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Roman legionnaire camp found in Germany

A Roman marching camp has been successfully identified in Bielefeld by the Landschaftsverband Westfalen-Lippe (LWL). Large parts of the wall from the time of the Roman Emperor Augustus (reigned 31 B.C. to 14 A.D.) can still be seen today. This makes the camp found in the Sennestadt district of Westphalia completely unique.

Roman legionnaire camp found in Germany
After the excavation both part of the rampart and the ditch in front of it can be clearly seen
[Credit: LWL/D. Jaszczurok]
The camp is located in the Oerlinghausener Senne district, directly on the banks of the Menkhauser Bach. The area was reforested in the 19th century, but in Roman times only a small number of birches and oaks were found here. "Fortunately, the area was never used for agricultural purposes, so that the wall structures of the camp can still be seen today. In Westphalia, this is an isolated case so far", says Dr. Barbara Rüschoff-Parzinger, Head of the LWL Culture Department. "All the other Roman camps known here have been transformed by modern construction or agriculture. This destroyed the superficial structures." The boundaries of these camps had therefore to be opened up by, among other things, sometimes lengthy excavations.

However, this was not necessary in Bielefeld-Sennestadt. "With the help of laser scans from the air, the boundary wall of the camp and thus its extent can already be precisely determined," says Prof. Michael Rind, Director of LWL Archaeology for Westphalia. With a size of approximately 26 hectares, the camp corresponds to approximately 36 football pitches.

"Three Roman legions, including auxiliaries and troops, could easily have been accommodated there at the same time, i.e. about 25,000 people, depending on the number of troops," explains Dr. Bettina Tremmel from the LWL Archaeology for Westphalia. She is a scientific consultant for provincial Roman archaeology and has long been involved with Roman camps. "On the march, the legionnaires camped in leather tents." In Roman written sources it is reported that a legion needed less space on the march than in a standing camp, for example in Delbrück-Anreppen (Paderborn district), where a legion was accommodated on an area of 23 hectares. "Of course, tents take up less space than buildings built on a permanent basis," says Tremmel.

Roman legionnaire camp found in Germany
The profile clearly shows a pointed ditch typical of Roman marching camps
[Credit: LWL/D. Jaszczurok]
The remaining rampart is about 1,400 metres long. Along the river valley in the east, the legionnaires refrained from erecting a rampart. The several metre high slope edge towards the stream formed a natural obstacle to the approach. On its north-eastern and north-western sides the still visible rampart has a gate. This is a distinctive gate type, the so-called Clavicula gate. One side of the wall turns in a semicircular inward direction, so that a narrowed entrance is created. This served for the easier defense of the gate and slowed down enemy forces during their assault.

In September of last year, an excavation along the southwestern wall was carried out for the first time with the permission of the owners. The LWL archaeologists found a trench of approx. 80 centimetres depth in front of the rampart. Originally it was 1.5 metres wide. The rampart itself is still up to 40 centimetres high and was once probably up to 60 centimetres high. Another excavation is currently taking place on the rampart.

"Such a rampart-ditch system is typical of Roman marching camps," Tremmel explains. "The Roman troops set up such a camp at the end of each day's march to spend the night." They dug a ditch and piled up the earth on the side facing the camp to form a rampart. At the top of the rampart, the legionnaires planted a dense row of sharp wooden stakes, which each soldier carried with him. These were then additionally connected to each other with ropes. Thus an effective protection against raids and also against wild animals was created.

Roman legionnaire camp found in Germany
Due to the dense vegetation, it is difficult to see the boundary line of the camp in today's forest
[Credit: LWL/B. Tremmel]
Inside such a camp, which was only occupied for a short time, the Roman legionnaires pitched their leather tents arranged in a fixed grid. So every soldier knew where his place was in the camp. When the troops continued their march the next day, the camp was abandoned. The stakes were taken, but the ramparts and ditches were usually left as they were. This made it possible to use the camp again at a later date if there was a likelihood that the Roman troops would march back on the same route. "Whether this was the case in Bielefeld-Sennestadt is not yet clear," says Tremmel. "Further research is necessary."

The dimensions of the rampart-ditch complex and the polygonal shape indicate that this camp was built in Augustan times. "Unfortunately, we still lack Roman finds that would allow a narrower dating," said Tremmel. "But the shape and size of the camp give us a clear indication compared to other camps from the time of Augustus." Tremmel does not have great hopes for finding anything unique: "It is quite possible that we will hardly make any finds. After all, it was only a very short-lived camp." Therefore, there was less time for objects to get lost. Excavations in similar camps outside Westphalia have already shown this.

