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2,000 years ago in Denmark, a fierce battle left dozens dead

Enlarge / Femur, tibia, and fibula, and two small stones. (credit: PNAS)

Roman military accounts from the early centuries CE describe the tribes of north-central Europe as fierce fighters who took the field with large forces and treated vanquished foes with ritual brutality. Until recently, however, there hasn’t been much archaeological evidence to back up the Roman accounts. But some time in the first century CE, two of those tribes clashed in what is now the Alken Enge wetlands in the Illerup River Valley in Denmark. Archaeologists excavated the aftermath from 2009 to 2014, finding broken weapons and shields along with the bones of at least 82 men.

Many of the bones bore the marks of grievous wounds dealt just before death, which is no surprise on a battlefield, of course. But all of them were found in places that would have been under water 2,000 years ago—and they’d all been left exposed to weather and scavengers for six months to a year before they ended up in the water.

Archaeologist Mads Kähler Holst of Aarhus University in Denmark and his colleagues say it’s the earliest example so far of a practice common in northern Europe in the first few centuries CE. In lakes and peat bogs all over northern Europe, archaeologists have found sites where people deposited the broken weapons and shields of their defeated enemies in the water. Most of those so-called “weapons graves” date to the second through fifth centuries CE, while the bones at Alken Enge radiocarbon dated to between 2 BCE and 54 CE.

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