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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Before long, a ringing in his earphones indicated metal in the earth. He bent over, carefully cut away a small square of turf with a trowel, and began to dig, sifting the peaty soil through his fingers. He dug down about eight inches. “Then I saw it!” Clunn exclaims. In his hand lay a small, round silvercoin, blackened with age—a Roman denarius, stamped on one side with the aquiline features of Augustus, and on the other, with two warriors armed with battle shields and spears. “I could scarcely believe it,” he says. “I was transfixed.” Soon he found a second denarius, then a third. Who lost these? He asked himself, and what had the coin carrier been doing—running, riding, walking? Before Clunn left the area for the day, he carefully logged the location of the coins on his grid map, sealed them in plastic pouches and restored the clods of dirt.

The next time Clunn returned to Kalkriese, his metal detector signaled another find: at a depth of about a foot, he discovered another denarius. This one, too, bore a likeness of Augustus on one side, and on the other, a bull with head lowered, as if about to charge. By the end of the day, Clunn had unearthed no fewer than 89 coins. The following weekend, he found still more, for a total of 105, none minted later than the reign of Augustus. The vast majority were in pristine condition, as if they had been little circulated when they were lost.

In the months that followed, Clunn continued his explorations, always turning over his finds to Schlüter. Along with coins, he discovered shards of lead and bronze, nails, fragments of a groma (a distinctive Roman road-surveying device) and three curious ovoid pieces of lead that German scholars identified as sling shot. “Slowly but surely a cohesive pattern began to emerge,” says Clunn. “There was every indication that a large contingent of people had splayed out from the area at the apex to the field, fleeing from an unknown horror.” Clunn began to suspect that he had found what was left of Varus’ lost legions.

Thanks to Schlüter’s contacts in German academia, the site was recognized, almost immediately, as a major discovery. Professional archaeologists under the direction of Schlüter and, later, Wilbers-Rost undertook systematic excavations. They were fortunate: sometime in the past, local farmers had covered the poor sandy subsoil with a thick layer of sod that had protected the undiscovered artifacts below.

Since the early 1990s, excavations have located battle debris along a corridor almost 15 miles long from east to west, and a little more than 1 mile from north to south, offering additional proof that it unfolded over many miles, before reaching its dreadful climax at Kalkriese.

Perhaps the most important single discovery was evidence of a wall 4 feet high and 12 feet thick, built of sand and reinforced by chunks of sod. “Arminius learned much from his service with the Romans,” says Wilbers-Rost. “He knew their tactics and their weak points. The wall zigzagged so that the Germans on top of it could attack the Romans from two angles. They could stand on the wall, or rush out through gaps in it to attack the Roman flank, and then run back behind it for safety.” Concentrations of artifacts were found in front of the wall, suggesting that the Romans had tried to scale it. The dearth of objects behind it testifies to their failure to do so.

The more the archaeologists excavated, the more they appreciated the immensity of the massacre. Clearly, Arminius and his men had scoured the battlefield after the slaughter and carried off everything of value, including Roman armor, helmets, gold and silver, utensils and weapons. Most of what archaeologists have unearthed consists of items the victors failed to notice, or dropped as they looted. Still, there have been some spectacular finds, including the remnants of a Roman officer’s scabbard and, most notably, a Roman standard-bearer’s magnificent silver face mask. They also uncovered coins stamped with the letters “VAR,” for Varus, which the ill-fated commander had awarded his troops for meritorious service.

In all, Wilbers-Rost’s team has found more than 5,000 objects: human bones (including several skulls gruesomely split by swords), spearheads, bits of iron, harness rings, metal studs, pieces of armor, iron nails, tent pegs, scissors, bells that once hung from the necks of Roman mules, a wine strainer and medical instruments. Many of these objects, cleaned and restored, are on display in the museum at the site. (Archaeologists also found fragments of bombs that Allied planes dropped on the area during World War II.)


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