Friday, March 25, 2016

Battles Long Ago: Tollense Crossing 1200 BCE

Not really one of my usual "battles" pieces, but I came across this and found it truly fascinating.

The short version is that at some time around 1200 BCE some sort of combat took place along the bank of the Tollense River on the north German plain.

The Tollense valley is glacial and about half a kilometer wide. At the time of the fight it was getting increasingly marshy as Holocene post-glacial sea level rise lifted the level of the Baltic and inundated the plain.

In Bronze Age times the streambed was broad, and flat, and probably studded with alder and birch.

The surrounding forests were dominated by oak, ash, lime, and elm. Jantzen et al (2010) says that "The Bronze Age environment can be described as a partly open landscape that showed limited human impact. However, flax, barley, oat and wheat pollen indicate some farming activities (nearby)".

We don't know who the combatants were who met in the Tollense valley in that year near 1200 BCE, or why they fought, of what the outcome was. The most common explanation is some sort of pitched battle between warbands:
"About 3200 years ago, two armies clashed at a river crossing near the Baltic Sea. (T)his 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."
This is not the only explanation and, frankly, is hard to square with the presence of elderly and infant remains among the dead.
Another possibility is that this was a crime rather than a war; robbery on a massive scale as a raiding party bushwhacked a merchant party and its armed guards:
"A Silesian caravan transporting large quantities of tin and other metals was moving...along the Tollense river...protected by armed guard which consisted of both horsemen and infantrymen. The caravan was attacked by a gang or even a which probably came from the north west, probably from the Jutland peninsula or even further north. These people were armed with more primitive weapons, arrows with flint arrowheads, wooden spears and wooden clubs. Denmark and Sweden have huge flint deposits so it is quite possible that the attackers came from there.

The attackers...launched a surprise attack from the forest which surrounded the river. They first pelted the caravan with arrows, targeting the mounted soldiers first. This is why we have dead people mixed with dead horses. Remember the clustered bronze arrowheads mixed with human and horse bones? Were they the arrows which the horsemen never got to take out of their quivers? I believe that the arrows with the bronze arrowheads were fired by mounted archers. The proof for that is the bronze arrowhead which was found embedded in a skull. This arrowhead could only have been fired from a position above the head, which would indicate that the archer was on a horseback.
Also the flint arrowhead which was found embedded in a humerus (upper arm) bone is embedded under such angle that the shot must have come from below, meaning that the arrow was fired by a foot soldier shooting a mounted warrior.

(After the exchange of bowfire) the frontal assault ensued which resulted in hand to hand battle. It is most probable that the attackers won. The number of dead would suggest that this is what happened. The attackers killed all the people from the caravan, collected all the metal, metal armor and weapons and other valuables and remaining pack animals and returned back to wherever they came from. They left all the dead Silesians where they fell."
This interpretation is in the minority. The bulk of the scholarship gleaned from the Tollense concludes that this was the clash of arms; feuding tribes, or even more - the assembled warbands of a local king, perhaps, or remnant of a mass migration produced by the stress of changing climate. The women and children? Camp-followers; Bronze Age logistical support elements.
Jantzen et al (2010) conclude that this battle that may have taken days or possibly even weeks:
"The number of individuals (~100) so far identified from the Tollense Valley, who were probably killed during a conflict over some days or weeks, is on a larger scale than earlier examples for potential violence (see Thrane 2006: 278). It is unclear whether we are dealing with professional warriors. Some women and children are also present in the sample; according to ethnographic data they could have supported the men in fighting, for example by organising food or by carrying weapons (Keeley 1996: 35). The considerable number of individuals involved does not support the scenario of a small-scale conflict of local farmers or small war bands (Osgood 2006). Some bronze pins of Silesian types (Ulrich 2008) found in the Tollense Valley indicate close contacts with this region (~400km) to the south-east. First results of δ13C and 15N analysis of the human remains indicate millet to be part of the diet, which is uncommon during the Early Bronze Age in northern Germany, and might suggest invaders from the south."
Or the the travelers were from the south and the invaders were from the could one tell from the bare bones and metal and stone? The answer is that we can't.
No, we will never know the answers. Never know the who, or the why. Those are as lost to us as are the people who fought and died along the Tollense all those thousands of years ago.

Which, in its way, is a good reminder. That for all that we think of "history" as the great events, the memorable and the remembered, history is made up largely of people like you and me, living ordinary lives and dying ordinary deaths and being forgotten, leaving nothing behind us but our bones.


