Excavations in Germany reveal Roman military camps and wooden defences

Such wooden defences have been referenced in literature and by Julius Caesar, though no other examples are known to have survived.

Archaeologists have excavated two Roman military camps from the 1st century AD near the town of Bad Ems near Koblenz, Germany, as well as the remains of a well-preserved wooden defence structure that was likely designed to prevent enemy attacks.

The excavations in Bad Ems were initiated after spotting irregular tractor tracks in the Emsbach Valley. IMAGE: Photo: H.-J. du Roi

Since 2019, excavations have been carried out on either side of the Emsbach Valley near Bad Ems by Goethe University in cooperation with the federal state of Rhineland-Palatinate.

Possible structural features were first identified in 2016 from cropmark irregularities. Subsequent drone photography survey and geomagnetic prospecting revealed the presence of a military camp spanning an area of 19.7 acres.

Evidence suggests that only one permanent building, which may have served as a warehouse or storeroom, existed within the camp, and it is thought that soldiers stationed here would have slept in tents.

Signs of burning, however, indicate that the site was occupied for just a few years.

The team excavated a second site 1.2 miles away on the other side of the Emsbach Valley, that was first explored in 1897. These original excavations uncovered remains of processed silver ore, wall foundations, and metal slag. This led to the assumption that it was once the site of a Roman smelting works connected to the Limes, which were built c. AD 110 around 800m to the east.

This latest research, however, has revealed that the furnace was in fact a watchtower for a small military camp that could have housed a garrison of roughly 40 soldiers.

For the first time, archaeologists have found sharpened wooden stakes used to deter attacks from enemies at the military camp. IMAGE: Auth

On the penultimate day of excavations, the team found the well-preserved remains of a defensive construction consisting of sharpened wooden stakes, which had likely encircled the entire camp from within a perimeter ditch.

Such wooden defences have been referenced in literature and by Julius Caesar, though no other examples are known to have survived.

Another find of a coin minted in AD 43 suggests that the watchtower was not built in connection with the Limes.

However, the team was able to identify a shaft-tunnel system of Roman origin that falls just a few metres short of the Bad Ems passageway, a large deposit that has yielded 200 tonnes of silver in modern times.

According to the writings of Roman historian Tacitus, governor Curtius Rufus’ attempts to mine silver ore in the area failed around AD 47.

The team theorises that the camp was constructed close to the mine to provide security, but when the mining operations failed to yield much silver the camps were destroyed.

The wooden stakes have been preserved at the Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum in Mainz.

The research was carried out jointly with the Directorate of State Archaeology in the General Directorate for Cultural Heritage of Rhineland-Palatinate, the Institute of Prehistory and Early History at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, and the Berlin University of Applied Sciences.