400-year-old Scots ready to reveal their battle secrets

A MASS grave of soldiers, including Scots, slaughtered during Europe's bloody Thirty Years War is yielding up valuable information on how they had lived.

Skeletons of more than 100 men who fought in the Battle of Wittstock near Berlin in 1636 were discovered by workmen excavating a sandpit.

Anthropologists say the remains offer a fascinating insight into the health of Europeans nearly 400 years ago.

Superficially, the bodies bear all the hallmarks of terrible fighting: shoulder blades smashed by axes; spines run through with swords and skulls pierced by musket balls.

They died in the Battle of Wittstock on 4 October, 1636, when a Protestant army of 16,000 Swedes beat a force of 22,000 from the Catholic alliance of the Holy Roman Empire and Saxony. Some 6,000 men died in the fighting.

Soldiers from several nations fought at Wittstock, including hundreds from Scotland, the German states and Swedes. Sweden was then a magnet for Scottish noblemen, who became civil servants and formed the backbone of the army's officer corps. James King, born on Warbester Hoy in the Orkney Islands, commanded the entire left wing of the Swedish army at the battle.

Franz Schopper, the director of the Brandenburg Monument Preservation Office, said: "We believe there are bodies in there from Scotland, Sweden and the Danube basin, from initial dental examinations."

The rarity of such graves seems astonishing, given the hundreds of battles that shaped Europe's blood-drenched history. But this is one of only four mass, battle graves from more than 200 years ago that have been discovered.

Five specialists are sifting through the pit. Antje Grothe, the archaeologist in charge of the exhumations, said: "We can get exciting insights into the lives of the soldiers.

"For example, we can find out things about the men's general health from their tooth decay. At least three bodies show signs of syphilis. And we can check the bones for disease and examine the impact on the bodies of the strains of the soldiers' life: carrying heavy weapons; shoving cannon; hauling baggage trains."

Most of the corpses were stripped before being buried and the only evidence of their undergarments remains in the form of metal hooks and loops, she said. "Everything that was usable in any way was taken off them - shoes, weapons, upper clothing." The archaeologists are hopeful that coins and other small personal effects may be found in the soil.

Some metal fragments not identifiable with Swedish or Prussian garb leads the archaeologists to think that some of the soldiers were foreigners. The remains are of men aged between 20 and 40.

Some 40,000 individuals took part in the battle and experts reckon the remains of 7,000 are scattered around.

In the long term, DNA analysis may be carried out on some remains.

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