Roman marching camp found in Thuringia

A Roman marching camp from the 1st to 3rd century A.D. has been discovered near the town of Hachelbich in Thuringia. It’s the first Roman military camp found in the eastern German province and the first camp that is more than a day’s travel from the eastern border of the empire on the Rhine. In fact, it’s closer to the Elbe River than it is to the Rhine (the Elbe is about 150 miles east of the site, the Rhine 220 west), a strong indication that the Roman military did not completely withdraw to the Rhine even after three legions led by Publius Quintilius Varus were slaughtered by Germanic tribesmen at the Battle of Teutoburg Forest in 9 A.D.

The discovery of a large third century battlefield on Harzhorn hill in Lower Saxony in 2008 confirmed that there was a significant Roman military presence east of the Teutoburg Forest more than 200 years after Varus’ humiliating defeat. Archaeologists estimate about 1,000 Roman soldiers fought (and won) at Harzhorn. The Hachelbich marching camp is about 60 miles southeast of Harzhorn. It covers 18 hectares and was large enough to accommodate an entire legion of around 5,000 soldiers. As a marching camp, it wasn’t a permanent fortress, but rather a protective enclosure built by the legionaries in one evening so they could camp down in a defended position. They wouldn’t have spent more than a few days there while on their way elsewhere, in this case probably east towards the Elbe.

The site was found in 2010 during road work, but it was kept quiet while archaeologists explored the area. They excavated more than two hectares and covered another 10 hectares with magnetometers and aerial surveys. Now that the site has been identified as a military camp, the Thuringian State Office for Heritage and Archaeology has announced the find. They’re keeping the exact location a secret, however, to keep looters from ravaging the place on the hunt for portable Roman artifacts.

A rough rectangle with round corners, the camp is standard Roman military issue. No matter where they were, legions on the move set up a minifortress in the wilderness at the end of each day’s march. At Hachelbich, the meter-deep trenches dug around the camp were the easiest feature to spot in the soil. Two perimeter trenches have been found, each more than 400 meters long.

On the camp’s northern edge, the soldiers built a gate protected by another trench that projected out past the perimeter. “It’s typically Roman—no Germans did that sort of thing,” Kuessner says. The trenches were part of a simple, but effective makeshift perimeter defense: A low wall of dirt was thrown up behind the trench, then topped with tall stakes, to create a defensive barrier almost 3 meters wide and 3 meters high. Erosion wiped away the wall long ago, but it left discolorations in the soil where the trench was dug.

Archaeologists also unearthed the remains of eight bread ovens close to the camp perimeter, which shows an impressive commitment to quality food considering the legionaries weren’t going to be there for long. Some artifacts confirming the military nature of the camp were found: four hobnails from the soles of Roman caligae, fittings from a sword scabbard and horse tackle.

The style of the artifacts places the camp in the first two centuries of the first millennium and radiocarbon dating supports the range, but archaeologists haven’t found anything to narrow it down any further or link to the camp to the reign of a certain emperor. Excavations will continue this year and the next at least. After the crops in the valley are harvested this fall, archaeologists will be able to excavate the farmland. They hope to find coins that will provide a precise date, or an artifact with the legion number on it that would write a new chapter in Roman military history.

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Comment by Markus
2014-05-20 03:12:57

I’m always a little bit baffled about media statements along the line of we all of a sudden find they “did not completely withdraw after (Varus)” and “maintained significant military presence (after Varus)”. We already knew from text sources and the occasional singulary find that the Romans did campaign on occasion into Germania Magna during the centuries after the Varus defeat. This is exactly what sites like Harzhorn and Hachelbich confirm too, and it should come as no surprise to anyone (or, anyone but folklore that likes to assume the Romans spent the rest of their tenure shivering in fear behind the Limes, keeping the gates locked tight and never to set foot again on that dreaded Germanic soil). This is great news as it confirms known sources. Nothing more and nothing less. I mean, it’s not like this is a paradigm shift or anything, so why is it advertised as one by some?

Comment by Claudia
2014-05-20 08:39:23

That is definitely an interesting find, and to a certain extent it might indeed be reasonable to assume that the Romans stopped their major ‘trans-rhenish’ activities after Varus had lost his legions in 9 AD. According to Tacitus in 98 AD, Germania is dull place not even worth to ignore.

It would be great to know, if the new excarvations from obviously later expeditions might relate to what is referred to as the ‘Marcommanic Wars’, i.e. the ‘expeditio Germanica prima et secunda’ (170-180 AD) or to the ‘expeditio Burica’, aka the ’3rd marcomannic war’ (182 AD).

These activities might have been of a more ‘trans-danubian’ character. So whatever might have taken place, there is definitely more than just this isolated makeshift enclosure.

Comment by Gary Rutherford Harding
2014-05-22 09:19:23

My ancestors come from this area of Thuringia and our genealogy goes back into the 17th century. Interesting that our Y-DNA haplogroup [E-PF4428] has a completely isolated “hotspot” in this area and is thought to have come from the Roman Balkans or Iberia. Our ancestral name “Wiegand” means warrior or soldier.

Comment by collin earnest
2014-05-24 18:18:25

It sucks that they have to keep it secret but I understand that its necessary. It would be nice if you could just trust people lol. Nice write up.

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