Large necropolis sheds new light on post-Roman Germany

An excavation in Rockenberg, about 20 miles north of Frankfurt in the central German state of Hesse, has unearthed a large burial ground from the period after the Roman withdrawal in the 3rd century. More than 330 cremation burials and 70 inhumations dating to the 4th and 5th centuries have been discovered thus far, making the Rockenberg burial ground five times larger than any other necropolis from this period in Hesse.

There are almost no written sources documenting the period after Romans abandoned the Germanic limes and retreated to the west bank of the Rhine in 260 A.D., and archaeological remains are sparse, so the discovery of so large a cemetery has the potential to rewrite the history of this period.

Archaeologists were not only astonished by the sheer number of burials. In addition to a surprising number of children’s graves, a considerable number of weapon graves of the first Germanic settlers could also be uncovered. Among them were true rarities such as a belly burial, which is usually associated with serious crimes or the fear of revenants. The excavation team was also impressed by an archer with a preserved quiver and rich accessories, as well as a presumably youth with Roman objects.

The site was excavated as quickly as possible when rain made the dusty field a mud pit. Large sections of finds were removed en bloc and are now being excavated in laboratory conditions. Exceptional objects have already emerged, including a bronze collar with only one known parallel (it’s in Norway), and a wooden box in an excellent state of preservation with bronze fittings and a lock.

“This is really unique for the 4th and 5th centuries,” is how Prison classified the richness of the finds. Excellently preserved silver jewellery, ceramics and weapons round off a range of finds that will keep archeologists busy for years to come. “The excavation is not over here, it’s just getting started,” says [district archaeologist Hardy] Prison. Because the processing of the findings and finds already promises to bring light to a previously dark time.

The human remains and artifacts are in very good condition, protected by the waterlogged soil conditions in the area. The objects are now being examined, catalogued and in the restoration department of the State Office for the Preservation of Monuments in Hesse. The process is slow and painstaking. Depending on how many artifacts they discover, it could take up to five years before any of them are ready to go on display.

One thought on “Large necropolis sheds new light on post-Roman Germany

  1. Rockenberg is located just 25km SE to to Roman town of Waldgirmes, where e.g. the ‘Horsehead of Waldgirmes’ had been found 11m below ground level.

    Only 8km north of Waldgirmes, the celtic oppidum of Dünsberg had been flourishing until the advent of the Romans, and apparently re-flourished in the 5th century AD, i.e. about the time of the Rockenberg burial ground. The ‘Alemanni’ confederation was mentioned by Cassius Dio in the context of the campaign of 213, until the Alemanni captured the Agri Decumates in 260, and later expanded into present-day Alsace, and northern Switzerland.

    The Roman Forum of Lahnau-Waldgirmes is a fortified Roman trading place, located at the edge of the modern village Waldgirmes, part of Lahnau on the Lahn, Hesse, Germany. The site has the oldest known stone buildings in Magna Germania. The evidence at Waldgirmes suggests the remains of one of a series of planned towns and market places east of the Rhine and north of the Danube, with the aim of long-term growth into population centers. The complex was never completed. In the absence of any historical reference or local inscriptions, the original name of the site remains unknown.

    PS: Next to the Rockenberg article, there is one that describes Roman shoe nails discovered in Hesse that could be nailed down to 50BC, hence must have been lost when Caesar, during his conquest of Gaul, felt the necessity to secure the eastern border of the new provinces against marauding Germanic tribes (-> ‘Caesar’s Rhine bridges’, according to himself in XI,9): “Caesar, postquam ex Menapiis in Treveros venit, duabus de causis Rhenum transire constituit…”


    “Caesar, after he came from the territories of the Menapii into those of the Treviri [cf. Augusta Treverorum, modern Trier], resolved for two reasons to cross the Rhine; one of which was, because they had sent assistance to the Treviri against him; the other, that Ambiorix might not have a retreat among them. Having determined on these matters, he began to build a bridge a little above that place where he had before conveyed over his army. The plan having been known and laid down, the work is accomplished in a few days by the great exertion of the soldiers. Having left a strong guard at the bridge on the side of the Treviri, lest any commotion should suddenly arise among them, he leads over the rest of the forces and the cavalry. The Ubii, who before had sent hostages and come to a capitulation, send embassadors to him, for the purpose of vindicating themselves, to assure him that “neither had auxiliaries been sent to the Treviri from their state, nor had they violated their allegiance;” they entreat and beseech him “to spare them, lest, in his common hatred of the Germans, the innocent should suffer the penalty of the guilty: they promise to give more hostages, if he desire them.” Having investigated the case, Caesar finds that the auxiliaries had been sent by the Suevi; he accepts the apology of the Ubii, and makes the minute inquiries concerning the approaches and the routes to the territories of the Suevi.”

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