Archaeologists Discover Germany’s Oldest Roman Military Camp

An archaeological team from the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz has discovered the precise location of the oldest Roman military fortification known to date in Germany – in the vicinity of Hermeskeil, a small town some 30 km southeast of Trier in the German federal state of Rhineland-Palatinate.

An image shows paving stones of the Hermeskeil camp’s gateway, with a shoe nail between the stones. The box shows iron shoe nails from sandals of Roman soldiers found at the site (© Sabine Hornung / Arno Braun)

This discovery sheds new light on the Roman conquest of Gaul. The camp was built during Julius Caesars’ Gallic War in the late 50s BCE. Nearby lies a late Celtic settlement with monumental fortifications known as the ‘Hunnenring’ or ‘Circle of the Huns,’ which functioned as one of the major centers of the local Celtic tribe called Treveri. Their territory is situated in the mountainous regions between the Rhine and Maas rivers.

“The remnants of this military camp are the first pieces of archaeological evidence of this important episode in world history,” said Dr Sabine Hornung of the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz’s Institute of Pre- and Protohistory, who authored a report published in the journal Archäologisches Korrespondenzblatt. “It is quite possible that Treveran resistance to the Roman conquerors was crushed in a campaign that was launched from this military fortress.”

The existence of this site with a size of about 260,000 square meters had been known since the 19th century, but its interpretation was controversially discussed.

“Some remains of the wall are still preserved in the forest, but it hadn’t been possible to prove that this was indeed a Roman military camp as archaeologists and local historians had long suspected,” Dr Hornung said.

The breakthrough came through systematic investigations closely linked to archaeological research conducted in the vicinity of the Celtic settlement ‘Hunnenring’. The Celtic fortification is located just 5 km from the military camp at Hermeskeil and can be seen directly from the site. As a result of agricultural development, large sections of the former military camp can no longer be recognized and are in danger of being lost forever.

Dr Hornung’s team began their work in Hermeskeil in March 2010. Initial research enabled them to determine size and shape of the military camp that was fortified by means of an earth wall and a ditch. They determined that the fortress consisted of an almost rectangular earthwork enclosure with rounded corners, which, by its size of about 182,000 square meters, provided space for several thousands of soldiers, including both legionaries and mounted auxiliaries. An extension of additional 76,000 square meters encompassed a spring, which thereby secured water supply for the troops.

A view of the Hermeskeil camp’s gateway with remains of the stone pavement. Red dots pinpoint sites where shoe nails from the sandals of Roman soldiers were found (© Sabine Hornung / Arno Braun)

The team found numerous shoe nails originating from the sandals of Roman soldiers that had loosened as they marched along. The size and shape of the nails were among the first indications that the military camp at Hermeskeil dates back to the time of the late Roman Republic or the Gallic War. This theory was subsequently confirmed by shards of earthenware vessels discovered during excavations and further verified using scientific dating methods.

The special historical significance of the Hermeskeil military camp lies in its relationship to the neighboring Treveran settlement ‘Hunnenring.’ The team has been able to confirm that this settlement was abandoned by its inhabitants around the middle of the 1st century BCE. Before the identification of the camp near Hermeskeil, however, it was only possible to speculate that this abandonment had had something to do with the Gallic War. In his ‘De Bello Gallico,’ Julius Caesar reported that the tribe of the Treveri was split into anti-Roman and pro-Roman factions. The anti-Roman faction, led by the aristocrat Indutiomarus and his relatives, fomented unrest that resulted in Roman reprisals in 54/53 B.C. and 51 BCE, over the course of which the Treveran resistance to the invaders was broken. The discoveries near Hermeskeil provide the first direct archaeological evidence for this dramatic episode in world history.

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Bibliographic information: S. Hornung. 2012. A late Republican military camp at Hermeskeil (Lkr. Trier-Saarburg). Preliminary report on investigations during 2010-2011. Archäologisches Korrespondenzblatt, 42,2