Battlefield archaeologists have been taking a deep look at a mass grave from the Thirty Years' War, one of the world’s bloodiest religious wars that raged throughout Central Europe between 1618 and 1648 CE.
German archaeologists unearthed the mass grave in 2011 and discovered that the dead were soldiers from the Battle of Lützen in 1632. A new study, published in the journal PLOS One has taken a deeper scientific look at their remains to find out about their lives and their final days.
Around 8 million people died during the Thirty Years' War. The war started as a battle of power between Protestants and Catholics within the Holy Roman Empire. Most of the battling took place in modern-day Germany between the Protestant regions of Sweden, Denmark-Norway, and France against the Catholic regions of Spain and Austria. The battle escalated to involve most of the powerful European states, each with their own motives and vested interests. Hence, this thorny situation lasting 30 years.
The researchers found that the grave contains the skeletal remains of at least 47 men aged between 15 and 50, with around 50 percent in their twenties. Over half of the soldiers were killed by gunshot wounds while a handful of others showed signs of fatal injuries caused by blunt or sharp force, including sword cuts to the back of the head. Nine of the bodies showed no significant features or injuries that would indicate their death.
Two of the dead were even found to still have bullets in their mouth, as soldiers often did this to speed up reloading their firearms in the heat of battle.
Historical records show that a Swedish infantry brigade suffered a heavy defeat in the area where the mass grave was later dug. However, it’s hard to tell if the grave was for Swedish soldiers as the pit only contained tiny amounts of clothing, suggesting the soldiers had been stripped of their uniforms.
Isotopic analyses of the bones also revealed that just five of the men had Scandinavian ancestry, while the rest of the results showed no clear patterns within the group’s geographical origin. The researchers believe, in the fog of war, the mass grave probably contained a mix of the Swedish Protestant side and the imperial Catholic army.
One thing is more certain; these soldiers were not overly respected. The researchers say the bodies “seem to have been carelessly thrown into the pit.” This, paired with the stripping of their uniforms, strongly suggested these were true "forgotten soldiers", unnamed men from poor families who died with little commemoration or appreciation.