Go see “Dunkirk”… It’s not history, but it’s good!

There you have it, in my “bottom line up front” method of driving home a point. If you have not seen “Dunkirk” by now, then you should.  Well worth the price of admission.  An hour and forty-five minutes of good entertainment… on a historical subject of note.

But I’d not call it history.  And I don’t intend that as a swipe at the movie, the director, the actors, or such.  And I’m not going to give you some list of historical inaccuracies.  If I were, we’d start with the use of ex-Spanish aircraft powered by British engines, with yellow noses (as a scale model builder, I have to pause and “stitch count” here… the yellow recognition colors were not adopted for another month or so in the run-up to the Battle of Britain) to portray Nazi fighters and bombers. Or the Spitfire Mk. Vs, which was not in service until 1941.

However, in a world awash of CGI, I actually like the notion of using something real to stand in.  And, in a similar way, I don’t really have a problem with characters based on historical figures, but not quite set to the historical template.  It’s OK.  It’s a movie.

Rather, when I say it is not history, I’m referring to the format.  This is not a movie scripted to tell the events from a historical perspective.  Viewers of the movie are expected to have all that scoped out before taking to the cushy theater seat.  There are no white-lettered prefaces, narrator descriptions, or scenes that take us to the Prime Minister’s office.  The only situational introductions offered are a few leaflets thrown into view (which one character quickly gathers up for use as “materials”) and a few chats between officers on the Mole.  That’s all we really get of the “big picture.”  You, the entertained, are expected to show up knowing all the background as to what Dunkirk was all about.

And that, I offer, is refreshing in a way.

Historical subject, to be sure.  But Dunkirk, to me at least, was more “story telling” in the classic, perhaps sociological, sense.  It’s the story that in days before movies and radio shows would be shared around the community as part of legend, lore, and those little bits of shared experience that brings commonality to a society.  It is… to be blunt… a story about “us”  – with the “us” in this case being those who live on the island inhabited by a people who insist they are the center of the known universe… em… England.  In short, Dunkirk is a “tribal” story.

And there’s not a darn thing wrong with that!

I stepped out of the theater impressed with a subtle, but overwhelming, thread.  That being the turning of the characters from concerns and thoughts of themselves towards a efforts to support the collective goal.  At the start, we have soldiers doing everything to just get onto a boat, any boat.  We have sailors concerned with ships being sunk.  We have pilots concerned over their fuel.  And, civilians concerned about giving up control of their property (a boat) to the government… or young men worried about making an impression.

Yet, as the separate time lines unfold, we find characters moving away from those self-centered concerns.  They make sacrifices.  They embrace actions for the common good.  And, that happens with most of the major characters sharing space on a little boat…. I see what you did there Christopher Nolan!

On the other side of this “story telling” what are we shown of the “enemy”?  Well, the Germans are there.  But they are not there.  Instead, Germans are represented by bombs, shells, bullets, torpedoes, and airplanes.  Yes, a diving Stuka is pretty much a Nazi trademark.  But we never see faces, until the very end. And even then just fleeting views in the gathering darkness.  This is a classic element of those old tribal legends.  The enemy was just a prop. A counterpoint to the humanness of the “us.”

And again, there’s not a darn thing wrong with that! Indeed, it is these defeat-into-victory experiences which temper and strengthen a society.  Not something to be shunned and shunted aside.  These are the very things we should have at the fore.  These sort of things bring us to the essence of a society.  And I dare say, even help us connect beyond our little fold of society.

So what if I can’t call it “history”?  Dunkirk is a good movie.  The value of this film increases with the knowledge, of the subject, one carries into the theater. Likewise, that value continues to grow with the more time contemplating the subject afterwards.

“Tribal stories” work that way.


Tanks! A little off topic… but good history is good history!

Let’s slide up the time line to World War II for just a bit… a blogger’s indulgence, if you may allow:

But hey… he spends much of the presentation discussing the finer points of the Sherman tank, named after General William “Uncle Billy” Sherman.  So I claim a Civil War connection on that basis.

