The Human Dimensions Of War
The bloody battle at Lutzen isn't known for its military significance. There was actually no clear winner. Instead it's famous for the death of Sweden's King Gustav II Adolf, also commonly known as Gustavus Adolphus. But the dead piled up all the same. Archaeologists are especially interested in the up to 175 unlucky soldiers buried in this mass grave. Because their work is better accomplished in a laboratory rather than a field, a complete chunk of soil was unearthed and transported to the city of Halle with the help of cranes and flatbed trucks. The 55-ton hunk of earth, split into two pieces for logistical reasons, is laced with bones that are now being analyzed in the laboratory of the Saxony-Anhalt State Office for Heritage Management and Archaeology. A wooden casing ensures that the discovery doesn't crumble.
Not much is known about the battle's dead. Mercenaries from Scotland, England and Croatia fought next to Germans, Austrians and Swedes. They died from wounds inflicted by muskets, pistols, swords, knives and halberds, which are pole weapons with axe blades mounted on top. But who were these fighters? Were they spring chickens or old warhorses? Were they well-fed or emaciated? And where did they come from?
These are questions that will be answered by the analysis in Halle, about a 45-minute drive from Lutzen. Visitors to this bright, lofty laboratory can get some idea of the human dimensions of the battle by climbing a ladder onto the frame encasing the two soil blocks.
Heiko Heilmann is already up there, scraping soil away from a bone with a wooden spatula. In his hands the dirt gives away to reveal the remarkably well-preserved skeleton of a former fighter. The excavation technician has already uncovered 20 bodies from one of the two blocks.
He starts by moistening the soil with a spray bottle. Then he carefully digs out the bones. The sight of the arms, legs, shoulders, pelvises and skulls is hard to take in. Loose bones are collected in aluminum trays. Little labels give the deceased provisional names such as "I1," "I2," I3," with the "I" standing for individual.
Buried Almost Naked
A few facts have already come to light. For example, the corpses were buried almost naked, presumably after being plundered. They were, at least, carefully laid to rest. The bodies were gathered from the battlefield and placed in a grave next to the street, arranged in two rows with their legs facing each other.
Several layers of dead probably lie within these two blocks, although researchers have only uncovered the first. The burials were not taken care of by the surviving soldiers, who were already on their way to the next battle. Instead the good citizens of Lutzen had to take on the unpleasant job. They asked 200 soldiers in the neighboring garrison of Weissenfels for extra support.
The discovery at Lutzen, being prepared by Heilmann with dental tools and brushes, is not unique, though. Researchers know of more mass graves in Germany from the Thirty Years' War. They have been found during the construction of a house in Hochstadt in central Franconia in 1985, excavated by a gravel dredge in Wittstock in Brandenburg in 2007 and exposed by pipeline engineers in Alerheim in southwest Germany in 2008. The grave at Wittstock has recently been put on display at the State Archaeological Museum in Brandenburg an der Havel.
But the grave at Lutzen is an especially systematic and successful investigation, and its scientific results are comprehensive, even though the work is still in its infancy. The skull of "I9" shows clear traces of a blow. A lead bullet is lodged into the pelvis of "I2" from a shot to the buttocks. A strontium isotope analysis will uncover whether it was a Saxon, Swede or Scotsman that had to suffer that particular misfortune.
The analysis will be conducted by researchers from the University of Halle in Bristol, England. Specialists there have already helped work on opening the tomb of medieval Queen Edith. The process works like this: People in differing regions of the world have different levels of the isotope of the metal strontium. Because the levels are integrated into the human body, they leave telltale signatures. With a little luck scientists can examine the bones to reconstruct where soldiers traveled in the years before their death. Teeth reveal information about their childhoods.
Anthropologists, chemists, historians, soil and weapons experts will conduct a joint analysis in the coming months. "We always work with other disciplines. Old school archaeology is out," says Alfred Reichenberger, spokesman for the Saxony-Anhalt State Office for Heritage Management and Archaeology. The work will take a long time, that much is clear. But at some point there will be a visitor's center at the edge of the former battlefield, says Reichel, head of the Lutzen museum.
The center will report on the horrors of the war and serve as a warning for today's generation. Because, as Reichel adds: "History doesn't repeat itself. But it has its habits."
Intellpuke: You can read this article by Spiegel journalist Christoph Seidler in context here: www.spiegel.de/international/germany/0,1518,830203,00.html