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Mass Grave From Thirty Years' War Reveals Brutal Cavalry Attack

On November 16, 1632, two armies faced off at the site of Lützen, Germany. On one side was Gustavus Adolphus II, King of Sweden, and on the other was General Albrecht von Wallenstein, the leader of a regiment of Holy Roman Imperial forces. The Thirty Years’ War was Europe’s deadliest religious conflict ever, ultimately claiming an estimated eight million lives – including the King of Sweden, who led the cavalry at Lützen but was killed in the brutal attack.

This week in the journal PLoS ONE, a group of archaeologists led by Nicole Nicklisch reveal their analysis of 47 soldiers who died in the Battle of Lützen and who were buried in a mass grave. They found that these men ranged in age from 15 to 50, and that many of them had suffered previous traumatic injuries in their lives. While the researchers were interested in the general state of the soldiers’ lives leading up to their deaths, their main aim “was to analyze the fatal injuries the men sustained during the battle,” in order to learn about “the fighting and the military and strategic operations on the battlefield.”

The battle injuries that the researchers found run the gamut from blunt force to sharp force to projectile trauma. Twelve of the men had had evidence of blunt force trauma directed at their heads, with the blows falling mostly on their jaws and faces. At least half a dozen more men suffered blows to their limbs or ribs, causing fractures.

Attacks with bladed weapons were also found among the skeletons in the mass grave. One late-teenage male suffered a sabre wound to the back of his head, and another appears to have been slashed in the face prior to being shot. The archaeologists also found some stabbing injuries to the back and pelvis of seven men.

Gunshot wounds were by far the most common perimortem trauma found, marking the cause of death of at least 21 men. In about half of these cases, the bullet remained lodged in the skull. A deformed lead musket ball discovered in one of the skulls suggests the bullet ricocheted, entering the left side of the soldier’s head and lodging in the back of his skull.

The archaeologists also found gunshots to the torso and limbs of eight individuals, including the hips, abdominal area, and lower legs. Carbine bullets from a short rifle or musket were found lodged in the back of the pelvis of two soldiers.

In assessing the trauma these soldiers suffered, Nicklisch and colleagues found that the blunt-force injuries were likely caused by being hit with rifle butts or hilts, or by falls from or kicks by horses. The sharp trauma may have been caused by sabres, rapiers, knives, daggers, or halberds. Interestingly, the Lützen skeletons have surprisingly few sharp-force injuries, especially when compared to other mass graves from the Thirty Years’ War.

What distinguishes the Lützen battle is its reliance on guns, specifically pistols, muskets, and carbines. Firearms were becoming more readily available during this part of the 17th century, but it appears that this battle was ahead of its time. The researchers looked at the distribution of projectile wounds to the skull and suggested that the battle was “a perhaps surprising and quick fronto-lateral attack, which probably left the soldiers little room for evasive action. Moreover, the soldiers concerned do not appear to have had sufficient head protection.” This lack of protection was obviously deadly, especially since historical records suggest a recommendation that “cavalrymen should aim for the enemy’s head and left side of the chest. This instruction seems to have been put into practice with frightening success,” Nicklisch and colleagues say.

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The Lützen mass grave itself is also somewhat different from other burials found from this time period. “The dead were not placed in the pit in a systematic way,” Nicklisch and colleagues note. Since other battlefield graves were made in a more orderly fashion under the watch of military leaders, they conclude that “the local population helped with removing the dead bodies after the armies had moved on.” This hypothesis is bolstered by the fact that there were almost no artifacts remaining with the bodies – “the dead were intensely plundered,” the researchers say. The local Lützen people likely had negative feelings about the battle in their backyard and worked in haste to remove signs of it.

Additional analysis of the skeletons is ongoing, but the researchers write that preliminary results suggest the soldiers buried in the Lützen mass grave were actually from both sides of the battle: the Swedish Protestant soldiers and the Imperial Catholic ones. They conclude, however, that “the majority of casualties were infantrymen of the Blue Brigade and thus soldiers serving with the Swedish army.”

Although the Battle of Lützen was won by the Swedish forces, it claimed the life of Gustavus II Adolphus, the King of Sweden. He was shot multiple times, and his body - largely stripped of clothing and jewelry - was found a couple hours later and secretly evacuated. After embalming, the body began its long trip back to Stockholm for a funeral held in June of 1634. The Thirty Years’ War raged until 1648, when it was finally concluded by a series of treaties in what is historically known as the Peace of Westphalia.

Kristina Killgrove is a bioarchaeologist at the University of West Florida. For more osteology news, follow her on Twitter (@DrKillgrove) or like her Facebook page Powered by Osteons.

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