This is a lengthy video (just over 45 minutes).  But worth the listen.  Nicholas Moran turns what would normally be a bland discussion of olive drab minutia into an entertaining presentation.

I’ll admit to envy of Moran’s job.  He works for Wargaming.net and gets paid to go around doing research in promotion of the company’s products… which include the World of Tanks game.  I usually keep aloof from wargame discussions, for several reasons.  But I do find many of the analysis models used with wargaming (speaking to the hobby in general, not just the company with their fancy video games) to be most useful tools for the historian’s trade.

At any rate, Moran asks us to call into question “common knowledge” about historical events.  He’s not saying something is wrong.  He’s asking us to challenge what is often accepted as fact.  That common knowledge, he contends, should be supported by sources.

Furthermore, we should put those sources in context.  Fast forward to the 14 minute mark and you see Moran mention Belton Cooper’s Death Traps.  A fine read.  Cooper’s memoirs are on many professional reading lists, for good reason.  But, when used as source material, a memoir must be placed into context.  In this particular case, the writer of the memoir was not an authoritative source for a specific piece of “common knowledge.”  Again, this is not to say Cooper is all wrong or should be discounted in whole.  It is to say we must weigh each component equally with other sources.

For those of us who study the Civil War, doesn’t that sound familiar?  It should!

How about this – Sherman, the general, didn’t go about spontaneously burning everything across Georgia and the Carolinas.  The real story is more complex.  And we know of that complexity from thorough examination of the source materials.

Likewise, Sherman, the tank, was not more prone to catching fire than any other armored fighting vehicle of its time.  The real story is, also, more complex. And we know of that complexity… you guessed it… from examining the source materials.

Good history is the product of proper analysis of source materials, to include understanding context.  The time period in focus does not change the rules about sources.

June 6, 1944 and now: Putting decisions under fire under fire

D-Day is to World War II what Gettysburg is to the Civil War… at least from the American perspective.  I could argue, with much justification, that Guadalcanal and the Bulge should occupy that place… but, with good reasons, the mountain of books focused all or in part on June 6, 1944 outweighs the other subjects.  Yes, movies catering to the general audience hit theaters to show us Gettysburg and D-Day.  But scenes from Vicksburg and “Starvation Island” are rare.

With that focus, we see the smallest details… minute to minute, minutest details… analyzed to a degree not allocated with other subjects.  We have experts who can walk us through every regiment’s experience at Gettysburg, at the step by step level.  Likewise for D-Day, though at the battalion level allowing for tactical shifts.  With that detailed focus, we see so may decisions analyzed and assessed.  Decisions that often proved pivotal within a larger pivotal historical event.  Decisions in focus… and under “fire” or review by historians… much more so than for other times in history.

If I recall an incident from my own experience here… one morning while chatting with a company first sergeant (senior NCO on the base in particular), he lamented the morning report was past due, again.  I remarked, half in jest, “you know, Top, some day a historian will find your morning report most valuable.”  The old sergeant responded, “I doubt it.  Most times historians are more interested in the things that don’t get into the reports.”  And as an example he referenced a “oh-five-hundred” decision by the Captain to dispatch men to a “hot spot.”  Point well made.

We, the historians, have the task of explaining what happened.  But we have the luxury of detachment from the happening.  We, and the consumers of history, live through the written word to gain appreciation for those times.  And with respect to places like D-Day and Gettysburg, the appreciation requires us to look at details of decisions made.

Thinking, as the day calls for, to D-Day, I look towards the actions of two generals on the beach – Brigadier-General Norman Cota and Brigadier-General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.

Consider Cota’s situation on Omaha Beach.  Leading the 29th Infantry Division (the “Blue and Gray” division, alluding to Civil War heraldry among the division’s regiments), Cota was with the second wave ashore but one hour after the first landings.  The situation was a shambles.  Pinned down under direct and indirect fire, the division simply could not attain more than a finger-hold on the beach.  It was “bloody Omaha.” Within that grim situation, Cota made a decision.  And as with any major decision within a battle which has been depicted on the silver screen, we have the moment dramatized in the film “The Longest Day”:


At one part, Robert Mitchum, playing Cota, rallies his men:

I don’t have to tell you the story. You all know it. Only two kinds of people are gonna stay on this beach: those that are already dead and those that are gonna die. Now get off your butts. You guys are the Fighting 29th.

