Two summers ago, while snorkeling in the marshy streams of the Tollense River on Germany’s Baltic coast, a 51-year-old truck driver named Ronald Borgwardt made a startling discovery.
Poking around in the peat, he picked up a six-inch-tall bronze figurine with an egg-shaped head, looped arms, knobby breasts and a nose that would make an anteater envious.
The statuette, sporting a belt and a neck ring, was only the second of its kind unearthed in Germany, though the 13th was found near the Baltic Sea. The first turned up around 1840. All are similar in shape and proportion. “The most recent statuette poses an archaeological riddle,” said Thomas Terberger, an archaeologist and head of research at the Lower Saxony State Office for 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, Mr. Borgwardt’s father had spied a bunch of bones jutting from a bank. He fetched his son and together they scavenged in the muck. Among their finds were a human arm bone pierced by a flint arrowhead, and a two-and-a-half-foot-long wooden club that resembled a Louisville Slugger.
More exploration of the area yielded the skeletons of a half-dozen horses, scores of military artifacts and the remains of more than 140 individuals, most of them men between the ages of 20 and 40 who showed signs of blunt trauma. Virtually all the relics have been traced to around 1,250 B.C., suggesting that they stemmed from a violent episode that may have played out over a single day.
A 2013 geomagnetic survey revealed that this narrow stretch of the Tollense Valley was once part of a trade route bisected by a 400-foot stone-and-wood causeway that had been used to transport amber to points on the Mediterranean and the Adriatic Sea. The amber road predated the ʙʟᴏᴏᴅsʜᴇᴅ by at least five centuries.
Today the area is considered Europe’s oldest battlefield site. “Although the region was sparsely populated 3,270 years ago, upward of 2,000 people were involved in the conflict,” said Dr. Terberger, who helped start a series of excavations based on the Borgwardts’ original discoveries.
In a paper published Feb. 12 in the archaeological journal Praehistorische Zeitschrift, Dr. Terberger and five colleagues propose that the statuette found by the younger Mr. Borgwardt dated to the seventh century B.C. and was either a balance weight, an object of worship or a combination of both.
“The unanswered question is why the figurine wound up in a river valley along a trade route hundreds of years after a large battle took place there,” Dr. Terberger said. “Did this happen by accident, or was the setting a place of commemoration for a 13th-century B.C. conflict still present in the oral history of the Late Bronze Age people? And if the statuette depicted a goddess, did she play a role in a primitive weight system?”
Lorenz Rahmstorf, a professor of Prehistoric Archaeology at the University of Göttingen and a co-author of the study, said weights and scales first came into use around 3,000 B.C. as trade developed in Egypt and Mesopotamia; the first weighing devices were a simple system to assess the value of goods, consisting of two plates attached to an overhead beam fixed on a central pole.
Sumerian texts feature the earliest mentions of a weight unit, the mina, which tipped the scales at about 500 grams, or 18 ounces.
Balance scales spread to the Aegean in the west and to the Indus Valley culture of South Asia in the east. By the middle of the second millennium B.C., weight systems turned up in Italy, and, by 1,350 B.C., north of the Alps.
“Sets of small bronze weights and balance beams in bone were mixed together in bags, and placed next to the dead in a number of graves from Eastern France and Southern Germany,” Dr. Rahmstorf said. “We do not yet have clear evidence for when weighing equipment was introduced to North Germany and Scandinavia.”
No ancient civilization attached stronger symbolic and spiritual significance to scales than the Egyptians from the second millennium B.C. to the Roman Period. Their most solemn otherworldly moment was the Weighing of the Heart.
It was the Egyptian belief that after a person died, Anubis, the jackal-headed god of embalming, led the deceased to the judgment hall of Osiris, where the dead heart was weighed against a feather of Maat, the personification of truth, justice and the cosmic order.
If a heart was pure, it would be as light as the feather, and the deceased was deemed worthy to enter the afterlife. Thoth, master of knowledge and patron of scribes, stood by to record the final verdict, and under the balance, Ammut the devourer — head of a crocodile, forepart of a lion, hindquarters of a hippopotamus — sat ready to consume the damned.
“Balance had to be reached so that your heart didn’t get eaten by dear Ammut,” said Kara Cooney, a professor of Egyptian art and architecture at the University of California, Los Angeles.
The first definitive weights are pebbles from the Second Dynasty of ancient Egypt, which lasted from 2,890 B.C. to 2,686 B.C. “Some of the stones were engraved with parallel incisions, some with hieroglyphic inscriptions,” Dr. Rahmstorf said. “Metal weights became common only in the following millennium.”