Village built on ruins of Rhine fort after Romans left

Continuing excavation of the Roman fort in the southwest German town of Gernsheim discovered last year has revealed that civilians built a village on the site after the Romans left. Last year a team of 15 students led by archaeologist Dr. Thomas Maurer of Goethe University found postholes from the fort towers and two ditches the departing troops had filled with demolition waste, trash which turned to treasure when a brick fragment stamped with the identifying the legion, Legio XXII Primigenia Pia Fidelis, was discovered.

The 2014 season excavated about 300 square meters of an undeveloped lot in a residential neighborhood. This excavation season covered double the area in double the time, running from August 3rd to early October. Maurer has a team of 20 students working under his direction this year. They have unearthed the foundations of a masonry building, fire pits, two wells and cellar pits from the village built over the remains of the fort. A great many fragments from a variety of ceramics — high quality, coarse and imports — were recovered which experts hope will be able to narrow down the occupation dates of fort and village. The team also unearthed precious artifacts like fibulae, pearls, dice and pieces from a game and a bone hairpin decorated with a female bust.

The Gernsheim fort was one in a series of military installations that made up the Limes Germanicus, the defended border separating the Roman provinces of Germania Superior, Germania Inferior and Raetia from the unruly Germanic tribes to the east. At its peak, the Limes consisted of 60 forts and 900 watchtowers extending from the North Sea to the Danube at Regensburg. The cohort of Legio XXII was stationed at Gernsheim between 70/80 and 110/120 A.D., and while the destruction of the fort and the soldiers’ departure can’t help but have had a negative impact on the community attached to it, the civilians rallied with surprising speed.

The people who settled in the village around the fort were primarily family members of the soldiers and tradespeople who benefited from the purchasing power of the military. “A temporary downturn probably resulted when the troops left – this is something we know from sites which have been studied more thoroughly”, Maurer adds. However, stone buildings were already erected in the “Gernsheim Roman village” during the 2nd century, which suggests that the settlement was prospering. The population probably had mainly Gallic-Germanic origins, with perhaps a few “true” Romans – persons with Roman citizenship who moved here from faraway provinces. This is illustrated by specific archaeological finds; most notably pieces of traditional dress but also coins. One of the historic finds from Gernsheim is a coin from Bithynia (Northwest Anatolia), which was certainly not among the coins in circulation in Germania Superior but would instead have been a form of souvenir.

Preliminary analysis suggests the village was occupied through the 3rd century, until about 260 A.D. when pressure from the Germanic tribes led to the permanent abandonment of the Limes and all territories east of the Rhine and north of the Danube.

5 thoughts on “Village built on ruins of Rhine fort after Romans left

  1. From (Tacitus ~98 AD), ‘On the Origin and Geography of the Germanic Peoples’ (Latin: De Origine et situ Germanorum), ch. XXIV:

    ..Aleam, quod mirere, sobrii inter seria exercent, tanta lucrandi perdendive temeritate, ut, cum omnia defecerunt, extremo ac novissimo iactu de libertate ac de corpore contendant. Victus voluntariam servitutem adit: quamvis iuvenior, quamvis robustior adligari se ac venire patitur. Ea est in re prava pervicacia; ipsi fidem vocant. …

    ..(To throw) the dice, and this is strange, they do soberly again and again, with such a foolhardiness about gaining or losing, that they, when they lost everything, in extreme cases at the last throw, stake the freedom of their own persons. The loser goes into voluntary slavery: Even the younger and stronger one endures to be bound and sold. Such is their persistency in a bad practice; they themselves call it trust. …


  2. It’s striking how well built of stone masonry many of the buildingss are on the farms near Hadrian’s Wall. So I wonder how much Roman masonry was recycled by the villagers. Not only in the second century but more recently.

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