Caesar fought here? 1st c. B.C. battlefield found in Kessel

Archaeologists from the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (VU) have discovered what they believe to be the site of a bloody battle fought by Julius Caesar against the Tencteri and Usipetes tribes in 55 B.C. The site is at the confluence of the Maas (Meuse) and Waal rivers about 75 miles inland near modern-day Kessel, in the southern Netherlands province of Brabant. It’s the earliest known battlefield discovered in the Netherlands.

Archaeological remains are rich in the area, unearthed for decades by amateurs and now collected at Amsterdam’s Allard Pierson Museum. The discoveries strongly suggested a significant violent event took place there in antiquity. Between 1975 and 1995 many late Iron Age weapons and artifacts were found there during dredging operations on the Kessel side of the Waal — 20 iron swords, spearheads, a cavalry helmet of Gallic origin that is the oldest ever found in the Netherlands, Germanic belt buckles, cloak brooches — as well bones from more than 100 individuals. The weapons and artifacts stylistically date the 1st century B.C., but only recently has radiocarbon analysis of the skeletal remains confirmed they date to the same Late Iron Age period. Osteological analysis of the bones show clear and copious sings of cutting injuries caused by swords and penetrating wounds caused by spears.

Stable isotope analysis of the tooth enamel from three individuals unearthed at the site confirm that they were not native the Meuse-Waal area but came from elsewhere. The Tencteri and Usipetes weren’t locals; they were Germanic tribes on the move, pressured by the Suevi people encroaching on their home territories to cross the Rhine and migrate west. The isotope analysis is ongoing and additional tests should reveal with more precision where they spent their childhoods.

The Kessel skeletal remains are mainly of men, but there are also women and children among them, all of whom died at the same time in what archaeologists believe was a single violent event rather than a series of events when the dead were buried in the same place. It seems there was a battle followed by a massacre after which the bodies of the dead were thrown in the Maas riverbed, as were their weapons. Some of the swords were found to have been deliberately folded or bent, a common ritual practice symbolizing the destruction of the object before burial.

Caesar wrote about a battle that fits this bill in Book IV De Bello Gallico.

The following winter (this was the year in which Cn. Pompey and M. Crassus were consuls [55 B.C.]), those Germans [called] the Usipetes, and likewise the Tenchtheri, with a great number of men, crossed the Rhine, not far from the place at which that river discharges itself into the sea. The motive for crossing [that river] was, that having been for several years harassed by the Suevi, they were constantly engaged in war, and hindered from the pursuits of agriculture.

The Usipetes and Tencteri in turn drove the Belgic Menapii tribe from their homes by tricking them into thicking they were leaving only to double back and catch the Menapii unawares. The Germanic tribes killed the Menapii, seized their ships and used them to cross the Rhine (possibly the Waal which is a distributary of the Rhine) where they wintered comfortably on Menapii supplies.

Caesar heard of this and became concerned that the movement west of the Usipetes and Tencteri would get the Gauls all het up. Indeed, his scouts discovered that Gallic peoples were already beginning to deal with the Germans, appeasing them with money and valuables and drawing them further into Gaul itself. The Usipetes and Tencteri attempted to negotiate with Caesar, offering their fighting skills in exchange for being allowed to keep the lands they’d just taken, for new lands or for support against the Suevi who were driving them from their homeland.

Caesar wasn’t keen but agreed to a temporary truce while they worked out a possible resettlement option. The Germans panicked at the sight of Roman cavalry and attacked anyway. Caesar, now considering the truce ended by their treachery, put his game face on.

Having marshalled his army in three lines, and in a short time performed a march of eight miles, he arrived at the camp of the enemy before the Germans could perceive what was going on; who being suddenly alarmed by all the circumstances, both by the speediness of our arrival and the absence of their own officers, as time was afforded neither for concerting measures nor for seizing their arms, are perplexed as to whether it would be better to lead out their forces against the enemy, or to defend their camp, or seek their safety by flight. Their consternation being made apparent by their noise and tumult, our soldiers, excited by the treachery of the preceding day, rushed into the camp: such of them as could readily get their arms, for a short time withstood our men, and gave battle among their carts and baggage wagons; but the rest of the people, [consisting] of boys and women (for they had left their country and crossed the Rhine with all their families) began to fly in all directions; in pursuit of whom Caesar sent the cavalry.

