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Slaughter at the bridge: Uncovering a colossal Bronze Age battle - from Science Mag (2016)

Apparently an amateur archaeologist discovered this site in 1996 and there were thousands of warriors involved in a battle along the banks of the Tollense River.

What caught my eye was this, in full quote:

They weren't farmer-soldiers who went out every few years to brawl. These are professional fighters.

On the importance of this site and progress to-date:

So far the team has published only a handful of peer-reviewed papers. With excavations stopped, pending more funding, they’re writing up publications now. But archaeologists familiar with the project say the implications are dramatic. Tollense could force a re-evaluation of the whole period in the area from the Baltic to the Mediterranean, says archaeologist Kristian Kristiansen of the University of Gothenburg in Sweden.

My knowledge of military history is not that hot, but I do recall that the Assyrians created the world's first professional (standing) army. In particular, Wikipedia points to Tiglath-Pileser III (r. 745-727 BCE).

But Science Mag says this battle occurred around 1200 BCE, i.e. Late Bronze Age -- approximately half a millennium earlier than the Near East Assyrians.


My Question(s)

  • Wouldn't these warriors be considered the world's first standing army?

  • Am I missing something here or is this archaeological dig that significant?

  • Also, what is this line, "Tollense could force a re-evaluation of the whole period in the area from the Baltic to the Mediterranean", referring to?

  • Not sure if this is wrong to ask here, but if this site is that important, how could they run out of funds?

  • If I got the first question wrong, i.e. Wouldn't these warriors be considered the world's first standing army?, then I believe I should delete the question. (And apologise for wasting everyone's time) ... :-) – J Asia Oct 15 '17 at 14:28
  • I downvoted this. You have taken the term professional soldiers too far. There is a good article which asserts they were guards for a caravan. This is how valuable caravans would have been transported. – John Dee Oct 16 '17 at 0:13
  • Ok. I see it's not your fault. The statement that there were thousands of soldiers theoretical, more likely there were hundreds. – John Dee Oct 16 '17 at 0:16
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The Bronze-Age site in the Tollense Valley is an interesting one. However, I would treat many of the claims in that article with caution. To date, only a few peer-reviewed papers have been published, and in particular we are still waiting for the reports documenting the human osteo-archaeology in detail.

Furthermore, some of the claims in that article do seem difficult to reconcile with the results published so far.


What we do know is that the excavations have produced remains from at least 124 individuals. The bones are almost entirely dis-articulated and are scattered along a stretch of the River Tollense more than 2.5km in length. The excavation team have suggested that:

... demographic analyses, based on isolated skulls, pelves, and femurs, suggest a strong dominance of young adult male individuals

  • [Brinker et al, 2014]

It is important to realise that, while the sex of intact adult skeletons can often be determined with a high degree of confidence (unlike those of juveniles), this can be notoriously difficult when examining individual bones. Because of that, it is probably worth waiting for the full publication of the results, before drawing any firm conclusions.

However, the analysis of a sample of the remains published in Antiquity in 2011 suggested that somewhere between one third and half of those analysed might have been older males, females, or juveniles [Detlef et al, 2011]. This doesn't really seem to fit the pattern of something we would recognise as a professional standing army.


In terms of the numbers involved, it does seem a bit of a stretch to extrapolate from the remains of 124 individuals to:

Thousands of warriors [coming] together in a brutal struggle, perhaps fought on a single day ...

  • [Curry, 2006]

Even the characterisation of the people who fought on the banks of the Tollense as "warriors" seems to be, at best, premature.

We know there was a high-status group in the Bronze-Age that have been characterised as a "warrior elite" on the basis of grave-goods like bronze swords and daggers that have been been recovered when excavating Bronze-Age burials. What is remarkable in the case of the remains excavated to date in the Tollense valley is how few show wounds consistent with those weapons.

A significant number show wounds from flint or bronze arrowheads, but we would expect that use of the bow and arrow for hunting would have been fairly common in the Bronze-Age. Many more show evidence of blunt-force trauma which might be associated with clubs or similar weapons.

