The Argument is Over –
The Battle in the Teutoburg Forest Took Place at Kalkriese Hill
Phil Hill, Detmold/Kalkriese, October 2006
At the Lecturn: Susanne Wilbers-Rost, Chief archeologist at Kalkriese
Pannel (left to right): Jutta Prieur-Pohl, moderator;
Günther Moosbauer, Univ. of Osnabrück, Achim Rost,
battlefield archeologist; Peter Kehne, Univ. of Hanover;
Reinhard Wolters, Univ. of Tübingen
The controversy over
the locality of the Battle in the Teutoburg Forest has
been going on for 500 years, and for most, has recently been settled
with the discovery of the battle site at Kalkriese Hill north of
Osnabrück, Lower Saxony. But the previous favorite in Germanys
where-was-it contest, Detmold, Westphalia, still hasnt
thrown in the towel. In October 2006, the local boosters of the
little town with the big statue of Hermann the German,
which has lost 40 percent of its tourism when the battlefield was
found elsewhere, struck back with a spate of media articles claiming
the Kalkriese finds had been called into question.
In October 2006, tempest
in a teapot boiled over at a big public debate, logically in Detmold:
In one corner, three archeologists from the Kalkriese site, in the
other, the hard-core doubters, both historians. The result was no
spectacular upset: Once again, Kalkriese was able to report gradual
progress in its substantiation as the site of part of the famous
battle, where the Germans under their chieftain Arminius annihilated
a three-legion Roman army under Publius Quintillius Varus in 9 AD.
And on the other hand, anyone who wants to can see that Detmold
is out of the running: Its home team has no steam.
Kicking off the controversy
was a report by the Kalkriese Museum at the battlefield on the results
of the 2006 digs. The work had involved mainly an area at the western
end of the field, along a line roughly perpendicular to the familiar
east-west course of the German Wall the earthen
structure used to ambush the Romans. The latest dig had uncovered
traces of a ditch that would have at least partially blocked any
Roman attempt to march out of the trap.
The whole anti-Kalkriese
mob pounced on the results. It was a pointed ditch! It must be Roman!
Ancient Germans could not have dug such a thing! And if it was Roman,
it couldnt have been dug during this battle, but only in a
later battle, at the so-called Battle of the Long Bridges,
in which an army led by General Caecina narrowly escaped annihilation
in 15 AD, six years after the Teutoburg-Forest events.
A debate then was arranged
a crisis summit, as the prestigious newsweekly
Spiegel claimed. That piece was an embarrassing dud: If there are
crises in Kalkriese, they probably get dealt with in the Osnabrück
area, and summits are usually not public. What took
place in Detmolds State Museum was a normal panel discussion
in the context of the commemoration of the 2000th anniversary of
the battle, in which both museums are involved. Nor was there any
sign of crisis among the scientists from Kalkrieser; they were scientifically
sober and serene.
For a museum lecture,
the event drew quite a crowd: Some 250 people squeezed into the
hall and at least 100 had to be turned away. Boosterism was probably
the reason; nonetheless, things stayed peaceful and friendly. But
did the people get their money's worth?
Leading the visiting
team was Osnabruck University Professor Günther Moosbauer,
a jovial Bavarian who supervises the archeological project; he gave
the background information about the dig that is the foundation
for the theory that the remains found there are evidence of a part
of the Teutoburg Forest battle. Susanne Wilbers-Rost, who runs the
actual dig, reported on the years activities, while her husband
Achim Rost discussed battlefield archaeology, a discipline
in which the Kalkrieser project is a shining light world-wide.
Last years results
actually were interesting, since they showed that the Germans had
fortified the battlefield at its western exit, and not only along
its southern edge. Also, the lack of any trace of fighting in the
area of the ditch suggests that they did so rather successfully,
because the Romans were probably unable to proceed beyond the battlefield.
But such conclusions are much too far-reaching for cautious archaeologists;
after all, next year is the next dig.
