Press Release December 2008

Roman battlefield discovered at the edge of the Harz Mountains, Lower Saxony, Germany

It is a "once-in-a-century discovery" of European significance: The scene of a third century AD battle between Germanics and Romans near the town of Kalefeld-Oldenrode in the Harzregion of Germany. "Thus far, this is the first evidence of Rome's military presence in Germania during this period and offers fascinating insights into a dramatic armed struggle", says Dr. Guenther Moosbauer, a lecturer in Archeology of the Roman Provinces at the University of Osnabrück. "What we have here is an archaeological sensation that adds a heretofore unimagined component to the history of Romano-Germanic relations."

Here the story thus far:

In early June 2008, a private citizen with an interest in history showed Northeim County Archeologist Dr. Petra Loenne some unusual artifacts he had found: iron spearheads, catapult bolts, a shovel and a "hipposandal" - a special sandal for horses and mules of a type used only in the Roman army. The other artifacts were also of Roman origin. The objects came from a prominent terrain spur at the western edge of the Harz Mountains. An examination in the field confirmed the information given by the finder and revealed the presence of still more artifacts in the forest soil, many just a few centimeters below the surface. This touched off a hurried race: Particularly since the discovery of the site of the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in Kalkriese and the Roman camp in Hedemünden near Goettingen, southern Lower Saxony has become a preferred romping place for rogue treasure hunters who use metal detectors to loot such archaeological sites on a grand scale.
Together with the Lower Saxony Regional Authority for the Preservation of Historical Monuments, the County Archeologist initiated an unusual project already in late August:
Shielded from the public, an area measuring 1500 meters (one mile) by 500 meters (1/3 of a mile) was combed systematically several times with metal detectors; hundreds of located artifacts were excavated and documented in detail before initial preservation. What is decisive when it comes to acquiring knowledge is the exact three-dimensional pinpointing of every single find to clarify the character of the archaeological site. Metal artifacts are very often torn out of their context and reduced to purely antiquarian collective finds that are robbed of their power to explain history. It is only through overall assessment of numerous individual mosaic pieces that the potential of their explanatory power becomes apparent. In the process, it quickly became evident that the site in question was not another Roman camp, as originally supposed, but a vast battlefield struggled over by Roman troops and Germanics. In parts of the extensive grounds, the artifacts are so wellpreserved that it is possible to understand isolated events during the fighting, for example, the impact of specific arrow salvos or individual infantry attacks. No other ancient battlefield that archeologists have been able to discover up until now has delivered such impressive, undisturbed legacies of grim fights.
The archaeological site is at Harzhorn near Kalefeld in Northeim County, at the eastern tip of a miles long mountain ridge, running from east to west, which leads up to the western edge of the Harz Mountains as a natural barrier. The north-south connections along the edge of Harz Mountains must cross a narrow pass here, where today Motorway 7, Federal Highway 248 and the historical military road run close side by side over a strip of ground just 300 meters (328 yards) wide. The slopes of the adjacent hilltops to the west, which drop precipitously to the north, are passable in only a few places, and it is here that the biggest concentrations of weapons are located. Up to now, the artifacts have been concentrated in two main areas that indicate a very violent clash between the opponents. The results are less unequivocal in other areas of the archeological site: Either the fighting here was less intense or these areas were looted after the battle. It is also conceivable that artifacts in these areas were buried under debris swept from the slopes in a landslide.
Why the Germanics did not seize the opportunity to loot the desolate battlefield systematically remains a mystery. Smashed carts, hundreds of projectiles sticking up out of the ground, and lost items of equipment must have remained visible for years until the forest covered them up. Perhaps the area was at least partially taboo and no one dared to set foot on it. Archeologists initially dated the find as belonging to the Augustan Age, i.e., the decades bracketing Christ's birth, but upon discovery of additional finds it became clear that the event happened approx. 200 years after the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest. The most reliable indications of dating up until now are a heavily worn coin of Emperor Commodus, who reigned 180 – 192 AD, and a knife sheath that cannot have originated before the outgoing second century AD. The entire spectrum of weapons supports this timeframe. Thus present scholarship places the battle within a time window between the end of the second century and the middle of the third century. Reconstructing a concrete event with the help of archaeological findings is almost always problematic. This is particularly true in the unusual case that there is virtually no historical mention of the event in question. With the help of archaeological observations, it is only possible to develop models that must be checked over and over again anew. Moreover, the investigation of the Harzhorn battlefield is still in the preparatory stage from the point of view of scholarship. Further study of it is bound to lead to additional findings and corrections in preceding ones. Every day, a lucky discovery may result in a complete revision of the previous models.