The marching camp had already been discovered by a volunteer member in 2017. René Jansen Venneboer originally comes from the Netherlands, but now lives on the Rhine in Germany. In his spare time, he searches for traces of Roman campaigns in North Rhine-Westphalia. He mainly uses laser scans for this purpose. The state makes such scans freely available. "With the help of a so-called LiDAR scan, it is possible to identify structures on the terrain surface that are otherwise covered by natural vegetation," explains Rind. The ground is scanned with laser beams from airplanes or helicopters and a digital terrain model is generated from this. Trees and shrubs are not recorded.

Roman legionnaire camp found in Germany
In the digital terrain model the course of the embankment is clearly recognizable
[Credit: LWL/B. Tremmel]
In the past, Jansen Venneboer had already reported several structures to the Landschaftsverband Rheinland (LVR). He also reported the camp in Bielefeld to the LVR, which then forwarded it to the responsible LWL. "We are pleased about civic commitment. Particularly if it is discussed with the responsible authorities, stresses Rüschoff-Parzinger.


In Westphalia itself, several other marching camps from the Augustan period are already known. Most recently, a Roman camp was discovered at Olfen-Sülsen in the Coesfeld district in 2011. Further west in the district of Recklinghausen in Dorsten-Holsterhausen and in Haltern am See there are several marching camps along the Lippe. Another is located northeast of Bielefeld at the Weser in Barkhausen near Porta-Westfalica (district Minden-Lübbecke). In addition, there are also the permanent camps in Haltern, Bergkamen-Oberaden and Lünen-Beckinghausen in the district of Unna as well as Kneblinghausen (district of Soest) and Delbrück-Anreppen (district of Paderborn).

"The discovery in Sennestadt increased the density of the network of Roman camps in Westphalia," said Rüschoff-Parzinger. "It may even be possible to find a Roman route here that could have been used more often." There are also traces of the Romans near Bielefeld. The remains of a guard post were found on the Sparrenberg moor. "But this was never completed, only half of the ditch was laid out. We don't know the reasons for this," says Dr. Sven Spiong, head of the Bielefeld branch of LWL-Archaeology.

Roman legionnaire camp found in Germany
Reenactors at the Roman construction site Aliso show how the rampart and ditch of a Roman camp was constructed.
In the background you can see replicas of the leather tents used by the Romans [Credit: LWL/P. Jülich]
But the question why Roman troops marched through the area of today's Bielefeld and set up a camp here can be answered quite reliably by the dating. "The presence of Roman legions is connected with the Germanic campaigns under Augustus", says the Roman expert Tremmel. "The proximity to a pass over the Teuto ridge and the very good water supply through the river permitted a rapid advance into the settlement area of the Cherusci on the Weser."

The first Roman advance from the Lippe to the Weser was made by Drusus, the adopted son of Augustus, in 11 BC. It was only in the years 1 to 5 after Christ that further Roman campaigns took place. Under the governor Marcus Vinicius and Augustus' second adopted son Tiberius, Roman legions marched against the Cheruscan tribe, who were settled between the Teutoburg Forest and the Weser.

Also the governor Varus crossed with three legions the East Westphalian region in AD 9 but was defeated. With the following revenge campaigns of Tiberius and Drusus' son Germanicus in the years 11 to 12 and 14 to 16, the area again saw large Roman armies passing through. "Further archaeological research will perhaps show which of these military events is responsible for the construction of the camp," says LWL archaeologist Rind.

Roman legionnaire camp found in Germany
Reenactors at the Roman construction site Aliso show how the rampart and ditch of a Roman camp
was constructed [Credit: LWL/P. Jülich]
In the future, further investigations will be carried out on the site. In addition to additional excavations, a systematic inspection with special probes is planned. "Forests are an absolute taboo for metal detectorists," explains Spiong. "This is because the objects in the ground are usually still in their original context and this would be destroyed if the object were taken out of the ground without any scientific monitoring. We lose valuable information, such as how the find originally ended up in the ground and what its exact date is," adds Spiong.

"To prevent the damage caused by looters, we have to systematically search for finds ourselves. We also need the help of volunteers who have to comply with our requirements." Anyone who is on the road with a metal detector without a permit is liable to prosecution. And not only for robbery, but often also for trespassing. Because also in Bielefeld-Sennestadt the properties with the Roman camp are private properties."

Credit: Landschaftsverband Westfalen-Lippe (LWL) [May 14, 2019]


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