  1. 1. Arrow struck from above (the skull) does not indicate horse archery. Flight archery is possible with yew or hazelwood longbows and has been possible 3,200 years ago already. Also, heads are not always upright, particularly not in a shield wall.

    2. It's common that a battle or skirmish ends with one party withdrawing and exposing teh back to the enemy. Yet men struck down from behind does not prove it happened. A proper flanking manoeuvre at large or very small (individual) scale yields the same hit from behind.

    1. That said; I'm skeptical of the "mounted archer" theory on practical grounds. It's damn deadly difficult to control a horse and hit something with an arrow at the same time. Almost all horse bowmen in Eurasian history came either out of horse nomad cultures or were professional cavalrymen. My shallow understanding of Broze Age north central Germany doesn't include either on the scene at the time...

  2. As noted in the text, those are the theories advanced by a single individual who, so far as I can tell from the text is not an academic or military historian. I included his version simply as an alternative view of the findings. The opinion is the author's and I neither endorse nor reject them. Your theories are equally valid given that we have no way of reconstructing the tactical circumstances of this...whatever it was.

  3. I will go for some speculation also. My guessing game is as good as anyone elses:

    Consider the pic of the "flint 'arrowhead' embedded in an upper arm bone". That portion of the upper arm bone or humerus that is shown appears to be the upper end that attaches to the shoulder. Based on the large dimension of that end of the humerus, my wild-a$$-guess is that is more likely a flint point on a spear rather than an arrowhead. Probably a short stabbing type spear aimed upwards similar to those short Zulu jabbing spears. Both victim and attacker were on foot in my book, not on horseback. And I admit to being no expert on flints, but the lack of barbs and the possible leaf shape seems more lance-like to me rather than an arrowhead. Although I agree that it is an extremely complicated matter to be able to differentiate an arrow point from a spear point, especially without better dimensions.

    Have at it

  4. This would have been a massive logistical effort for the time, too. All those warriors needed to be fed, firewood found for cooking, grain and game gathered and other essentials, even if this was for a brief period. Even if it was a merchant caravan that got bushwhacked, it still would have taken a pretty large force to do so.

    Another thing: If we have found people not local to the area or even the region as the Science article implies, that would also seem to suggest that there were some very extended social bonds, bonds close enough that a journey of several weeks (I'd guess) would have to be undertaken to get to the Tollense site. That's a pretty large area (from what I know) for a pre-literate (again, as far as I know) society or societies to have that much affiliation. Even with the "caravan raid" hypothesis, that's still a large group of geographically diverse individuals.

    All this points to a remarkably well-organized society or societies. I'm speculating just like everyone else, but the opposing sides were at least in the same ballpark as far as size, even if most of the casualties were from one side, there would still have to have been a good sized number of attackers. Even by medieval standards, this would have been a good sized battle (and the medieval warriors had higher crop yields and a road network).

    This is the kind of stuff historians and scientists live for: A whole new can of worms to explore with wide ranging implications.

  5. Chris - Let us hope that the historians studying this event at Tollense are more objective than my rant above - and more objective than the earlier archeologists that thought the bones were from a flooded cemetery as cited in the Science article.

  6. Mike:
    I don't think any of that was unwarranted. A big thing now in archeology and antropology is recreating (using the technology available) and actually using the tools. Someone with experience with spears or archery is going to bring a fresh set of eyes to the problem.

    Another part of the investigation will be to collect more evidence in the type of wounds left by various weapons used in various ways. How hard was the hit, from what direction, what would bronze vs. flint do to bone (and what condition were both the target (how well protected and muscled) and the weapon (sharp tip? new? reused and resharpened?) were in.

    All this minutiae will give us a better understanding of the people and societies that intersected here. (Was this a first encounter? How well did the defenders defend?)


  7. Another point is that I understand that only a portion of the area has been excavated, so a lot of this is speculation based on a very limited data set. So consider the possibility that what we "know" is based on, say, 10% of the possible information. That leaves a LOT of additional data to be observed, analyzed, and processed.

  8. Yeah, and it also presupposes that what's been excavated is an average sample. This part may not be typical. It might have been one of the decisive points of the battle line. Depending on the formations used by the respective parties, it may have been just an unusually intensely contested spot, or a desperate sub-battle to stop a flanking move.

  9. Another massacre in what is now Alsace. But this one was even older, circa 4400 - 4200 BC.