The Germans when, upon hearing a noise behind them, [they looked and] saw that their families were being slain, throwing away their arms and abandoning their standards, fled out of the camp, and when they had arrived at the confluence of the Meuse and the Rhine, the survivors despairing of further escape, as a great number of their countrymen had been killed, threw themselves into the river and there perished, overcome by fear, fatigue, and the violence of the stream. Our soldiers, after the alarm of so great a war, for the number of the enemy amounted to 430,000, returned to their camp, all safe to a man, very few being even wounded.

Caesar’s numbers are exaggerated. Archaeologists believe the real number of Tencteri and Usipetes was somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000 and he couldn’t have killed them all. Plutarch says that there were survivors who were taken in by the German Sugambri tribe, much to Caesar’s irritation.

So, is the Kessel battlefield the one Caesar describes in De Bello Gallico? The evidence of a battle having taken place there between Gauls or Romans and Germans in the 1st century B.C. is strong. Whether it’s the specific battle described by Caesar, that’s more challenging to determine. I think they’re relying a little heavily on the presence of slaughtered civilians matching Caesar’s description of the battle’s aftermath. It seems to me you’d need coins, legion references or maybe remains of the camps to narrow down the time and combatants more precisely before you can comfortably claim, as the VU press materials do, that this is the “first time that the presence of Caesar and his troops on Dutch soil has been explicitly shown.”

The finds are currently on display in the Allard Pierson Museum and will be exhibited at least through next month.

16 thoughts on “Caesar fought here? 1st c. B.C. battlefield found in Kessel

  1. I don,t exactly see the proof that Caesar is linked to this find. The further back in history, the greater the speculation.

  2. Although I consider myself an Americanist — evident in my new blog — I have been stopping by your blog for quite a while because I can learn so much about how to do history; your posts, many of which I have devoured, are so instructive and entertaining. Thank you for showing me how it ought to be done. All the best from R.T. at Empire of Liberty.

  3. so glad to read accurate reporting here, many news outlets, some fairly prestigious, said that Julius Caesar was an emperor, and even with many notifications of the error from readers in their comments sections, still have not corrected their stories. Thanks!

  4. In comparison to German battle sites like the ones at ‘Harzhorn’ or ‘Kalkriese’, it is indeed a bit disappointing if not even a a single Roman shoe nail, coinage or projectile was unearthed. However, remains from a clash between some locals and parts of the Tencteri-usipete alliance might be what has been found here.

    In general, Caesar’s strategic interest in the -by then- swampier grounds close to ‘the place at which that river discharges itself into the sea‘ would have been rather limited – though highly welcome as a pretext to sustained greater military action. A pattern, by the way, not completely unheard of in later times.

  5. One does not need coins,legion references or remains of camps.

    The “battle” did not take place at the very spot. The area of the finds is where survivors fled to, got caught in between 2 rivers, and drowned there or were hacked to pieces.

    By ca. 8 legions(!)at a time no Germanic tribe had any experience with Roman tactics or weapons yet. They were literally mobbed up with the Romans having hardly any casualties whatsoever or leaving anything behind.

    The 2 tribes together probably did not even number as may as 30.000 people (men, women, children) and were hopelessly outnumbered (46.000 Roman troops).

    Estimates of 150.000 casualties are completely ridiculous. There weren’t even that many people in the entire Benelux area at the time. Had there been 150.000, believe me, the Germanic tribes would have won and there would never have been a victorious Caesar to tell the tale.

    That Romans were the culprits already becomes clear from the skull with the hole depictured in your article. The shape of that hole is typical of a Roman pilum. Only Roman javelins created that kind of entry would. The person once belonging to the skull was 100% killed by a Roman weapon. And in the 1st century BC Germanic tribes had no knowledge or possession of Roman weapons yet. They literally just appeared on the scene. That makes it extremely likely that the person throwing that weapon … was a Roman soldier.

