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A bronze figurine found in a German river may have been part of an early Scandinavian weight system, several experts believe.
Two years ago, 51-year-old Ronald Borgwardt discovered a bronze figurine while in the streams of the Tollense River in Germany.
The figurine was 15.2 centimeters tall, made of bronze, and had an egg-shaped head and looped arms. It was only the second small statue of this kind discovered in Germany.
However, it was the 13th such figurine found close to the Baltic Sea. All of the previous finds shared similarities in terms of proportion and shape. The first figurine was discovered around 1840.
“The most recent statuette poses an archaeological riddle,” Thomas Terberger, an archaeologist and head of research at the Lower Saxony State Office for Cultural Heritage in Germany, noted. “What was it, how did it get there, and what was it used for?”
|A small bronze figurine retrieved from the Tollense River in Germany in 2020,
one of 13 found there since 1840 [Credit: Volker Minkus]
Fate would have it that almost a quarter of a century before Ronald’s discovery (24 years to be exact), his father made a find of his own in the same swampy area.
After seeing bones sticking out from a bank, Mr. Borgwardt’s father took his son with him and investigated the area. They found a human arm bone pierced by a flint arrowhead. They also discovered a 76.2-centimeter-long wooden club.
Further investigation led to the skeletons of multiple horses, loads of military artifacts, and the remains of around 140 people, mostly men between the ages of 20 and 40 who showed signs of blunt trauma.
Almost all of the artifacts have been traced to around 1,250 BC – and it is believed that the men died in a violent episode.
A geomagnetic survey carried out in 2013 revealed that this stretch of the Tollense Valley was once part of the “amber route,” a trade route bisected by a causeway used to transport amber to locations on the Mediterranean and the Adriatic Sea. The amber road predated the violent episode by at least 500 years.
Today, the site is considered Europe’s oldest battlefield area. “Although the region was sparsely populated 3,270 years ago, upward of 2,000 people were involved in the conflict,” Terberger, who helped start excavations based on the Borgwardts’ discoveries, noted.
|Archaeological excavations of the Bronze Age battlefield site alongside the Tollense River
[Credit: Stefan Sauer/Georg-August-Universität Göttingen]
In a scientific paper recently published in the archaeological journal Praehistorische Zeitschrift, Terberger and five colleagues propose that the figurine found by Ronald Borgwardt dated to the 7th century BC. They believe that it was a balance weight, an object of worship, or a combination of both functions.
“The unanswered question is why the figurine wound up in a river valley along a trade route hundreds of years after a large battle took place there,” Terberger added. “Did this happen by accident, or was the setting a place of commemoration for a 13th-century BC conflict still present in the oral history of the Late Bronze Age people? And if the statuette depicted a goddess, did she play a role in a primitive weight system?”
“Sets of small bronze weights and balance beams in bone were mixed together in bags, and placed next to the dead in a number of graves from Eastern France and Southern Germany,” Lorenz Rahmstorf, a professor of Prehistoric Archaeology at the University of Göttingen and co-author of the study, stated.
“We do not yet have clear evidence for when weighing equipment was introduced to North Germany and Scandinavia.”
Most of the 13 figurines were found in or close to rivers near the Baltic Sea. Six were found on the Öresund, a strait that separates the Danish island Zealand from the Swedish province Scania. The figurine found in the Tollense is the largest and the heaviest yet.
Experts have believed that the economy of Northern Europe during the Bronze Age was based on gift exchange – rather than trade – for quite some time. The notion that the bronze figures were part of an early Scandinavian measurement system was proposed in 1992 by the Swedish archaeologist Mats Malmer.