We might not know exactly what happened on this battlefield in Denmark, 2,000 years ago. But one thing is certain: It was violent.
A mass grave in the small East Jutland town of Alken contains the human remains of a battle, where 13-year-old children fought alongside adult men, where the dead were left and ripped to pieces by hungry animals, and where the bones where subsequently collected and treated in [what archaeologists are interpreting as] the most bestial way.
…Radiocarbon analyses show that all of the bones originate from a large event early in the first century CE when historical sources recount an upsurge in violence across Europe.
But archaeologists did not know who these people were, why they fought, and where the battle had taken place.
“There are no Roman written sources in Scandinavia that can tell us what happened,” says Hertz.
At the time of the Alken Enge event, in the first century CE, violent clashes between Germanic tribes and Romans occurred as the Roman Empire expanded north.
In year nine, the two groups met in the Battle of Varus, which ended in Germanic victory according to the history books.
But it wasn’t unusual to see fighting among the Germanic tribes when the Roman threat to their territories was absent. It was a time of rifts and migration.
“We’re quite convinced that these people didn’t come from southern Europe because we’d probably see it in the skeletons. They could on the other hand have come from anywhere north of the Alps. We simply don’t know,” says Hertz.
…Alken Enge is the only archaeological example of an entire army preserved anywhere in Europe, and the large collection of human remains indicates an unprecedented level of power, says Juul.
…”We’re always interested in finding out how we went from small origins to a more formal structure, or even a state. Alken shows that at this time there was a form of organisation over large geographical regions,” says Juul.
…Each village probably consisted of three or five houses, with between eight and fifteen inhabitants—men, women, and children.
That is approximately between 24 and 75 people per village, about half of whom were men or boys, so that is somewhere between ten and forty potential warriors per village.
Most of the Alken warriors were between the ages of 20 and 40, and just under 5 per cent of them were not yet 20. The youngest remains were of 13-year-old boys.
“If we say that at least 380 men died in this case, how big had the army been to begin with? It would require lots of villages to procure such an army. You can imagine it would have [involved] a very large region, which would have lost a lot of young men after the fight. Generations must have almost disappeared. It must have been very dramatic,” says Juul.
…Almost none of the bones showed any signs of previous, healed fractures. Meaning that these men had most probably never seen war before.
“It’s a strange mixed bunch, from the scrawniest of guys to strong men, and from really young to relatively old,” he says.
…The dead appear to have been left on the battlefield for as long as one year before being collected and carried to the bog at Alken Enge.
During this time the bodies would have been eaten by animals and decomposed until only skeletons remained.
“These people met an incredibly violent end by battle, and were just left there for a long time. I think that’s interesting,” says Juul, and suggests that the war was so devastating that they were simply unable to deal with the dead afterwards.
It appears that Alken Enge was sparsely populated after the event, which would support this suggestion. What was once farmland turned to forest after the battle.