  6. in today’s PC world where 100 year old segregationists are being erased from history, it’s chilling to think that Caesars conquests were little more than orgies of conquest, enslavement and plunder. how much longer will Caesar be remembered as conquerer of Gaul rather than the genocidal megomaniac who erased countless migrating tribes from the face of earth.

    history is finally coming around to the fact that Alexander the Great was a manicial alcoholic sociopath responsible for the unjust deaths of many tens of not hundreds of thousands of people. i know it’s difficult to judge others through the lens of modern culture but wholesale slaughter and practical genocide of innocent tribes wasn’t cool back the and definitely not cool now ISIS. dictator for life Julius Caesar (not an emperor nor a first citizen like Augustus) may eventually be seen in the same light too. granted, these two tribes appeared to recieve their just deserts from the Romans but the wholesale slaughter of women and children seems brutal even through the lens of a brutal antiquity.

  7. There is, whatever that means, nothing particularly ‘Roman’ about this wound and, moreover, to my unskilled eye it appears to be more like an arrow wound than one inflicted by a pilum. Those peoples with their bone and bronze arrowheads made holes like that into skulls more than a full millennium earlier (from the Tollense bronze age battlefield).

  8. I utterly disbelieve the huge numbers routinely reported for army sizes, deaths, and such in classical times (or, come to that, in Exodus). Baloney!

    Changed days, of course, but I find the Anglo-Saxon figures more plausible: fewer than six = “robbers”. From there up to thirty, a “band”. Over thirty, an “army”.

    If “Arthur” ever existed, how many men did he lead? A few score cavalrymen, maybe?

  9. It is typical for Roman weapons. It is a slightly damaged hole (due to erosion; it’s been lying in a river for a long time) that was originally more or less of a square shape. And those square entry holes were created by the shape of Roman spearheads (pilum) and (catapult) bolts. And only by Roman spearheads and bolts, as only they used weapons shaped that way. Germanic and Celtic spearheads and arrow were broader and flat and create different damage. That skull was even taken as an example on Dutch television as a typical case of a wound inflicted by a Roman weapon. Many cases are known of skeletal remains found all over the Roman empire with those kind of holes inflicted by Roman weapons.

  10. The Suevi (Tac., Germania, XXXVIII):

    “… A national peculiarity with them is to twist their hair back, and fasten it in a knot .. arranging their hair when they go to battle, to make themselves tall and terrible, they adorn themselves, so to speak, for the eyes of the foe.”

  11. `Many cases of skeletal remains with these kind of holes’: I know only of one, a maiden Castle skull with a neat square hole in it. It seems highly unlikely that such a hole would have been `eroded’ to a more or less jagged round shape, however long the skull fragment has been lying in the water. It is, anyway, only a minor pminor points in a long list of highly speculative arguments put forward by the archaeologists. Nothing has been “proven’, and it isn”t news either – the finds were discovered and described more than ten years ago, and the identification of the findspot with Caesars killing field was made as early as 1866, by Napoleon III. Not that it is entirely plausible, mind. All in all a poor example of research modified for media coverage.

  12. That is because only the maiden Castle Skull has a perfect square hole (as far as I know). Normally such holes still clearly betray that a square diameter projectile head was involved, but the hole is not perfectly square. If the bolt pierced far enough, the shaft followed which was round in diameter and ofter had a somewhat bigger diameter. When piercing through the shaft created damaged to the neat edge. All depends on shaft diamter, velocity, caliber, range and angle. A perfectly square hole could be the result but was very rare. You can see the result of a test with a perfect replica of a ballista with a perfect replica of a Roman bolt on a Roman helmet and a pig skull on One side of the hole in the skull on the photo here shows that a square diameter was involved. The other side has more damage due to the shaft following through. A large phote can be found on

    I think it is great news. The point is not that the remains were found and described during the last 35 years or so. The point is that someone finally figured out why so many skeletal remains, partially with war wounds, and weapons from the same period (1st century BC) have been found at the same site. Substantially more than anywhere else in The Netherlands from one and the same site. Because they belong together. To 1 event.

    Napoleon III did research on Caesar”s campaigns but produced no serious evidence at all for the location of the slaughter of the Tencteri and Usipetes.

