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.

Voices
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US
voicesRobert Fisk: Barack Obama is following the jihadists’ script
Arts and Entertainment
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
filmReview: Lucy, Luc Besson's complex thriller
News
A cleaner prepares the red carpet for the opening night during the 59th International Cannes Film Festival May 17, 2006 in Cannes, France.
newsPowerful vacuum cleaners to be banned under EU regulations
News
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
News
A polar bear’s diet is rich in seal blubber and half of its own body weight is composed of fat
i100
News
London is the most expensive city in Europe for cultural activities such as ballet
arts
Travel
Flocking round: Beyoncé, Madame Tussauds' latest waxwork, looking fierce in the park
travelIn a digital age when we have more access than ever to the stars, why are waxworks still pulling in crowds?
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson has rejected criticisms of his language, according to BBC director of television Danny Cohen
tv
Extras
indybest
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Sport
Is this how Mario Balotelli will cruise into Liverpool?
football
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

Application Support - Enterprise Java, SQL, Oracle, SQL Server

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A well-established financial soft...

Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Desktop, Surrey)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Deskto...

Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Desktop, Surrey)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Deskto...

Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost, Data Mining

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost...

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape