The Romans in Ancient Germany –
A 2000th Anniversary



The Argument is Over –
The Battle in the Teutoburg Forest Took Place at Kalkriese Hill

At the Lecturn: Susanne Wilbers-Rost, Chief archeologist at Kalkriese Hill
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

Phil Hill, Detmold/Kalkriese, October 2006

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 Germany’s “where-was-it” contest, Detmold, Westphalia, still hasn’t 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 couldn’t 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.

“Crisis Summits?”

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 Detmold’s 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 year’s activities, while her husband Achim Rost discussed “battlefield archaeology,” a discipline in which the Kalkrieser project is a shining light world-wide.

Last year’s 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.

Citizen Kehne

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 aren’t a Roman-provincial archaeologist.” Well, while we’re at it, we could note that Kehne isn’t really an ancient historian, but rather a specialist on trade-union history, but let’s 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 wasn’t a “Roman province” anyway, but was Germanic territory. The objects found may be largely of Roman origin – but that’s not unusual in “Germania libera” – free Germany.

Aside from his annoyingly pseudo-popular speaking style, Kehne’s 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 the table.

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 Kehne’s “grounds for exclusion?” There were at least three presented in Detmold:

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, that’s 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 that’s only a side issue here. More important is Kehne’s 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, he’s 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 he’d 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 that’s a horse bone, he leaves it there. But maybe whether something’s a "horse bone" has to do with factors like whether it’s lying in the nettles, and “human bones” are the ones you can get to easily. And the sergeant can’t be looking at everybody at once. And so sooner or later, the hole’s 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 we’re 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 hints.

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 day’s march or so from Ems-Lippe area.

The Result of the Exercise: Wolters didn’t even sow any doubts, and Kehne only embarrassed himself. This last hurrah of Detmold’s “Hermann’s battle” was just that, and sets the stage for the anniversary in 2009. But that’s not all that big a deal, because almost everyone who cares has known this for some time, and those who refuse to believe won’t believe now, either – as one die-hard spectator in Detmold demonstrated, who asked this question at the end of the discussion: “I’m just a layman, ok? Just a layman! I have a question: Is this discussion about the Varus-battle, or is this about Kalkriese?”