  13. `Someone finally figured out why so many skeletal remains, partially with war wounds, and weapons from the same period (1st century BC) have been found at the same site. Substantially more than anywhere else in The Netherlands from one and the same site. Because they belong together. To 1 event.’ That’s just the point of discussion here. Of the 32 skull and bone fragments from the site now radiocarbon dated, seventeen are from the Late Iron Age (covering the period 200 BC- 0) and fifteen from earlier or later periods up to 1200 AD (including bones with trauma). The Iron Age swords and other implements found fronm the same period cannot be dated very precisely, as the VU archaeologists freely admit. Even narrowing the date of some (not all) of the weapons down to La Tène D2 gives a span of fifty years 80 -30 BC). The swords, moreover, are of a southern, `Gallic’, not north-eastern “Germanic’ type. When all ios said and done, one has to think very wshfully to ascribe all these finds to `one event’. They were found together all right, but not in the same spot or layer, everything being dredged up and collected from the sand and gravel. Of course some of the finds, like certain sweord and belt-hooks, could very well be the result of one event. But the 1st century BC being a rather messy time even without Caesars interference, and the Germano-Gallic peoples a rather violent lot, all kinds of (unknown) alternatives are possible, which are now convienently ditched for one event we happen to know and has the C-factor to push it upwards in the charts. Possible, yes. Certain? Not at all.
    Anyway, I’m not so sure Caesar knew where he was at the time, he’d never, or maybe only once far south, seer the Rhine, He probably wan’t at `the place where the Meuse and Rhine/Waal rivers join’ and where the major killing (by his Gallic cavalry) took place. Might very well be hearsay, and if you leave this spot out and try to follow Caesars marching route by his description, you still don’t know exactly where we are but in any case a lot farther south. Read closely.
    For much more convincing archaeological evidence of early battle sites in the Netherlands, see Velsen (28 AD) and Vronen (1297 AD), both in the province of North Holland, bones, military accoutrements (at Velsen) and war trauma (at Vronen) galore.

    PS it’s a pity people don’t use serious names on a serious blog in a serious discussion. What do we have to hide while discussing history? Pardon me for being old-fashioned besides making a lot of typing errors, I’m short-sighted as well

  14. “Of the 32 skull and bone fragments from the site now radiocarbon dated, seventeen are from the Late Iron Age (covering the period 200 BC- 0) and fifteen from earlier or later periods up to 1200 AD (including bones with trauma).”

    Based on your last comment I must say that you may well be correct. yes, probably are. I am only familiar with the details mentioned online by newspapers etc. which all consistently mention the 1st century BC., but when skeletal remains date between ca. 200 BC and ca. 1200 AD, some of the remains with trauma postdate the 1st cent. BC, and the weapons found are of a local type (the Gallic type was also common in the Low Countries), it becomes rather difficult to believe in 1 event.

    I wonder why one would claim 1 event then. Seems a rather bold claim to me then.

    PS I prefer to une a name that assures anonimity. History or not, the reactions and insults one often sees, when discussing completely normal topics …..

  15. Thanks for your reply and yes, I am aware of the trolls harrassing forums like these, you are obviously not one of them. I am more than willing to take my chances with you and the others whose comments I read.
    Mind you, I’m not saying that ’55 BC’ couldn’t possibly be represented in the finds, and because there is still some part of the site left (more or less) intact, we may be surprised yet. But just now it’s impossible to make a claim for one single event, or even one single event dominating the material. Kessel is one of those sites in the Netherlands with an enormous potential, only it should be treated as a whole (as VU archaeologist Roymans did himself very well eleven years ago) , and not as a chocolate box you can pick your favorite taste from.
    The reason for breaking this `news’ anyway: your guess is as good as mine.
    Season’s greetings!

  16. First of all i want to say that i’m agreeing witch Kanjer and van Ginkel that it’s seems clear that the damage on the skull is been done by a roman weapon and that it’s likely that a roman has done the damage, because the tribes in the Netherlands weren’t know with roman weapons.

    Second the numbers of peoples in the tribes seems a bit of. 150.000 is a lot for the time. And like Kanjer said if there were 150.000 of them, roman would have a hard time with them. The lack of roman stuff with the discovery seems to rule out these difficulties.

    last but not least i think it’s difficult to find proof of Caesars involvement, because the link of hum and the text in the De Bello is a bit weak. The University hasn’t got more than that and that makes it more a theory full of speculation than a opinion with a lot of facts and good arguments.

    I think it’s nice that someone has a new theory about the findings in the Netherlands, but it needs more research and work to become a better research.

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