In the days of ancient Rome, it was never a good idea to send amateurs to pacify the Germanic tribes. The Emperor Augustus found this out in A.D. 9, when his handpicked crony, Varus, blundered into a series of ambushes in the Teutoburg Forest and lost about 20,000 men in three days.
Several years later, another Roman army stopped at that battlefield, a bit south of the modern German city of Bremen, to clean up the scene. According to the historian Tacitus, they found “bleaching bones, scattered or in little heaps,” while “hard by lay splintered spears and limbs of horses.” Human skulls “were nailed prominently on the tree-trunks.” There were “gibbets and torture pits for the prisoners,” and “in the neighboring groves stood the savage altars at which they [the Germanic tribes] had slaughtered the tribunes and chief centurions.” Varus had fallen on his sword after the battle, either out of shame or because he was terrified. It was impossible to know which.
Scattered archaeological evidence has long suggested that the warriors of ancient Germania were not kind-hearted in victory. But new evidence suggests just how grisly things were at about the time of Christ, when an aggressive and well-organized young Roman empire was trying — ultimately, unsuccessfully — to subdue the equally aggressive inhabitants of Germania.
A Danish team, working in a bog about 325 miles south of the site of the Roman massacre, is analyzing the recently excavated remains of 40 men, part of a larger contingent of as many as 200 soldiers, whose bodies were apparently hacked to bits and thrown into the shallows of Lake Mosso after a battle that took place between German rivals, probably a few years before the Varus massacre. The Alken bog, lying today beneath a lakeside meadow, conceals the largest concentration of apparent war dead ever found from that era. These findings, added to artifacts from other sites and the writings of the ancient Romans, are supplying insights into a warlord culture of fiercely egalitarian German tribes that fought constantly, routinely slaughtered their enemies and offered their bodies — and their weapons — to their gods.
The remains in the bog “are all young males,” said Aarhus University archaeologist Mads Holst, leader of the excavation team from the university and Denmark’s Skanderborg and Moesgard museums. “There is quite a lot of weapon damage on them, and none of the wounds were healed. Some were dead already when they were thrown into the lake, and we can see there were animals gnawing on the bones. One of the things we are investigating now is whether they all died of battle wounds, or were executed after the battle. We suspect both.”
Holst said Danes have been digging peat and finding bones and artifacts at the Alken Bog, which is located in present-day Denmark, for at least a century. Peat is compressed plant material used as fuel in stoves and fireplaces. Because it is wet and oxygen-free, it provides ideal conditions for preserving human remains.
Archaeologists in the 1950s and early 1960s found a large concentration of human bones preserved below the water table, but Holst said scientists ignored the find at first because of the spectacular discovery nearby of an enormous deposit of Roman weapons. These dated to A.D. 200, but other artifacts at that site, known as Illerup, suggested that the weapons’ owners were invaders from Scandinavia who carried Roman equipment. Illerup, Holst said, “tells you something about arms trafficking at the time.”
The Alken bog dead, by contrast, were buried with typically German iron axes, spears and wooden clubs. They were Germans with German weapons.
Archaeologist Tina Thurston of the University at Buffalo, part of the State University of New York, described the European Iron Age at the time of the early Roman Empire as “a very cosmopolitan period,” with “a lot of contact” between the Romans and the various German tribes. “A lot of these guys became mercenaries” for Rome, she added, and “it would come as no surprise” that some Germans warriors “would have Roman equipment.”
Arminius, the German chieftain who defeated Varus, was trained in Rome.
Ancient historians described the Germans as egalitarians who elected their leaders and followed them as long as they brought wealth and prestige. “The chieftains were all in competition,” Thurston said. “If you had something, the others wanted it. The war booty was the thing, so they attacked each other.”
The rules of this game were apparently unforgiving. Win, and you got the opportunity to fight again. If you lost and you were lucky, your followers simply abandoned you. But if you were not lucky, like perhaps the leader of the Alken warriors, you were hacked to bits.
“We’ve read about these mass sacrifices, but this is the first time anything like this has ever been found,” said Thurston, an Iron Age specialist who has not participated in the Alken bog project. “Were they captives, saved for sacrifice, or did they die in battle, or were they executed? Were some sold into slavery, burned, set free? Maybe in this case everyone was simply rounded up and killed.”
Thurston said archaeological sites in the region show no evidence that Germanic chieftains during the early Roman Empire were interested in holding territory or building their own empires. “There were no big houses, no big graves,” she said.
So why throw away the enemy’s weapons and dump the bodies in the lake? Holst said his team has counted the remains of at least 200 dead in the bog, many of them buried close to the 40 whose bodies have already been recovered and perhaps all of them soldiers. Nearby sites have yielded ceramic pots, cloven goat skulls and other civilian artifacts: “Our interpretation is that the whole valley should be seen as a sacrificial area,” he said. “It is a religious place.”
Holst said the team will try to determine where the Alken bog soldiers came from by comparing their genetic signatures and isotope concentrations to those of human remains and geographical features elsewhere.
Scholars’ traditional theory about burying the weapons is one of contrived scarcity: The chieftains got rid of enemy equipment because they wanted to control trade and imports, and they did so by keeping themselves at the center of the arms traffic.
Recently, however, archaeologists have suggested there is no reason to impute modern economic motives to ancient behavior. Perhaps the warlords threw enemies and their gear into the bog simply because their religion required it. “In a system like this, it wasn’t important to be decked out in gold and jewels,” Thurston said. “If you were supposed to make offerings, you made offerings.”
Gugliotta, a former national reporter for The Washington Post, is an author and freelance science writer living outside New York.