But they did have a counter
to the charge that had caused all the excitement, the pointed-ditch
issue: Even the ditches along the Wall had been of two types: both
round-bottom ditches, i.e., the type that most people would dig,
if they were to dig a ditch, and also pointed ditches, the peculiar,
steep-sided, pointed-bottom fortifications the Romans used to surround
their camps, and that were much more effective for battles. And
this year, once again, there were both types. The explanation: at
one place, the local Germans from some nearby village were probably
doing the digging, while nearby there would have been a troop of
trained Germanic auxiliaries in the Roman army, who, under Arminius
command, had deserted to the rebels. These men could dig pointed
ditches as well as any Roman. So: no crisis, just hot air.
Heads or Tails?
On the other side were
the two most prominent historians who still don't believe
in Kalkriese, the Peter Kehne of the University of Hanover
and Reinhardt Wolters of the University of Tübingen. Wolters
is a numismatist, and gave a lecture on the coin finds that hardly
anyone present could understand. Nonetheless, he hardly mentioned
those coins which are the most important for the discussion, the
copper money with which the Roman soldiers were paid both
the coins found at Kalkriese and those not found. In answer to a
question, he then did address that issue. The bottom line was:
1. Whatever happened
in Kalkriese happened after 7 AD, for that was the year Varus arrived
in Germany, and coins with his countermark were found there. So:
Kalkriese could have been the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest
or, possibly a later battle.
2. Coins that were probably
minted after 10 AD were missing altogether, particularly one set
thought by many to have been created to pay the new army reassembled
starting in that year. No one can prove with absolute certainty
that this absence means the evnts at Kalkriese happened before that
year, i.e., in the period between 7 and 10, as the Kalkriese scientists
suspect. There is not even proof that the missing type of coin may
not have been minted earlier as well. But everything known to date
indicates they were not, and the Kalkriese finds i.e., their
absence there are further evidence. Not proof, of course
that would be a circular logic. But on the other hand, the
coin specialists, including Wolters, have no evidence whatsoever
to call Kalkriese into question, and certainly no contrary proof.
And then there was Kehne,
to jazz things up a little or maybe to provide comic relief.
He is on record as calling the Kalkriese scientists a coterie of
charlatans, and was in fine, if slightly toned-down, form in Detmold,
where he informed Wilbers-Rost: You arent a Roman-provincial
archaeologist. Well, while were at it, we could note
that Kehne isnt really an ancient historian, but rather a
specialist on trade-union history, but lets pass that by.
More to the point; Susanne Wilbers-Rost is a very experienced and
respected archaeologist of the ancient Germans, especially those
in the Osnabrück region a place which wasnt a
Roman province anyway, but was Germanic territory. The
objects found may be largely of Roman origin but thats
not unusual in Germania libera free Germany.
Aside from his annoyingly
pseudo-popular speaking style, Kehnes problem is a breathtakingly
unscientific methodology: He picks some real or supposed fact, pronounces
it to be grounds for exclusion i.e., This
proves that the battle cannot possibly have taken place in Kalkriese
and thus wipes any argument for the contrary position from
Of course, this method
might be suitable in some case. If somebody were to claim to have
found early 19th-century French uniform buttons on a hill in New
England, and were to argue that the battle of Waterloo must actually
have taken place there, since the landscape looked right, too, plausible
grounds for exclusion might be the simple fact that
the French army could not possibly have reached America in 1815;
end of an absurd discussion. However, especially when the facts
are less unambiguous, grounds for exclusion must be
truly solid about as solid as the impossibility of Napoleon
having sailed to America with his whole army. What then are Kehnes
grounds for exclusion? There were at least three presented
1. The pointed-ditches
issue. Here, he embarrassed himself especially thoroughly with the
claim that pointed ditches could only be Roman, and that there was
a dogma of archaeology to that effect. Firstly, thats
not true, and secondly, dogmas are, one would hope,
not fit instruments for this kind of discussion.