As with any good Hollywood adaptation, the facts are conflated to make a good script.  The quote by Mitchum was actually the rally of Colonel George A. Taylor, 16th US Infantry.  Likewise,  Cota’s line, “Gentlemen, we are being killed on the beaches. Let us go inland and be killed.” was given to Eddy Albert, playing Cota’s aide, in the movie.  Such is the work of screen-writers wrangling with the facts to make an entertaining story less accurate….

My point is not that Hollywood provides misleading history, but to use that movie scene as a prop to illustrate a decision made.  Cota had options. None of which were really palatable.  Still, he selected a course of action – that of trying another assault up from the beach.  Historians can, and have, analyzed that decision, after the fact, in detail.  And Cota’s decision was vindicated.

To the west of Cota and Bloody Omaha, Roosevelt’s landing on Utah Beach met with much less resistance.  Roosevelt was the assistant division commander of the 4th Infantry Division.  And, famously, he was the only general officer landing in the first wave of the assault.  Again, another episode dramatized in “The Longest Day”:



While not facing a murderous fire, Roosevelt, played by Henry Fonda, likewise faced a critical decision.  Although meeting scant resistance, the 4th Division was in the wrong place.  They secured one causeway off the beach, but they were supposed to have two… and those a mile down the beach. Such threw all plans into disarray.  Roosevelt’s decision?  Move inland, to heck with the plan.  In the movie, we hear, “The reinforcements will have to follow us wherever we are. We’re starting the war from right here. Head inland. We’re going inland.”  Not far off Roosevelt’s actual words… or so the historians say.  And again, historians have been able to analyze and review Roosevelt’s decision in light of information at his disposal at that time, as well as information Roosevelt would never know, and have determined the decision was correct… and what’s more was decisive to the outcome of the battle.

Consider, in the cases of decisions made by Cota and Roosevelt on June 6, 1944, historians have the luxury of spending years, if not decades, to ponder.  The information gathered to explain those decisions might fill a book all by itself.  Thousands of words have, over the years, related the story of those decisions.  Yet, in it all, we have to remember those decisions were made under fire in an instant.  The “participant” of history often has but a moment to act.  Historians have forever afterward to discuss.

Still, we must keep the nature of the moment in mind.  Cota and Roosevelt among others on June 6, 1944… just like Buford, Chamberlain, Cushing, and others at Gettysburg some eighty years before … made quick decisions under fire.  As we review these episodes, we should not forget how little time the participant has to make those decisions.

These decisions under fire are often made within the space between half-seconds on the clock.

“I do not claim omniscience” – The historian’s proper persective

This last weekend was the anniversary of the Battle of the Coral Sea.  The seventy-fourth anniversary, to be exact.  Just one short of the dodranscentennial observance… or semisesquicentennial, if you prefer.

The passing of the day prompted me to pick up Samuel Elliot Morison’s volume covering that portion of World War II.  If you are not familiar with his work, Morison wrote the fifteen-volume History of United States Naval Operations of World War II shortly after the close of that war. These were published from 1947 through 1962.  There is an interesting back story as to how the history came about. The short version is that Morison served as a naval staff officer during the war, allowing him access to the history “first hand” in some cases, with aim to produce a the work. The product of those years was a history still considered as defining within the subject.

What makes the work stand out, in my opinion, is exactly why I pulled Volume IV off my shelf for the anniversary, is the style of writing.  Morison’s history may be dated somewhat, but his prose is elegant.  Indeed, I could have selected one of the more recent histories produced in more recent years.  Those works that followed have largely addressed many shortcomings and flaws in the Morison’s work.  And to that point, something Morison wrote in the preface of the volume stands out for consideration:

Several books and articles covered by this volume, by able and gifted writers, have already appeared.  Most of them contain important errors, largely because the authors lacked sufficient information to tell the story correctly. In particular, they lacked information from the Japanese side; and any attempt to describe the air battles – such as Coral Sea and Midway essentially were – from one side only is fatally handicapped. Instead of taking time out to refute these errors, I have simply gone ahead and told the story as it happened, to the best of my knowledge and ability.  I do not claim omniscience. As fresh data appear, mistakes will be found and later writers will make new interpretations. It is the fate of all historians, especially those who take the risk of writing shortly after the event, to be superseded.  Far safer to write about an era long past, in which all the actors are long since dead!

