Ancient Germanic battlefield gives up its secrets
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.