First, the very extensive find material indisputably documents a strong Roman military presence. However, the classic structure of the Roman army was already largely in disarray by the third century AD, and those who served in it were mainly mercenaries from the provinces and far reaches of the empire. Among other things, for example, Emperor Maximinus Thrax used Persian archers and Moorish spear throwers in his 235 AD campaign against the Germanics. On the other hand, the Germanics also used Roman-made weapons during this period. Thus it is hardly possible to decide from the weapons whether they were carried by a "Roman" or a Germanic tribesman. At Harzhorn, however, there are clear traces of Roman military tactics: The latest scholarship, for example, holds that the arrows found there were seldom and the torsion-pressure powered catapults (large, bolt-firing catapults with mechanical cocking devices), of which the massive catapult projectiles are indirect evidence, never used by Germanics. Thus it is safe to assume that troops that were under Roman control in a military sense were involved in the battle. The size and mission of the Roman forces remain unclear. Because they had catapults and carts with them, it was certainly not a small unit. For the time being, it is impossible to say whether their mission was a strictly military one or whether this was possibly an armed legation or expedition.
Furthermore, present observations indicate that this was the scene of an open field battle. Futures excavations will be required to determine whether fortifications or entanglements were erected above and beyond this. The present observations make the following working hypothesis likely: Roman troops returning from the north found the pass leading south blocked and then fought their way over the mountain ridge with massive use of weapons.
Apparently the Roman troops remained successful in this battle on account of their superior military technology, but were forced to withdraw in the direction of the Leine valley because of a persistent threat. With this new discovery of an ancient battlefield, another important archeological site regarding the question of coexistence, parallel existence and conflict between Romans and Germanics has been localized in Lower Saxony. The Roman camp in Hedemunden on the Werra marks the beginning of Roman access to Greater Germania shortly before Christ's birth; the Kalkriese site is associated with the defeat of the Roman military in the year 9 A D, which then permanently withdrew from this part of Germania after the retribution campaigns of the years 15-16 AD.
Subsequently, the northern external frontier of the Roman Empire consolidated along the Rhine. Above all, Rome used diplomacy to continue to influence the territories on the right side of the Rhine. The situation changed drastically during the third century AD. Germanics surged southward in large bands across the Upper Raetian Limes, the border between the Danube and the Rhine, and westward across the Rhine to profit from the economically blossoming Roman areas. These areas were well-known to them because comingling with the local populace had long since already taken place in the provincial Roman border regions. Members of Germanic tribes served as soldiers in the Roman army or traded with the inhabitants of provincial Roman areas. By the end of second century, the first major wars triggered by migration processes southward occurred, the conflicts with the Marcomanni on the middle Danube which kept the forces of Rome and Emperor Marcus Aurelius tied up for a long time. In 213 AD, the Alemanni, a new alliance of various Germanic tribes, invaded Germania Superior and Raetia, i.e., modern-day Hessen, Baden-Wurttemberg and Bavaria. Caracalla crossed the Limes to launch a military expedition against the Alemanni. In 233, the Alemanni in turn devastated the blossoming border regions. Therefore, in the year 235 AD, Maximinus Thrax led an army consisting partly of oriental units deep into Germania – as handed down by Herodian and in the Augustan History – to win a major victory in the course of the "Battle in the Moor". In historical research, this event was frequently shifted to the vicinity of the Roman external frontiers, because penetration for many hundred kilometers into areas outside of the Roman Empire seemed highly unlikely. The new discovery at the edge of the Harz Mountains means that this depiction must be revised. Here is the first evidence at all of a major Roman combat unit, like that described in connection with Maximinus Thrax, operating in the midst of "Barbarian" territory in the third century AD. Catapult bolts document the use of Roman torsion-pressure powered catapults. A plethora of three-bladed arrowheads may indicate the presence of oriental archers who used reflex bows. Spearheads complement the spectrum of weapons. Parts of carts such as linchpins, wheel hubs and harness accessories, but also fragments of slave chains or tent stakes, are evidence of the baggage train. The pattern of distribution of the hobnails left behind from soldiers' sandals makes it possible to retrace the Roman army's route of march southwards over the pass. The impacts of Roman projectile points indicate the Germanic positions.
The site will lead to new, far-reaching archaeological and historical considerations. Some written sources will have to be reevaluated. A methodical comparison of the Harz battlefield with the one in Kalkriese, both of which were the scene of actions at a defile, will probably permit additional conclusions about what happened at each site, enabling both sites to serve as a key for reconstructing events at the respective other site. These complex possibilities for acquiring new knowledge underscore the extraordinary scholarly importance of the newly discovered battlefield. The new discovery documents a dramatic event within the scope of Germano-Roman relations that causes many archaeological phenomena that have been known for a long time to appear in a different light. These include the striking Roman flow of imports into Greater Germania around 200 AD or the appearance of Roman weapons at sacrifice sites of this time. The fact that archeologists have succeeded in grasping a historical event that has apparently found no mention at all in supposedly dependable historical sources makes the new discovery a spectacular one. It calls inherited ideas about history into question and supplies plenty of material for future historical and archaeological discussions.

Text: Michael Geschwinde, Henning Haßmann, Michael Meyer, Günther Moosbauer


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Das Harzhorn

Das sogenannte "Harzhorn" ist der östliche Teil des Vogelberges, einem in Ost-West-Richtung verlaufenden Höhenzug zwischen Bad Gandersheim und Kalefeld. Geografisch weitläufiger eingeordnet gehört dieser Höhenzug zu einer Anhäufung von kleineren Erhebungen am westlichen Rand des Harzes. » mehr

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Ein anschauliches Bild von den Ereignissen des kriegerischen Aufeinander­treffens der römischen und germanischen Kampfverbände um 235 n. Chr. vermitteln seit Mai 2010 regelmäßige Gästeführungen am Originalschauplatz. » mehr

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