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CNHI/Southeast Iowa

April 2, 2013

Bones from time of Christ reveal a brutal history

(Continued)

Arminius, the German chieftain who defeated Varus, was trained in Rome.

Ancient historians described the Germans as egalitarians who elected their leaders and followed them as long as they brought wealth and prestige. "The chieftains were all in competition," Thurston said. "If you had something, the others wanted it. The war booty was the thing, so they attacked each other."

The rules of this game were apparently unforgiving. Win, and you got the opportunity to fight again. If you lost and you were lucky, your followers simply abandoned you. But if you were not lucky, like perhaps the leader of the Alken warriors, you were hacked to bits.

"We've read about these mass sacrifices, but this is the first time anything like this has ever been found," said Thurston, an Iron Age specialist who has not participated in the Alken bog project. "Were they captives, saved for sacrifice, or did they die in battle, or were they executed? Were some sold into slavery, burned, set free? Maybe in this case everyone was simply rounded up and killed."

Thurston said archaeological sites in the region show no evidence that Germanic chieftains during the early Roman Empire were interested in holding territory or building their own empires. "There were no big houses, no big graves," she said.

So why throw away the enemy's weapons and dump the bodies in the lake? Holst said his team has counted the remains of at least 200 dead in the bog, many of them buried close to the 40 whose bodies have already been recovered and perhaps all of them soldiers. Nearby sites have yielded ceramic pots, cloven goat skulls and other civilian artifacts: "Our interpretation is that the whole valley should be seen as a sacrificial area," he said. "It is a religious place."

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