Since its discovery by the British officer Tony Clunn in the late 1980s, the German site of Kalkriese in Lower Saxony, north of Osnabrück, has been considered the scene of the AD 9 Varus Disaster, so impressively described by ancient authors such as Tacitus and Cassius Dio. In this devestating Roman defeat, three legions and the auxiliary troops marching with them lost a total of about 20,000 men, together with their supplies. The commander in the field and governor of Germania, Publius Quinctilius Varus, and his highest officers threw themselves on their swords during the closing stages of the battle. When news of Varus’ death and the loss of his army reached Rome, Emperor Augustus is said to have declared, ‘Quintili Vare, legiones redde!’ (‘Quinctilius Varus, give me back my legions!’).
The defeat was the beginning of a great uprising of many Germanic tribes between the rivers Rhine and Weser. Roman bases were overrun and the remaining military forces driven out by these insurgents. Immediately afterwards, Rome tried to regain control. Emperor Tiberius, Augustus’ successor, put an end to the losses in AD 16, but the attempts of his commander Germanicus to reconquer the lost territories were ultimately unsuccessful. He abandoned the plan to forge a great Roman province of Germania, and instead established the Rhine as the border between Rome and the ‘free’ Germanic tribes. It proved to be a historic decision.
Scientific research in Kalkriese began after the discovery of large quantities of military equipment, including the well-known face mask from a Roman helmet, and numerous coins. The initial results pointed to the Roman army having been trapped in a well-prepared ambush. To this end, the Germanic tribes were believed to have raised a rampart at a narrow point between the hilly Wiehengebirge (Wiehen Hills) and the marshes of the Großes Moor. Covered by the wall, they were then able to attack Varus’ army, by sallying forth again and again from behind safe cover. But from the beginning there were doubts about this scenario. After all, could the ramparts not also be the remains of a Roman camp thrown up during the emergency?
Since 2016, the universities of Osnabrück and Munich (LMU), together with the Museum und Park Kalkriese, have been working on answering this question. Targeted archaeological excavations have been carried out to investigate central parts of the battlefield, uncovering many exciting finds in the process, such as eight Roman gold coins (aurei) and a hoard of more than 200 silver coins (denarii). Particularly spectacular are several large metal finds, which have been discovered since 2018 on the northern edge of the site, where an ancient slope faced the expansive moor. Here the Roman-era ground surface – that is, the battlefield itself – has been preserved. On this surface, numerous large metal objects were found in a confined space. At first glance, it was obvious that these were Roman weapons and equipment. However, as they were heavily corroded due to their time in the ground, they first had to be recovered in large blocks, each weighing several hundred kilos.
It was a challenge for the team of restorers at Kalkriese Museum to examine these large blocks of earth. Initial tests using the X-ray equipment belonging to the customs office at Münster-Osnabrück airport showed that the smaller blocks contained, among other things, a Roman dagger sheath and a spear (pilum). However, the largest block (weighing about half a ton) did not reveal its exciting contents until it underwent CT (computerised tomography) scanning at the Fraunhofer Development Centre for X-Ray Technology EZRT in Fürth, one of the largest CT facilities in the world. This showed that the block contained a largely preserved Roman cuirass made of strips of iron sheet, a so-called lorica segmentata (a modern technical term used to describe this style of armour).
The lorica segmentata was part of the standard equipment of Roman legionaries from the 1st to the 3rd century AD. Such cuirasses are well known to us from Roman representations (for example, on Trajan’s Column in Rome), but are very rare as physical finds due to their (material) value in antiquity. The best-preserved pieces come from Corbridge and Newstead, military sites in northern England and Scotland respectively, and date from the 2nd century AD. Of their predecessors from the earlier 1st century AD, only small fragments have been known to date. With the new find from Kalkriese, we now have an almost completely preserved and excellently dated lorica segmentata of the Augustan period, which allows us to better understand the technical development of this outstanding Roman armour. All weapons and equipment parts recovered so far are currently being uncovered and conserved in the Kalkriese Museum – an endeavour that will continue for some time to come.
The concentration of almost completely preserved weapons on the northern edge of the excavation area was striking from the beginning. On one level, its suvival is clearly thanks to the rapid accumulation of eroded sand on these artefacts, courtesy of the ancient slope. At the same time, it is of course intriguing that we have found essential elements of legionary equipment in a few square metres, including a spear, a dagger, and the cuirass. Even more puzzling is a Roman neck cuff, which was found right next to the lorica segmentata. A coincidence? It is certainly a very suggestive finding. The possibility that it is the equipment of a soldier who died in the fighting and – for whatever reason – was left unburied on the battlefield springs to mind. However, this cannot be proven without further research and analysis. Bones are rarely preserved in the sandy soil of Kalkriese and the results of phosphate samples, which could give us an indication of whether human remains were present inside the cuirass, are still pending.
Modern research methods, such as geophysical and metallurgical analysis and new X-ray technologies, indicate that there are still more exciting discoveries hidden not only in the soil, but also in the museum’s archives, that can shed light on the events at Kalkriese. These archaeological sources provide important evidence of the great conflicts between Rome and the Germanic tribes, which had a lasting effect on the history of Europe. To discover and raise them is the task for the coming years.
R Aßkamp et al. (2009) 2000 Jahre Varusschlacht. Imperium, Konflikt, Mythos (Theiss, ISBN 978-3806222777).
M C Bishop (2002) Lorica Segmentata: Handbook of Roman Plate Armour
(The Armatura Press, ISBN 978-0953984848).
Text: Salvatore Ortisi.