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

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The Independent Online

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.