16th Century Campaign Archaeology


My buddy Claes Pettersson is a field archaeologist in Jönköping and always has a lot of fun projects going. Last year he told me about an undocumented manor park he had studied through geophysics. Right now he’s digging bits of Jönköping’s obliterated castle. And recently he sent me an intriguing little fieldwork report (available on-line for free). It’s a piece of, not exactly battlefield archaeology, but campaign archaeology, which is rare.

The back story is short and nasty. Sweden fought the Northern Seven Years’ War from 1563 to 1570 against Denmark-Norway, Lübeck and the Polish-Lithuanian union. The war ended in mutual exhaustion, with nobody gaining any territory – which was what wars were fought for at the time. So even at the time there was no way to justify the loss in lives, homes and livelihoods, though the Danes did get to sell the stronghold of Älvsborg (and Sweden’s access to the Atlantic) back to the Swedes at a steep price.

In the autumn of 1567, Danish general Daniel Rantzau headed a surprise attack on the then Swedish border province of SmÃ¥land with an army of about 6000. His objective was to lay the province waste and force the Swedes to the negotiation table, in sort of a miniature Hiroshima move. On 31 October Rantzau’s vanguard under Christoffer von Dohna reached a small wooden fort defended by about a thousand Swedes under Peder Kristersson Siöblad and blocking the Danish advance. After a brief skirmish the fort was taken and the Swedes retreated with severe losses. The skirmish bought them time to destroy an important causeway across a bog and evacuate and torch the city of Jönköping, which Rantzau would otherwise have made his army’s winter quarters.

The site of the skirmish and the fort was soon forgotten. But enough detail is given in Rantzau’s campaign memoir that local historian Harry Bergenbladh could point with some confidence to a likely spot in 1967. He, however, had no realistic way of testing his hypothesis as metal-detector battlefield archaeology had not yet been developed. This was remedied in 2010 when Claes Pettersson and his collaborators went out to test the waters. They found the heads of crossbow bolts, a Katzbalger short sword used by Landsknecht mercenaries in close combat and a 1563 Swedish coin. Fieldwork in 2011 added musket balls, pistol bullets, a spur and a horse bit, all in topographical situations that make sense in the context of how Rantzau describes the fighting. The Swedish sites and monuments register now contains its first 16th century skirmish site!

The report and the fieldwork don’t end there. The group has also done geophys on the site of a nearby church village that went up in smoke the morning after Rantzau’s army had bivouacked there, performed some less successful metal detecting on the poorly preserved site of another skirmish, documented relevant finds in private ownership locally, and mapped the smoking corridor of devastation that the Danes left behind by means of taxation registers from the period following the war. All in all a wide-ranging and innovative piece of Early Modern campaign archaeology produced on a slender budget!

Engkvist, S. et al. 2012. Getaryggen 1567. Delrapport för år 2011. Miliseum rapport 2011:1. Skillingaryd.


12 thoughts on “16th Century Campaign Archaeology

  1. With the high value of pre-industrial iron implements I’m always surprised that you can find anything left at those sites. There must have been a whole industry around cleaning up the battlefields.


  2. Yes, Mu, the one cheap component of the battlefield was the lives of the soldiers (mostly conscripted farmers)!

    The Northern Seven Years’ War must have rivalled the Iran-Iraq war in waste and futility.


  3. Hmm, I thought 16th century warfare was dominated by mercenary types, not conscripts, as teaching your farmers how to fight was considered a bad idea by most feudal systems (see Bauernkriege).


  4. Mercenaries were always important, but at least during the 17 century posses of farmers beefed up the Swedish army strength whenever needed. Especially during the 30-year war; farm boys were conscripted from the moment they were 15 and got sent south, few returned from Germany except as cripples.

    From late 17/early 18 century Swedish soldiers got a small plot of farmland to feed themselves, this provided an army that was reasonably professional and yet consisting of farmers. I do not recall the details but Swedish Wikipedia might help.


  5. Utterly fascinating, thank you for posting this! Really gives a good idea of warfare at this date. Particularly enjoyed the late use of crossbows, which makes sense for all the reasons mentioned in the piece. And the description of the improvised hammer-like weapon — not sure how “spetshammare” translates — was very touching.


  6. According to Machiavelli, conscripted farmers were the most important troop type, as digging was the most important function of the infantry!


  7. Weapons like the “Guten Tag” mace could give the farmers near-parity with armoured knights. Guten tag. Splat!
    — — — — — — — —
    One of the few fantasy book series that give glimpses into the lives of ordinary infantry before the advent of gunpowder is written by Glen Cook. Recommended,
    — — — — — — — —
    (OT) From Greg Laden’s blog: “On or before the 24th of May (hopefully not later) Scienceblogs.com will under The Branding” (by National Geographic).
    Martin, will this create teething troubles for this blog, too?


  8. The Goedendag mace was almost 200 years and half a continent removed from the story that is the subject of this post.

    It was basically a club, with, at the end, a metal knob holding a short spike. Nothing fancy, but more effective than a mere staff and more handy than a polearm or a scythe. Not much use against mercenaries hefting muskets, crossbows and short swords.


  9. Great. Most of my live right now seems to consist of reading Swedish archaeology reports and now you make me do it in my free time as well? Thanks, Martin!

    No, seriously, thanks. I like reading about Early Modern archaeology because there’s so little of it and so much still to explore.


  10. “The Goedendag mace was almost 200 years and half a continent removed from the story that is the subject of this post”

    Oops! My bad.
    But wasn’t the mace the cause of a victory in the Netherlands by an army of mostly farmers against an army of well-armoured opponents?

    “digging was the most important function of the infantry”
    -Defensive works around the camps and/or towns?


  11. I think the Goedendag was credited for the victory by a bunch of flemish (?) citizens over an army of knights in the 15th Century (?). I assume other factors were at play though….

    Machiavelli was pretty obsessed with fortifications (which was one of the areas undergoing rapid technological change in his times), hence his fascination for digging. Don’t forget all the digging that went into reducing an enemy’s fortifications, including tunneling under the enemy, a technique still in use in 1917!


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