Morison wrote that in 1953.  But the sentiment is one that applies well for a historian working at any time and towards any subject.

Indeed, replace the battles with respective turning points from the Civil War and, of course, Japanese with Confederate, perhaps.  Do we not see this as a “truism” to relate towards studies of the “War of the Rebellion”?  Revision is the nature of history.  And we would do well to recognize how that force need play out against the subject.  The first “revision” of history occurs when the first-person reports are written down!  To label something as lesser history because of “revisionism” is to misunderstand how the product is derived.

Proper history is based on material – sources, data, information. As that follows, a proper revision considers new, unused, or reanalyzed material.  Such revisions offer sound, logical steps through the subject.  And those are healthy evolution of the subject. At the same time, we must also keep in mind that today’s revision will be revised tomorrow!

No historian is granted the complete history to work with. What is most important is to remain true to the subject.  The historian’s work will be revised.  Such is inevitable.  But the historian’s handling of the subject will remain fixed. Thus the latter is the true legacy to consider. I think we can say something similar in regard to notable Civil War histories by notable historians.  Catton and Freeman stand on pedestals for a reason.  Any serious student of the Civil War who has not read those respective trilogies is simply missing the point of studying the Civil War to begin with!

But there are two other, perhaps more subtle, messages from that paragraph.  Morison didn’t feel the need to engage, point by point, in a refutation of earlier histories.  However, even a short read through the text will demonstrate he was willing to demonstrate corrections where needed.  Morison was not aloof from the opinions of contemporaries.  Rather he placed that discussion where it needed to be – in the notes and to the side – rather than allow it to consume the center place of the reader’s attention.  I dare say that some of our contemporary historians would do well to heed that approach.

The other subtle point made by Morison is to the production.  His is not synthesized history.  It was written whole cloth from what source material he had.  And he was not ashamed of that. We can criticize him for being a “homer”… that is being bias towards his “team” and what he’d seen those members of the United States Navy accomplish during the period of 1941-45.  Later historians have called out his slights of the British and other allies… and the U.S. Army, of course.  Still others have pointed out that he had access to some information which remained classified at the time of writing or was otherwise compartmentalized.  At most, those lead to errors of omission.  Maybe a greater part of the story might have emerged at Morison’s time.  But regardless of bias or source selection, Morison avoided more egregious errors that befell… and still befall… historians… historians with or without direct contact with the subject on which they are writing.

I think that is reflective in Morison’s greater work.  His focus was to produce, using the sources and perspective he held, a history of the events that was readable.  He wanted the story to be approachable… not obscured.  That he accomplished.



Really, really complicated history… the way history ought to be!

Does this give you pause?


A Nazi swastika with a Christian cross?  Is this the cap of Pope Benedict XVI?

This was part of a display seen during my visit to the Eisenhower Farm’s World War II weekend last summer (An excellent event, by the way… particularly if you need a breath of non-Civil War air while visiting Gettysburg).

The display belonged to a living historian portraying a German chaplain from World War II:



But I’m fascinated at times with those who dress up in German World War II uniforms and attend the “World War II days” that seem to frequent in the summer. They are not crazy neo-Nazis. And they are passionate about the study of history. In this case, the “German Chaplain” was not a “he”… but a “she” in “he” clothing.  And before readers start dismissing that situation… she was a living historian, not a real, live soldier, on that weekend.  She was there to discuss history and use the props demonstrate her depth of research and knowledge.  That’s what living historians do. Who cares what pronoun is used in the third person.  Take the dosage of history and don’t worry about who’s holding the spoon, OK?

