The downfall of numerous previously stable Bronze Age civilizations in the Fertile Crescent/Eastern Mediterranean around 1200 BC, leading to a Dark Ages of several centuries, is known as the Late Bronze Age Collapse (a.k.a., World War Zero).
Over the last 20 years, archaeologists have been digging up the site of a surprisingly large battle from the 1200s BC along the Tollense River between Berlin and the Baltic Sea. Previous thinking had been that Northern Europe was too underpopulated back then to support such large scale violence.
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.
A couple of things to keep in mind: the archaeologists’ estimate of 4,000 combatants is a back of the envelope extrapolation. So far they’ve found about 100 dead bodies while digging up about 10% of the potential site. If the rest of the site is 80% as productive as what they’ve dug up so far, that would be 800 dead bodies. If 20% of the combatants died, that would be 4,000 total combatants.
An alternative theory is that this didn’t resemble the Battle of Gettysburg, but, perhaps, it was more like land piracy, with raiders attacking an armed caravan of merchants (being the Bronze Age and all, the most likely high value product to be transported for commerce was bronze and its key constituent tin).
Northern Europe in the Bronze Age was long dismissed as a backwater, overshadowed by more sophisticated civilizations in the Near East and Greece. Bronze itself, created in the Near East around 3200 B.C.E., took 1000 years to arrive here. But Tollense’s scale suggests more organization—and more violence—than once thought.
It took a long time for crops that originated in the Fertile Crescent to be optimized for the short growing seasons at northern latitudes. This fight took place at almost 54 degrees north, which is further north than Edmonton.
There was a general progression northward over the millennia in the west of the centers of power as agriculture adapted to higher latitudes. Europe is set extremely far north for a densely inhabited region (for example, Vladivostok in Siberia is only 43 degrees north) due to the Gulf Stream warming the higher latitudes, but it took a long time for crops to adjust.
“We had considered scenarios of raids, with small groups of young men killing and stealing food, but to imagine such a big battle with thousands of people is very surprising,” says Svend Hansen, head of the German Archaeological Institute’s (DAI’s) Eurasia Department in Berlin. The well-preserved bones and artifacts add detail to this picture of Bronze Age sophistication, pointing to the existence of a trained warrior class and suggesting that people from across Europe joined the bloody fray. …
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. …
Before Tollense, direct evidence of large-scale violence in the Bronze Age was scanty, especially in this region. Historical accounts from the Near East and Greece described epic battles, but few artifacts remained to corroborate these boastful accounts. “Even in Egypt, despite hearing many tales of war, we never find such substantial archaeological evidence of its participants and victims,” UCD’s Molloy says.
Or maybe Egypt, being the most easily unified nation-state, enjoyed the luxury of doing most of its fighting abroad, the way most of the famous battles of the English over the last 950 years, like Agincourt, Blenheim, Waterloo, and the Somme, are on the Continent?
In Bronze Age Europe, even the historical accounts of war were lacking, and all investigators had to go on were weapons in ceremonial burials and a handful of mass graves with unmistakable evidence of violence, such as decapitated bodies or arrowheads embedded in bones. Before the 1990s, “for a long time we didn’t really believe in war in prehistory,” DAI’s Hansen says. The grave goods were explained as prestige objects or symbols of power rather than actual weapons. “Most people thought ancient society was peaceful, and that Bronze Age males were concerned with trading and so on,” says Helle Vandkilde, an archaeologist at Aarhus University in Denmark. “Very few talked about warfare.” …
Standardized metal weaponry and the remains of the horses, which were found intermingled with the human bones at one spot, suggest that at least some of the combatants were well-equipped and well-trained. “They weren’t farmer-soldiers who went out every few years to brawl,” Terberger says. “These are professional fighters.”
Body armor and shields emerged in northern Europe in the centuries just before the Tollense conflict and may have necessitated a warrior class. “If you fight with body armor and helmet and corselet, you need daily training or you can’t move,” Hansen says. That’s why, for example, the biblical David—a shepherd—refused to don a suit of armor and bronze helmet before fighting Goliath. “This kind of training is the beginning of a specialized group of warriors,” Hansen says. At Tollense, these bronze-wielding, mounted warriors might have been a sort of officer class, presiding over grunts bearing simpler weapons.
But why did so much military force converge on a narrow river valley in northern Germany? Kristiansen says this period seems to have been an era of significant upheaval from the Mediterranean to the Baltic. In Greece, the sophisticated Mycenaean civilization collapsed around the time of the Tollense battle; in Egypt, pharaohs boasted of besting the “Sea People,” marauders from far-off lands who toppled the neighboring Hittites. And not long after Tollense, the scattered farmsteads of northern Europe gave way to concentrated, heavily fortified settlements, once seen only to the south. “Around 1200 B.C.E. there’s a radical change in the direction societies and cultures are heading,” Vandkilde says. “Tollense fits into a period when we have increased warfare everywhere.”
For example, since the 18th Century it has been argued, with some but not complete persuasiveness, that the consolidation of the Chinese empire in the 3rd Century BC propelled the steppe barbarian Hsiung-Nu to the west. The Huns’ irruption into Eastern Europe hundreds of years later terrified the huddled masses of Germanic barbarians into begging Roman emperor Valens for permission to cross the Danube into the Roman Empire as refugees. (Sound familiar?) Valens, believing the barbaric refugees would be good for the economy, let them into Roman Empire in 376 AD, only to be killed by the refugees two years later, events that Gibbon saw as central to the sacking of Rome in 410, the subsequent Hun invasion of Italy in the 450s, the extinction of the Western Roman Empire in 476, and the ensuing Dark Ages.