobbing in shallow ponds; others sank to the bottom, protected from plundering by a meter or two of water. Peat slowly settled over the bones. Within centuries, the entire battle was forgotten.

The article from Science Magazine continues to discuss how this battle, without written history, came to be known:

In 1996, an amateur archaeologist found a single upper arm bone sticking out of the steep riverbank—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 Europe’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.

A Spiegel Online article identifies the amateur archeologists as “Hans-Dietrich Borgwardt and his son Ronald.”

The article quoted above is actually an update from those published a few years back… specifically one from 2011 on the BBC’s site:

Dr Harald Lubke of the Centre for Baltic and Scandinavian Archaeology in Germany said the evidence pointed to a major battle site, perhaps the earliest found to date.

“At the the beginning of the Neolithic, we have finds like Talheim in Germany, where we have evidence of violence, but it doesn’t look like this situation in the Tollense Valley where we have many humans there in the riverbed,” he told the BBC.

“We have a lot of violence from blunt weapons without any healing traces, and we have also evidence of sharp weapons. There are a lot of signs that this happened immediately before the victims died and the bodies are not buried in the normal way.”…

The researchers suggest the bodies may have been dumped in the river before being washed away and deposited on a sandbar. Alternatively, the dead could have been killed on the spot in “the swampy valley environment”, the paper concludes….

“It’s absolutely necessary to find the place where the bodies came into the water and that will explain if it really was a battle or something else, such as an offering, but we believe that a fight is the best explanation at the moment.”

So let’s lay this out end to end. Five years ago, archaeologists had some ideas about what took place at the site.  But they were searching for more evidence that might confirm their hypothesis.  As the Science Magazine article states,

When the first of these finds was excavated in 1996, it wasn’t even clear that Tollense was a battlefield. Some archaeologists suggested the skeletons might be from a flooded cemetery, or that they had accumulated over centuries.

But with careful and deliberate work the archaeologists pieced together fragments of the event.  The wounds, for instance, were examined.  That indicated the men had died at the time of the wounding, instead of having time to heal.  Other details were teased out of the artifacts and bones.  Enough to tell something more about the men who died there:

And yet chemical tracers in the remains suggest that most of the Tollense warriors came from hundreds of kilometers away. The isotopes in your teeth reflect those in the food and water you ingest during childhood, which in turn mirror the surrounding geology—a marker of where you grew up. … Further clues come from isotopes of another element, nitrogen, which reflect diet. Nitrogen isotopes in teeth from some of the men suggest they ate a diet heavy in millet, a crop more common at the time in southern than northern Europe.

And even more….

Ancient DNA could potentially reveal much more: When compared to other Bronze Age samples from around Europe at this time, it could point to the homelands of the warriors as well as such traits as eye and hair color. Genetic analysis is just beginning, but so far it supports the notion of far-flung origins. DNA from teeth suggests some warriors are related to modern southern Europeans and others to people living in modern-day Poland and Scandinavia.

Archaeologist Thomas Terberger says, “They weren’t farmer-soldiers who went out every few years to brawl. These are professional fighters.”

OK, why am I wasting valuable Civil War blogging space for this?

Well to make a point.  Earlier this month I opened with a post about specific problems with relic hunting at Brandy Station.  Most readers seem to have understood the point being made (they may or may not have agreed, but they understood the narrow focus).  But some disagreed, took exception, and were very vocal about it.  Generally those displeased didn’t seem to understand the narrow focus of the post.  Instead they launched a broad defense (yes, very defensive) of the relic hunting hobby.

So let’s go back to that position – there are some problems in the hobby and those problems have a destructive effect on the history of the particular sites.  On the other hand, when the hobby is approached properly, with the right mindset and discipline, there is a net positive gain for all.  I don’t know the details of Hans-Dietrich Borgwardt’s experience.  But it sounds like he approached his “find” the right way.

Likewise, and closer to the Civil War period, there are examples of others in the hobby approaching “finds” the right way.  Scott Clark offered, in 2013, a series of posts about work at Montpelier.  In 2002, archeologists mapped the site of a Civil War winter encampment, and, from the Montpelier web site:

Since that time, the Montpelier Archaeology Department has spent several years with the aid of metal-detecting specialists in mapping in not only individual hut sites, but new encampments, picket posts, and even the pre- and post-Civil War domestic sites that are dotted throughout the landscape. By identifying these sites, Montpelier is able to put into place such things as the Forest Management Plan to discuss conscientious management of the various wood-lots on Montpelier while still managing the cultural resources for future generations.

In other words, without mad rushes in some contest-like atmosphere… rather with the discipline of a … well… a discipline!  The net result is a better understanding of the past.  That’s doing it right.  Paced… the past has no rush to unveil itself, you see.

Think about it… if enough wood, bronze, and tin artifacts, along with bones, survived 3200 years at the Tollense River to tell us remarkable aspects of events unrecorded by written words, just imagine what we can glean… with deliberate and focused study… from 150 year old sites for which we have vast libraries full of documentation!

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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