The mass grave at the Battle of Lutzen from the Thirty Year War was split in two and taken as huge blocks out of the earth. The photo shows the carnage and chaos, nearly four centuries after these 47 soldiers died brutally in the sectarian conflict. Photo: J. Lipták, O. Schröder

The battlefield was legendary for its disorienting fog, which covered the forests of Saxony, and also for its Pyrrhic outcome. When the dead were counted, among them was the Swedish King Gustavus II Adolphus, one of the most important leaders of the Protestant alliance, which had been otherwise victorious.

The Battle of Lützen in 1632 was one of the pivotal battles in the middle of the Thirty Years War. Now a team of archaeologists have presented a years-long investigation of a mass grave that was pulled as a gigantic block out of the earth, they said.

The 47 corpses are from a deadly cavalry attack where almost all were shot in the head with handguns, a German team describes in the latest journal of PLoS ONE.

“Approximately three in every four soldiers had injuries that could have been fatal,” they write. “Wounds inflicted by handguns, particularly to the skull, were predominant. The integrative analysis of the archaeological and anthropological data slowed us to conclude that the majority had been killed during a cavalry attack.”

The Thirty Years War began in 1618, when several religious leaders were tossed out of a window into a coast moat (the Second Defenestration of Prague), touching off decades of sectarian strife.

A decade into the brutal conflict, the war had drawn in the Danish and Swedish kings to support their fellow Protestants. Gustavus II Adolphus had arrived in mainland Germany in 1630, and fought a series of big victories that had given him an air of invincibility.

Then came Lützen. The Swedish King was killed with multiple gunshots and stab wounds, even as his army carried the day.

The mass grave was discovered in 2011, which was found by chance during the digging of a test trench at the battle site.

They lifted the entire grave as a huge block of Earth, which was cut in half for stability. (The block was eventually reassembled and presented as a museum exhibit entitled “War – an archaeological search for evidence” in 2015 and 2016).

The 47 bodies were analyzed using forensic methods. All were males, aged 15 to 50, with an average age of 28.

The slightly advanced age indicates these soldiers may have been veterans – as evidenced by antemortem injuries shown in their bones that had healed without infections prior to the battle, they report.

More than half of the skeletons still show impacts from gunfire, the team writes. The remainder could have been shot or stabbed in the soft tissues of the vital organs, which decayed without trace.

Based on cross-referenced historical records of the battle, the team hypothesizes that the remains are from the elite Swedish army unit called the Blue Brigade. The unit was basically wiped out by a flank attack from an opposing cavalry unit, accounts recall.

But the carnage and chaos – and bone isotopes showing a wide range of geographical diversity – means it could be foes buried together, they conclude.

“It is plausible to assume that men from both the Swedish Protestant side and the imperial Catholic army found their final testing place in the Lützen mass grave,” they conclude. “However, the results of our examinations allow us to surmise that perhaps not all but the majority of casualties were infantrymen of the Blue Brigade and thus soldiers serving with the Swedish army.”

Although the forensic investigation of the battle is centuries old, European archaeologists have been reconstructing conflicts from millennia ago. The Tollense River Valley conflict was recently the subject of a massive survey that showed the brutality of Bronze Age battlefield violence more than 3,000 years ago.

(A, B) Individual 5 was struck in the left parietal/temporal bone by a lead bullet, which (E) lodged in the right occipital bone. (D) The projectile is a musket ball. Its severe deformation suggests that it ricocheted. (C) The position of the lead bullet could be documented by CT. (F) The density and scattered radiation of the lead made it possible to distinguish clearly between the bullet and the surrounding sediment. Photos: K. Bentele, N. Nicklisch, S. Brandt