Usefulness of 2,700-year-old mysterious statue intrigues scientists in Europe

Two summers ago, while mask-diving in the swampy waters of the Tollense River off Germany’s Baltic Sea coast, a 51-year-old truck driver named Ronald Borgwardt made a startling discovery.

Scouring the turf, he found a six-inch-tall bronze figurine with an egg-shaped head, circled arms, gnarled breasts, and a nose that an anteater would envy.

The figurine, complete with a belt and choker, was only the second of its kind excavated in Germany, although the 13th found near the Baltic Sea. The first appeared around 1840. All are similar in shape and proportion.

“The latest figurine represents an archaeological conundrum,” said Thomas Terberger, archaeologist and head of research at the Lower Saxony State Department of Cultural Heritage in Germany. “What was it, how did it get there and what was it used for?”

Remarkably, 24 years earlier, while paddling through the same swamp, Borgwardt’s father had spotted a pile of bones sticking out of a ravine. He went to get his son and together they digged through the mud. Among his finds was a human arm bone pierced by a flint arrowhead and a 75 cm long wooden bat resembling a baseball bat.

Exploration of the area revealed the skeletons of half a dozen horses, dozens of military artifacts and the remains of more than 140 individuals, mostly men between the ages of 20 and 40, who showed signs of blunt trauma. Virtually all the relics have been dated to around 1250 BC, suggesting they originated from a violent episode that may have taken place in a single day.

A geomagnetic survey in 2013 revealed that this narrow stretch of the Tollense Valley was once part of a trade route divided by a 120-meter stone and wood pavement that had been used to transport amber to points in the Mediterranean and Adriatic Sea. The Amber Road predated bloodshed by at least five centuries.

Today, the area is considered the oldest battlefield in Europe. “Although the region was sparsely populated 3,270 years ago, more than 2,000 people were involved in the conflict,” said Terberger, who helped start a series of excavations based on the original Borgwardt findings.

In a paper just published in the archaeological journal Praehistorische Zeitschrift, Terberger and five colleagues propose that the figurine found by the young Borgwardt dated to the 7th century BC and was either a weighing scale, an object of worship, or a combination of both.

“The unanswered question is, why did the figurine end up in a river valley along a trade route hundreds of years after a major battle took place there?” said Terberger. “Did this happen by chance, or was the setting a place of commemoration of an 8th century BC conflict still present in the oral history of Late Bronze Age peoples? And if the figurine represented a goddess, it played a role in a system of primitive weight?

Lorenz Rahmstorf, professor of prehistoric archeology at the University of Göttingen and co-author of the study, said that weights and scales began to be used around 3,000 BC, when trade developed in Egypt and Mesopotamia. The first weighing devices were a simple system for assessing the value of goods, consisting of two plates attached to a suspended beam fixed to a central pole. Sumerian texts have the first mention of a unit of weight, the mina, which tipped the scales at about 500 grams, or 18 ounces.

Scales of scale spread to the Aegean Sea in the west and the Indus Valley culture of South Asia to the east. In the mid-2nd millennium BC, weight systems emerged in Italy and, around 1350 BC, north of the Alps.

“Sets of small bronze weights and bone balance beams were mixed in bags and placed next to the dead in various graves in eastern France and southern Germany,” Rahmstorf said. “We still don’t have clear evidence of when weighing equipment was introduced in northern Germany and Scandinavia.”

No ancient civilization attached a stronger symbolic and spiritual meaning to scales than the Egyptians from the second millennium BC to the Roman period. His most solemn supernatural moment was the Weighing of the Heart.

Egyptian belief held that after the death of a person, Anubis, the jackal-headed god of embalming, would take the deceased to the court of Osiris, where the dead heart was weighed against a feather of Maat, the personification of truth, of justice and cosmic order.

If a heart were pure, it would be as light as the pity and the deceased was considered worthy to enter the afterlife. Thoth, master of lore and patron of scribes, stood ready to record the final verdict, and on the balance, Ammut the devourer—crocodile head, lion forearm, hippopotamus rump—was ready to consume the damned.

Most of the 13 bronze figurines were recovered in or around rivers near the Baltic coast — six appeared in the Öresund Strait, which separates the Danish island of Zealand from the Swedish province of Scania. The figurine found in the Tollense by Borgwardt is the largest and, at 155 grams, the heaviest.

For a long time it was believed that the economy of Northern Europe during the Bronze Age was based on the exchange of gifts rather than trade. The idea that the bronze figurines represented measurements of an incipient Scandinavian weight system was put forward in 1992 by Swedish archaeologist Mats Malmer.

After calculating erosion and weight loss, Malmer analyzed the 12 existing “Goddesses of Wealth” for weight consistency and proportionality. His calculations indicated that the weight of the figurines could be expressed in grams as multiples of a common denominator, 26.

On a recent afternoon at the University of Göttingen, Terberger deduced the weights of some of the figures: 55 grams, 85 grams, 102 grams, 103 grams, 103 grams, 104 grams, 106 grams, 110 grams, 132 grams, 133 grams. Across the room, his departmental colleague Rahmstorf said, “Not all the figurines fit the scheme perfectly, but most were pretty close.”

Rahmstorf’s initial analyzes with his colleague Nicola Ialongo are promising, but he cautioned that “these would be heavy weights, from over 100 grams to several thousand grams.” As there are no texts and inscriptions from this period in northern Europe, “currently, the existence of weights and balances in this area is probable, but still only hypothetical”.

Translated by Luiz Roberto M. Gonçalves

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