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
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive or Senior Sales Executive - B2B Exhibitions

£18000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive or Senior Sal...

Recruitment Genius: Head of Support Services

£40000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Team Leader

£22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This industry leading company produces h...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager / Sales - OTE £40,000

£20000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT provider for the educat...

Day In a Page

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future