In fact, the published evidence appears rather to suggest a group of Bronze-Age farmers, using the weapons available to them, led by a small group of elite warriors armed with weapons of the types familiar from Bronze-Age burials.


For now, it is probably safer to say only that hundreds of people fought on the banks of the Tollense. The evidence certainly does not yet suggest anything that we would consider to be a standing army.


An alternative interpretation, based on evidence for climate change in the second-half of the second millennium BCE, may fit the known facts rather better than the interpretation presented in the article in Science.

Tony Brown combined the analyses of a number of climatic indicators to provide a picture of the changing climate in Britain in the Bronze-Age. These were presented in the first Bronze Age Review, published in 2008 [Brown, 2008]. The results suggest an unusually dry period in the second-half of the second millennium BCE, centred around c. 1200 BCE cal (3150 BP cal).

In that context, as we have seen with modern natural disasters, populations might well have been forced to migrate in relatively large groups. A population of this type might provide a better match to the demographics we seem to see at Tollense.

Either way, we will have to wait until full publication before we can draw any firm conclusions.


So, to answer your questions:

Wouldn't these warriors be considered the world's first standing army? On the basis of present evidence, no.

Am I missing something here or is this archaeological dig that significant? Possibly. We await full publication.

What does the line, "Tollense could force a re-evaluation of the whole period in the area from the Baltic to the Mediterranean", refer to? If the battle really did involve some 4000 warriors, this would be unique in the European Bronze-Age, and comparable in scale with the largest battles known in the eastern Mediterranean.

If this site is that important, how could they run out of funds? As yet, the importance of the site has yet to be fully demonstrated. The initial research plan and budget covered the work done to date (and, presumably, the publication of the results). I'd guess future funding will depend on those published results.


Sources

Brinker, Ute, et al: The Bronze Age battlefield in the Tollense Valley, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Northeast Germany – Combat marks on human bones as evidence of early warrior societies in northern Middle Europe?, in the Proceedings of the XVII UISPP World Congress, volume 9, 2014

Brown, Tony: The Bronze Age climate and environment of Britain, in Bronze Age Review, Volume 1, November 2008, pp7-22

Curry, Andrew: Slaughter at the bridge: Uncovering a colossal Bronze Age battle, Science, 24 March 2016

Jantzen, Detlef, et al: A Bronze Age battlefield? Weapons and trauma in the Tollense Valley, north-eastern Germany, Antiquity 85 (2011), pp417-433

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    "... only a few peer-reviewed papers published..." made me wonder too. Thx for the list. A question on bones in wet environment, isn't it affected? Doesn't the location affect the integrity of the artifacts/bones? – J Asia Oct 16 '17 at 21:33
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    @JAsia The wet environment isn't a problem per se, but the taphonomy of deposition can create problems. Bones can become broken and abraded, and diagnostic features can be lost when they are moved around by the river. – sempaiscuba Oct 16 '17 at 23:00
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Wouldn't these warriors be considered the world's first standing army?

Possibly.

Am I missing something here or is this archaeological dig that significant?

Also, what is this line, "Tollense could force a re-evaluation of the whole period in the area from the Baltic to the Mediterranean", referring to?

I'm not too familiar with that time period, but best I'm aware it's generally assumed that there were no well organized civilizations in the area (see Urnfield culture for instance). Think small, loosely related settlements, rather than large city building cultures. 4,000 professional soldiers fighting each other would be significant enough to revisit assumptions on how they lived and interacted.

Not sure if this is wrong to ask here, but if this site is that important, how could they run out of funds?

At least two reasons:

  • There are always one or more groups in the political spectrum who will argue that this or that field of study has no immediately practical or productive value. This limits the total budget that gets allocated to topics like History.
  • Based on your quotes, it sounds like the researchers haven't built enough momentum to secure interest, acceptance of their conclusions, and the funding that goes with it; they're publishing their findings in the hopes of doing so.

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