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New Excavation Will Examine Germany’s Legendary “Founding Battle”

The dig hopes to find conclusive evidence that Kalkriese is the site of the Battle of Teutoburg Forest

Die Hermannsschlacht, Gemälde von Friedrich Gunkel, 1862–1864 (Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

In the year A.D. 9, a combined force of deeply independent Germanic tribes led by the Roman-trained chieftain Arminius ambushed and destroyed three legions of elite Roman soldiers over the course of three days. It was the event that galvanized and temporarily united chieftains from present-day Holland to Poland against Rome, which was never able to absorb the heavily forested wilderness east of the Rhine into its empire.

In 1987, researchers believed that they uncovered the spot of the legendary battle in northwestern Germany. Since then, they have dug up many compelling artifacts, but there is still no irrefutable proof that the site near Kalkriese hill was the venue of Arminius’ great victory since the Romans and chieftans clashed all over the frontier. Now, Deutsche Welle reports, researchers want to get a definitive answer. Come September, the local Kalkriese Museum will undertake a major new excavation at the site as well begin a three-year project to analyze the metallurgical profiles of artifacts uncovered there.

There’s lots of evidence that something took place at Kalkriese. In 2006, Fergus M. Bordewich wrote in Smithsonian magazine that archaeologists have recovered more than 5,000 artifacts in the area, including a Roman standard-bearer’s silver facemask, spearheads, tent pegs, medical instruments and even human skulls split by swords. Notably, they also found coins stamped "VAR," indicating they were medals given by the ill-fated Roman politician and general Publius Quinctilius Varus, who fell on his sword during the battle rather than let himself get captured.

Still, researchers have yet to find an absolute smoking gun that this was the site of the famous battle. “We haven’t got final proof; we haven’t found anything with the inscription of the 19th or 18th or 17th legions,” professor Salvatore Ortisi of the University of Munich, who will lead the dig, tells DW. “We’re hoping for some piece of a helmet with an inscription or a plaque with the name of a unit, or a stamped artillery bolt.”

The new dig will be on the look out for signs of hastily constructed fortifications built by the Romans, some of which were uncovered in previous digs. “It would suggest the fortifications we have there were a Roman camp that was overrun by the Germans,” Ortisi tells DW. “That would fit in with historical accounts of the battle.”

The metallurgy tests that will take place over the next few years will contribute their own historical evidence by determining whether metal objects from the site were from Varus’ legions or if they came from the later armies led by the Roman commander Germanicus, which attempted to pacify the region.

While the battle is the foundational myth of German, David Crossland at Der Spiegel reports that many Germans are unfamiliar with the actual history of the event. That’s because during the 18th and 19th century a "cult of Hermann" as Arminius was later known as, developed in Germany, with fact-free legends about superior tribes of ancient Germans united by the hero helping to support the aggressive nationalism and racism that resulted in the Third Reich. Since then, Germany’s "founding battle" has been downplayed, and even the 2,000th anniversary of the battle in 2009 was a subdued celebration.

Researchers are split on just how influential the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest really was. “This was a battle that changed the course of history,” Peter S. Wells, archaeologist and author of The Battle That Stopped Rome, tells Bordewich. “It was one of the most devastating defeats ever suffered by the Roman Army, and its consequences were the most far-reaching. The battle led to the creation of a militarized frontier in the middle of Europe that endured for 400 years, and it created a boundary between Germanic and Latin cultures that lasted 2,000 years.”

Crossland, however, points out that Germanicus and Roman forces were back in the area just six years after the battle, and went on to win some substantial victories, though they eventually did abandon the area. The myth of Arminius as a grand uniter is also exaggerated. Evidence suggests he convinced roughly five tribes to fight with him at Teutoburg. After that he made an effort to become king, an idea that many people in his own tribe, the Cherusci, resented. He was later murdered by political opponents.

“The battle became the big bang of the German nation in terms of myth and legend. But in terms of real history, it was no such thing." Tillmann Bendikowski, a German journalist who has also written a book about the myth of Hermann, tells Crossland. “It’s typically German to say world history was shaped on German soil. We know that this was one battle among many and that there was a range of factors behind Rome's eventual retreat to the Rhine. Everyone who needed this myth regarded it as the turning point of history. For many it remains the turning point. But it wasn’t.”

Wherever you stand on the impact of the battle in halting the Roman Empire’s spread into the middle of Europe, new details from the Kalkriese dig are sure to add more fact to what remains an irrefutably remarkable feat.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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