The Battle of Tollense Valley

Here’s an odd little article about some significant archaeological discoveries in Germany: the site of a major Bronze Age battle is being excavated in the Tollense Valley. On the order of 2000 men fought in it; radioisotope analysis reveals that the men came from a couple of distinct geographic areas, and that some of the fighters were presumably mercenaries. At least 130 men died — that’s the number of skeletons that have been dug up. It was a huge conflict, possibly over a nearby causeway, for its time, 3200 years ago.

Yet no one knows who these combatants were, or what they were fighting for, or even who won.

Just keep that in mind next time someone asks people to die for a cause.


  1. dhabecker says

    Maybe one side was fighting to abolish the custom of whacking women on the head with clubs. (I’ve seen too many cartoons) They must have reached a Kelly Compromise and settled on mere sexual assault.

  2. cartomancer says

    I think they mean second millennium BC, not century.

    Still, it’s not as if northern European cultures in this period were lacking for large-scale organisation. They managed Stonehenge all right several centuries earlier. If you can do that then getting together for a big battle is easy – and knowing human nature it would be naive to presume that building things was a higher priority than collective violence.

  3. KG says

    Yet no one knows who these combatants were, or what they were fighting for, or even who won.

    It’s obvious: we won and they lost!

  4. What a Maroon, living up to the 'nym says

    It was the War to End All Wars. Justice would be served, peace would rule the land, the lion would lay down with the lamb.

    Sadly, the wrong side won.

  5. davidnangle says

    Clearly, it was the first attempt to set up a toll road. The valley, of course, lent its name to “toll” as a fee, as well as one other word.* The battle itself was not about the existence of the toll house, the amount of the fee, or even the intolerable feigned pleasantness while handing over the fee. It was instead just a dispute over exact change, and the subsequent delay as the floors of chariots were searched for loose change they were certain they had dropped there. Things just got out of control.

    * Tollence Valley also inspired the archaic word, “ence” meaning complete and utter horseshit.

  6. doubtthat says

    Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
    Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
    The lone and level sands stretch far away.

  7. says

    I visited one of the bronze age ring-forts in Kerry, Ireland. It represents a huge amount of work (and there were ingenious parts of design) – clearly it was worth it to invest years piling and fitting rocks instead of farming and raising one’s flocks.

    Humans have always done this. The change is that as technology gets more expensive, there is more advantage in being bigger, to support professional militaries or build better industrial killing machines. Of course instead of resulting in better peace, we get bigger or more lopsided wars. I don’t see any end state other than two mutually suspicious parties in an approximate parity.

  8. rustiguzzi says

    One curious aspect strikes me – so much weaponry left where it lay. Those metal weapons would have been valuable, and it seems surprising that they were not scavenged afterwards. Religious taboo, perhaps?

  9. says

    t’S equally amazing as it is heartbreaking.
    Think of the resources in human power, in wealth in metals, in time to make the weapons, in food to get there it must have been in a time scarcity. All to kill some fellow humans over what exactly?

  10. Rich Woods says

    I can never get over the beauty of leaf-bladed swords.

    Remind me to take up bronze-casting in my retirement.

  11. DonDueed says

    The causeway was the cause of the conflict because a causeway is a cause worthy of casualties. Clearly.

  12. lasius says


    Those drawings of Bronze Age weaponry do not depict finds from the site of Tollense. Almost no weapons were found there, only lots of human remains with obvious battle wounds, some horses and many arrowheads.

  13. Walter Solomon says

    Perhaps it was a worthy cause at that time. Furthermore, I would imagine each life in a society that likely had a relatively small population and certainly no Military-Industrial Complex would be much more valuable than a life is in a large industrial nation.

  14. fernando says


    The same today.
    Huge sums of money, enormous quantities of resources and lifes wasted in weapons of destruction, while so many people suffer from a lack of education, health, food, housing and/or water.

    We have priorities all messed up.

  15. jazzlet says

    As lasius says there were a lot of bodies without weapons, the aticle I read sugeted that visible bodies were looted, only those that fell into deeper water where they weren’t visible ket their weapons and other possesions.

  16. antaresrichard says

    Somehow, I’m reminded of the words of Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest)… “In ancient times, hundreds of years before the dawn of history, lived an ancient race of people… the Druids. No one knows who they were or what they were doing… ”


  17. robro says

    This Science Magazine article on the site shows a few weapons and other artifacts, although it says “a wealth of artifacts” were recovered. It includes a picture of the original find, a bone pierced with a flint arrow head.

  18. rjw1 says

    Sometimes the outcome of battles is important, remember the Nazis and the Japanese militarists. Marathon, Salamis, Tours…..

  19. davidnangle says

    rjw1: Behold all the progress made in all the places and times where there weren’t battles at all.

  20. numerobis says

    Tours: the Franks only got back to higher learning after invading the people they pushed out at Tours, massacring them and their Jewish neighbours, and starting the Inquisition. How was this progress?

    Salamis: the Greeks settled back into their tradition of warring between city-states rather than getting absorbed into a relatively peaceful empire. Again, how is this progress?

    Marathon: same.

  21. springa73 says


    I think that the point is that the outcome of those battles had a big impact on history, not that it was always necessarily for the better.

  22. rjw1 says

    Yes, the losers of the battle of Tollense could have been massacred or enslaved, the outcome was important to them at the time.
    Of course it was progress, contrast contemporary Muslim-majority nations with liberal democracies. Muslims also massacred Jews. The ‘tolerance’ of the Andalusian “Golden Age” really depended on the regime in power. You’ve missed the point completely, history is a process and a continuum, not a series of discrete events. The “relatively peaceful” Persian Empire, conquered enslaved and massacred people from Egypt to India. So the Greeks were warlike, luckily for Western civilization.

  23. springa73 says

    Re: the original post

    The fact that people probably won’t remember today’s conflicts 3000 years in the future doesn’t mean that they aren’t important today, just like that battle was certainly pretty important to the people who were fighting it.