Mass grave offers a glimpse of wartime life in 17th century

A mass grave of soldiers slaughtered during Europe's bloody Thirty Years War is yielding up valuable data on how they lived before their violent deaths.

Skeletons of more than 100 warriors who fought in the Battle of Wittstock near Berlin in 1636, were discovered by workmen excavating a sandpit. The remains are under scrutiny from anthropologists who say they offer a fascinating insight into the health of Europeans nearly four centuries ago.

Superficially, the bodies bear all the hallmarks of terrible fighting: shoulder blades smashed by axes, spines run through with swords, skulls with the holes made by musket balls in them. Many of the bones bear traces of shrapnel from exploding shells.

The Battle of Wittstock took place on 4 October 1636, when a Protestant army of 16,000 Swedes beat a force of 22,000 from the Catholic alliance of the Holy Roman Empire and Saxony. Some 7,000 men died in the fighting.

The Thirty Years' War began as a civil war and was fought between 1618 and 1648, principally in what is modern-day Germany, and involved most of the major European continental powers. Bertolt Brecht used it as the backdrop to his anti-war play Mother Courage and Her Children.

The war, which primarily used mercenary armies who had little concern for anyone's rights or property, was to lay waste to entire regions. Germany's male population was reduced by almost half. The Swedish armies alone destroyed 2,000 castles, 18,000 villages and 1,500 towns in Germany - one-third of all towns.

Five specialists are sifting through the grave with plastic spades, spoons, brushes and vacuum cleaners. "The investigation will shed light not only on the battle itself, but on life at the time," said Antje Grothe, the archaeologist in charge of the exhumations.

"We can get exciting insights into the lives of the soldiers. For example, we can find out things about the men's general health from their tooth decay. At least three bodies show signs of syphilis. And we can check the bones for disease and examine the impact of the strains of the soldier's life - carrying heavy weapons, shoving cannon, hauling baggage trains."

Most of the corpses had been stripped before they were buried, and only evidence of their undergarments remains in the form of metal hooks and loops, she said. "Everything that was usable in any way was taken off them - shoes, weapons, upper clothing." But the archaeologists are hopeful that coins and other small personal effects may be found in the soil.

They will also try to establish the men's origins. Franz Schopper, the director of the Brandenburg Monument Preservation Office said: "We believe there are bodies in there from Scotland, Sweden and the Danube basin, from initial dental examinations."

"We will further perform strontium tests on their teeth. The teeth absorbed strontium from drinking water, which has a unique geographical marker, and that in turn allow us to say where each body is from," he added.

Ms Grothe said the grave contains around 130. Most were aged 20 to 35 when they died. The bodies are piled above each other in neat rows. But there is no register of who they were, or where they came from.

It was not until the First World War that individual soldiers were given individual graves, when possible. Before that, the corpses of the dead, on battlefields from Waterloo to Austerlitz were buried without ceremony or record.

Ms Grothe said it was not known what will happen to the corpses when the examinations are completed.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing
The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower