The Ambush That Changed History

An amateur archaeologist discovers the field where wily Germanic warriors halted the spread of the Roman Empire

Between 6 B.C. and A.D. 4, Roman legions established bases on the Lippe and Weser rivers. (Mike Reagan)
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Germanicus, ordered to campaign against the Cherusci, still under the command of Arminius, pursued the tribe deep into Germany. But the wily chieftain retreated into the forests, until, after a series of bloody but indecisive clashes, Germanicus fell back to the Rhine, defeated. Arminius was “the liberator of Germany,” Tacitus wrote, “a man who, . . . threw down the challenge to the Roman nation.”

For a time, tribes flocked to join Arminius’ growing coalition. But as his power grew, jealous rivals began to defect from his cause. He “fell by the treachery of his relatives,” Tacitus records, in a.d. 21.

With the abdication of the Romans from Germany, the Kalkriese battlefield was gradually forgotten. Even the Roman histories that recorded the debacle were lost, sometime after the fifth century, during the collapse of the empire under the onslaught of barbarian invasions. But in the 1400s, humanist scholars in Germany rediscovered the works of Tacitus, including his account of Varus’ defeat. As a consequence, Arminius was hailed as the first national hero of Germany. “The myth of Arminius,” says Benario, “helped give Germans their first sense that there had been a German people that transcended the hundreds of small duchies that filled the political landscape of the time.” By 1530, even Martin Luther praised the ancient German chieftain as a “war leader” (and updated his name to “Hermann”). Three centuries later, Heinrich von Kleist’s 1809 play, Hermann’s Battle, invoked the hero’s exploits to encourage his countrymen to fight Napoleon and his invading armies. By 1875, as German militarism surged, Hermann had been embraced as the nation’s paramount historical symbol; a titanic copper statue of the ancient warrior, crowned with a winged helmet and brandishing his sword menacingly toward France, was erected on a mountaintop 20 miles south of Kalkriese, near Detmold, where many scholars then believed the battle took place. At 87 feet high, and mounted on an 88-foot stone base, it was the largest statue in the world until the Statue of Liberty was dedicated in 1886. Not surprisingly, the monument became a popular destination for Nazi pilgrimages during the 1930s. But the actual location of the battle remained a mystery. More than 700 sites, ranging from the Netherlands to eastern Germany, were proposed.

Amateur archaeologist Tony Clunn of Britain’s Royal Tank Regiment was hoping for a chance to indulge his interest when he arrived at his new posting in Osnabrück in the spring of 1987. (He had previously assisted archaeologists in England during his spare time, using a metal detector to search for traces of Roman roads.) Captain Clunn introduced himself to the director of the Osnabrück museum, Wolfgang Schlüter, and asked him for guidance. The British officer promised to turn over to the museum anything he found.

“In the beginning, all I had ever hoped to find was the odd Roman coin or artifact,” Clunn, who retired from the army with the rank of major in 1996, told me, as we sat drinking tea in a café next to the Varusschlacht (Varus Battle) Museum and Park Kalkriese, which opened in 2002. Schlüter had suggested that he try the rural Kalkriese area, where a few coins had already been found. Clunn planned his assault with a soldier’s eye to detail. He pored over old maps, studied regional topography and read extensively about the battle, including a treatise by 19th-century historian Theodor Mommsen, who had speculated that it took place somewhere near Kalkriese, although few agreed with him.

As Clunn drove around Kalkriese in his black Ford Scorpio, introducing himself to local farmers, he saw a landscape that had changed significantly since Roman times. Forests of oak, alder and beech had long since given way to cultivated fields and copses of pine. Stolid modern farm buildings with red-tile roofs stood in place of the huts of the ancient tribesmen. The Great Bog itself had disappeared, drained in the 19th century; it was now bucolic pastureland.

Using an old hand-drawn map he got from a local landowner, Clunn noted the locations of earlier coin finds. “The secret is to look for the easy route that people would have taken in ancient times,” he says. “No one wants to dig

a lot of unnecessary holes in the ground. So you look for the most logical spot to start searching—for example, a pass where a trail might narrow, a bottleneck.” Clunn focused on the area between where the Great Bog had been and Kalkriese Hill. As he walked, sweeping his metal detector from side to side, he noticed a slight elevation. “I sensed it was an old trackway, perhaps a path across the bog,” he says. He began following the elevation, working backward toward the hills.


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