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
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • 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: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application Developer

£30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application ...

Day In a Page

Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

The secret CIA Starbucks

The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

One million Britons using food banks

Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

How to run a restaurant

As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
10 best tote bags

Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

Paul Scholes column

I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...