An­cient Ger­manic bat­tle­field gives up its se­crets

Marlborough Express - - FRONT PAGE -

For cen­turies, Rome tried to ex­tend its Em­pire north­wards but was re­peat­edly thwarted by vi­o­lent Ger­man tribes north of the Rhine and Danube Rivers. In AD9, for ex­am­ple, the Ger­mans slaugh­tered three di­vi­sions of the Ro­man army at Teu­to­burg.

About AD100, Ro­man his­to­rian Tac­i­tus wrote the book Ger­ma­nia, in which he painted the Ger­man tribes as in­nu­mer­able, blood­thirsty and per­verse. He re­ported that the tribes fought the Ro­mans as well as them­selves, some­times on a huge scale. The Bruc­teri tribe, for ex­am­ple, killed 60,000 of the Chamavi tribe in one bat­tle. Tac­i­tus gave the Ger­man tribes a bad press, con­clud­ing, ‘‘May the tribes, I pray, re­tain, if not a ha­tred for us (Ro­mans), at least a ha­tred for each other’’.

Ar­chae­ol­o­gists have just un­cov­ered di­rect ev­i­dence of an­cient Ger­man in­ter­tribal war­fare in Jut­land, Den­mark. They have un­earthed the site of a 2000-year-old bat­tle­field, lit­tered with the skele­tons or bones of 82 de­feated young men, many of whose skulls were smashed with sharp weapons.

Also on the site were metal spear­heads, iron knives, axes, clubs, frag­ments of swords, shields, parts of wag­ons, 30 ce­ramic pots and hun­dreds of cat­tle, dog and pig bones.

Cut thighs sug­gest that in the fi­nal stages of the bat­tle, flee­ing, sub­ju­gated and wounded fight­ers were prob­a­bly cut to death.

An un­ex­pected dis­cov­ery was what the Dan­ish ar­chae­ol­o­gists call ‘‘post-bat­tle corpse ma­nip­u­la­tion’’. The bod­ies did not just lie where they fell. Af­ter their deaths, the bod­ies were stripped and parts re­ar­ranged, their bones dis­ar­tic­u­lated, and their skulls crushed. Coc­cyx bones were threaded to­gether on a stick and cuts and scrap­ings re­veal sys­tem­atic treat­ment of the corpses.

Foxes, dogs and wolves sub­se­quently bit and gnawed the bones. The bones were even­tu­ally de­posited in a lake.

The ar­chae­ol­o­gists in­ter­pret the scene as con­firm­ing the fe­roc­ity and cru­elty of the Ger­man tribes, and show­ing how they de­lib­er­ately or­gan­ised and rit­u­alised the treat­ment of hu­man re­mains when clear­ing a bat­tle­field. Tac­i­tus never vis­ited Ger­ma­nia. His 46-chap­ter book was based on sec­ond or third-hand ac­counts. But this new ev­i­dence shows he was right on the but­ton.

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