I’m no expert on German uniforms. Barely conversant on American uniforms of the period. So I cannot speak to the authenticity of the uniform or other particulars about the props.  But after the event last summer, I researched into the subject of German chaplains. She seemed generally right about the uniform and appearance. And, as you see on her table, she had reference books and a binder of materials to show visitors… who were always inquisitive about the role she opted to portray.

The most important take away I had from the display and subsequent research was, indeed there were chaplains in the German Army during World War II.  Did I not know that before?  Well, let’s just say that I had not considered the topic and thus not appreciated the subject.  The problem is the common perspective on World War II focuses on the Nazis as villains.  And villains are to be de-humanized to some extent.  So there is a tendency to overlook that little niche within the larger, contextualized history.  Somewhat as many attempt to do with the Civil War context – either the Confederate or the Federal soldier being de-humanized in order to serve a convenient villain.

At the event, I asked her the obvious, blunt question – why this particular impression? Certainly German chaplains had to be among the obscure.  She simply said something along the lines of, “Because it was a story to tell.”

Yes, a story to be told. How could someone wear the Nazi swastika on the same hat as the Christian cross? Well, it is complex. One has to sit down and listen to the story in order to understand and appreciate.  And it is an individual-level story.  It fits within the larger context.  Adds to that larger context, I would say.  Going as far to say it actually makes the history “human” in review.  Why would a religious person serve in Hitler’s army?  To find that answer, one need get to know the subject… the human subject… as an individual.

Now let us take things a step further.  These people who lived through those times were much as you and I.  They went about their lives just as humans before and after their times.  They made decisions about things using similar logic as any other human.  From those decisions, they acted out their lives.  Those actions played into the larger script we know as history.  Individual experiences form into an aggregate that brings living color to history.  Maybe the individual has no pull on the larger course of events, but the individual lives through those events – shaped by them, or shaping them.  Perhaps among the worst things we do as historians is attempt to simplify the complexity by pushing a context to that individual experience.  Such suffocates the rich, vivid individual story.

Does the presence of a Christian cross on a cap somehow distance (if not absolve) a German chaplain from the horrors that were Nazi Germany?  No.  Far from it.  But it does say there is more to consider and think about.  It says the human experience within those historical times requires more research before fully understood.  I say we stand to learn something important from that understanding.

You see, when you bring history down to the individual level, we see more often than not the experience is not too far removed from our own.  Maybe we would not make the same decisions. I dare say, particularly as with those who donned uniforms with Nazi swastikas on the caps, we hope never to be put in a position were such decisions have to be made.  But we can relate to that past human experience.  We can have moment of contemplation “in their shoes” and gain some insight to the times.  Perhaps even yield lessons to apply to our own experience. To me, that is the beautiful simplicity of the complexity.

So, I say, savor the complexity. Such is the nature… the context… of any life. We shouldn’t lose sight that both the good and bad elements of history are comprised of actions by men and women just like us. We are all compromises and complexities. Nothing in the scope of human experience is simple.

Fortification Friday: Sandbag and Plank Revetments

Somewhat serendipitous, my pal XBradTC forwarded a link to a lavishly illustrated forum post (of a diorama credited to Andrew Belsey). Wonderful dioramas depicting British trenches from World War I in cut-away profiles.  Please browse through there, and in particular look at the annotations on the side of the elevations. Since the focus of my late Friday installments has been revetments, let us look at those. In those three selections from the modeler, we see four types of revetments, of the type used in the Great War.  Three in view on this picture:


Sandbag, wood, and wicker revetments.  Missing from this profile are corrugated iron revetments (which you will see on the other two dioramas in the post).  And corrugated iron was not something Mahan suggested for Civil War-era engineers.  Corrugated metal was around in mid-19th century America, and could have been used.  But its military applicability seems to have eluded Mahan when he was writing in 1846.

However, as we have seen, Mahan did discuss at length the manner of creating wicker-based revetments, in the form of fascines and gabions. Though the diorama depicts a simpler wicker form, more as a sheet than bundle or basket.

