A Bronze Age Battle Lost in the Misty Past

Tollensetal Impressionsfraktur

Some fighters had bronze weapons and armor; others carried wooden clubs — and used them. (Landesamt für Kultur und Denkmalpflege Mecklenburg-Vorpommern/Landesarchäologie/D. Jantzen)

Men came to Tollense . . . or whatever it was called about 3,260 years ago.1)“The things they carried” — an appropriate literary reference? In a river valley north of Berlin, two Bronze Age armies clashed, casualties were at least in the hundreds, and no one can say who fought or why.

“We have 130 people, minimum, and five horses. And we’ve only opened 450 square meters. That’s 10% of the find layer, at most, maybe just 3% or 4%,” says Detlef Jantzen, chief archaeologist at MVDHP. “If we excavated the whole area, we might have 750 people. That’s incredible for the Bronze Age.” In what they admit are back-of-the-envelope estimates, he and Terberger argue that if one in five of the battle’s participants was killed and left on the battlefield, that could mean almost 4000 warriors took part in the fighting.

And this comparison to a war that spawned literature we still read today:

As University of Aarhus’s Vandkilde puts it: “It’s an army like the one described in Homeric epics, made up of smaller war bands that gathered to sack Troy”—an event thought to have happened fewer than 100 years later, in 1184 B.C.E. That suggests an unexpectedly widespread social organization, Jantzen says. “To organize a battle like this over tremendous distances and gather all these people in one place was a tremendous accomplishment,” he says.

It’s my literary imagination at work — someone must have sung those dead warriors, maybe in a long elegiac poem like Y Gododdin — but in what language? And to what ends?

Lost, all lost.

Notes   [ + ]

1. “The things they carried” — an appropriate literary reference?