2. The horse bones. The
bone finds of the Roman soldiers at Kalkriese, with traces of weathering
and animal bites that attest to their burial several years later,
are one of the most convincing arguments in favor of Kalkriese:
their late burial presumably occurred, as Tacitus reported, when
the army of the Roman crown prince Germanicus visited the
site in 15 AD. If however, the bones had come from a later battle
which could only have been one in 15 AD , who then
buried those bones years later? Probably not Germanicus, who had
been there a few weeks earlier, and never went back! Kehne thinks
it was the Germans, already a neat and tidy bunch, apparently. But
thats only a side issue here. More important is Kehnes
claim that the bones of horses and mules were also found in the
graves. The Romans, he said, never would have tolerated that, since
it would have desecrated the graves: grounds for exclusion!
And those soldiers, hes certain, were all country boys who
could tell a human bone from a horse bone unerringly. By way of
response, incidentally, the Kalkrieser results present a plausible
picture: in the graves, human bones were indeed predominant, while
animal bones were more numerous among those bones found outside
the graves. But no, Kehne is sure: Any horse bones in the soldiers
graves are grounds for exclusion.
He probably was never
in the army, or hed know how that kind of thing works: OK
boys, pick up those bones. And make sure you only throw the bones
of our buddies in the holes, no horse bones! And so they go
to it, and if a soldier thinks maybe thats a horse bone, he
leaves it there. But maybe whether somethings a "horse
bone" has to do with factors like whether its lying in
the nettles, and human bones are the ones you can get
to easily. And the sergeant cant be looking at everybody at
once. And so sooner or later, the holes full, and gets covered
over, and probably, there are even more human bones than horse bones
in it, but maybe there are a few horse bones, too.
3. The demolished
monuments. Tacitus reports that in fighting at the end of
that year, the Germans demolished both the grave tumulus the Romans
had just built at Kalkriese and a monument to the old commander
Drusus, probably located somewhere in modern Ruhr industrial area.
Early the next year (16 AD), Tacitus goes on, the Romans then re-conquered
that area, and rebuilt the Drusus monument, but not the tumulus.
In the past, this passage had led many historians to suspect that
the two monuments must have been fairly close together; however,
that belief has been largely rejected, since one thing is fairly
certain: The battle in the Teutoburg Forest did not take place in
the Ruhr region.
Nonetheless, Kehne now
produces a long text exegesis to demonstrate how near to the battlefield
the monument must have been, and of course reaches the conclusion
that Kalkriese is too far away. To the comfort of his Detmold audience,
he concludes that the battle must have taken place somewhere nearby.
That logic leaves something to be desired, however, for Detmold
is just as far from the presumed location of the monument as Kalkriese
is: after the disastrous Roman campaign of 15 AD, both were located
deep in enemy territory, and behind mountain ridges. Consequently:
Either the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest was somewhere around Dortmund
in the Ruhr valley which is impossible or Tacitus
delivered a somewhat abbreviated and imprecise report which
certainly is possible; he did it all the time. And then were
back to square one, with what everyone has known for 500 years:
Tacitus doesn't tell us where the battle was. He just gives us some
4. Not far.
One of those hints was Tacitus statement that the battlefield
was said to be not far from the area between the upper
reaches of the Ems and he Lippe, where Germanicus troops were fighting
in July 15 AD. Kalkriese, Kehne and other doubters proclaim, is
far at least three days march. But that,
too, is not a particularly solid argument, since far
is not a very clear term, and also Kalkriese is thought to have
been near the end of a three or even four-day series of engagements.
The Teutoburg Forest itself was clearly in the area
of the first engagements, and that would have been a days
march or so from Ems-Lippe area.
The Result of
the Exercise: Wolters didnt even sow any doubts,
and Kehne only embarrassed himself. This last hurrah of Detmolds
Hermanns battle was just that, and sets the stage
for the anniversary in 2009. But thats not all that big a
deal, because almost everyone who cares has known this for some
time, and those who refuse to believe wont believe now, either
as one die-hard spectator in Detmold demonstrated, who asked
this question at the end of the discussion: Im just
a layman, ok? Just a layman! I have a question: Is this discussion
about the Varus-battle, or is this about Kalkriese?