Closer to Mahan’s ideas on revetments are the wood and sandbag revetments.  As for the use of wood planks, Mahan wrote, briefly:

Plank revetment.  This revetment may be made by driving pieces of four-inch scantling about three feet apart, two feet below the tread of the banquette, giving them the same slope as the interior slope. Behind these pieces, boards are nailed to sustain the earth.

And we see something very similar, though not driven two feet below the tread, depicted below the firestep in the diorama.  So the physics of using wood planks to restrain earth did not change in the fifty years from Appomattox to the Somme.  Go figure.  I would point out, before we completely dismiss corrugated iron in context to Civil War revetments, the manner of fixing that type in the Great War period was similar to that described by Mahan for planking:


Another type of revetment mentioned by Mahan which would also be familiar to the Tommies used sandbags:

Sand bags are sometimes used for revetments when other materials cannot be procured; though their object, in most cases, is generally to form a speedy cover for a body of men.  They are usually made of course canvass; the bag, when empty, is two feet eight inches long, and one foot two inches wide; they are three-fourths filled with earth, and the top is loosely tied.  From their perishable nature, they are only used for a temporary purpose, as when troops are disembarked on an enemy’s coast.

Let’s examine Mahan’s emphasis on “temporary” with respect to sandbags.   We know well the Tommies on the Western Front were using sandbags through 1918.  And closer to Mahan’s period, we know that on Morris Island the Federals used sandbags extensively from 1863 through the end of the war.  Though… let us acknowledge that initially the situation fit to a “T” Mahan’s proposed scenario – being on the enemy’s coast. Far from the coast, sandbags were employed at Petersburg … and not in some “temporary” fix.

Allow me to make much about little here.  Mahan’s main objection to the sandbag was the tendency to deteriorate.  Writing in 1863, Major Thomas Brooks indicated he turned to sand bags on Morris Island were gabions had failed to retain the beach sand.  Addressing the deterioration, Brooks observed:

At the end of two months the sand-bags used in revetting the siege works herein described began to show signs of decay; but with careful usage, under favorable circumstances, sand-bags might not require replacing in twice the above time.

Brooks went on to say that in time sandbag revetment was often replaced by sod revetments…. when sod was more plentiful for the Federals along the South Carolina coast.

Now in reference to Petersburg, we see another dynamic at work, I think.  Most of the sand bags were used in revetments in battery positions.  Like Brooks earlier, the engineers had issues with sand pouring through the gabions (sand vs. soil at work here).  Furthermore, the Federals at Petersburg had ample hands, as the siege developed, to work filling sandbags to meet needs.  So deterioration was met with replacement.  Likewise, the Western Front of the Great War the density of troops at the front during periods of defensive posture (between offensives and such), left many hands for sandbag detail.  Another aspect addressing deterioration, the fabric used in 1914 was more resilient.  And today we use poly-fibers and other “space age stuff” that ensure sandbags don’t even deteriorate after discarded!

Sandbag revetments offer many advantages, no doubt overlooked by Mahan for brevity.  Already mentioned above, sandbags work better with … as the name implies… sand. Another advantage is that sandbags don’t create splinters when struck by enemy projectiles, which wood, corrugated iron, or even wicker do.  Furthermore, the sandbag offers a relatively uniform construction material over sod and other types that Mahan suggested.  The uniform nature became more appealing in situations with large armies engaged in prolonged siege operations.  Particularly where troops in rear areas might work details to produce large quantities of sandbags for distribution.

OK… sandbags… I prefer them.  Mahan did not.  Enough said.

The last type of revetment discussed by Mahan was the scarp revetment, which used a framework of timbers.  Since it is more elaborate, and its explanation needs more space, we’ll pick that up next week.  But in closing this installment, I would ask readers to consider the similarities and differences between the Mahanian trenches and those of World War I (and later periods).  Moving earth to make an entrenchment remained a task accomplished by the shovel and pick.  But the intent and practice of the entrenchments changed somewhat with time.

(Citations from Dennis Hart Mahan, A Treatise on Field Fortifications, New York: John Wiley, 1852, page 40-1; OR, Series I, Volume 28, Part I, Serial 46, page 318.)

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!