Caesar's Gallic Wars come to life

22 April 2013

Dr. Sabine Hornung of the Institute of Pre- and Protohistory at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) created quite a stir in the summer of 2012: She had identified the oldest Roman military camp yet to be found in Germany, a huge fort that most likely played an important role in Julius Caesar's Gallic Wars. Her announcement attracted a lot of attention, but the archaeologist is having trouble funding her project.

The Roman camp was very, very large. "It was an enormous fort," says Dr. Sabine Hornung of the Institute of Pre- and Protohistory at Mainz University. She can confirm this by showing a geomagnetic survey of the site. But her computer takes a while to upload the chart.

The image slowly takes form. An electricity pylon appears as a white blob in the landscape while more recent subterranean water pipes form dark lines. Hornung points out paler structures that an observer might at first glance fail to notice. "Look here, these are the ditches. And over there is where we found the gate."

With a little bit of imagination even a layperson can recognize the camp. It is roughly square and covers an area of almost 26 hectares. "The corners are rounded like those of a playing card." Structures can also be discerned within the camp itself. "Back here is perhaps where the auxiliary troops were barracked." The Romans did not fully trust their allies, so their area is separated from the rest. "With the help of phosphate analyses, we'd be able to determine whether the auxiliary troops were cavalry." However, to do that the archaeologist needs money, money that has been tight for years.

Oldest Roman military camp in Germany

The Roman site at the edge of Hermeskeil, a small town in the administrative district of Trier-Saarburg in Rhineland-Palatinate, is not just any Roman fort. It is the oldest Roman military camp ever to be discovered in Germany and one of the few camps that can be dated to the time of Julius Caesar in all of Europe.

In September 2012, Dr. Sabine Hornung presented her findings to the public. The media showed considerable interest in the story; various television channels filmed here and all the major newspapers published articles. Hornung gave one interview after the other. "I was happy to do it," she says.

However, all this attention does not guarantee funding of her project work. So she has been forced to raise funds time and again in order to move the project forward step by step. "It makes everything very, very difficult and exhausting as I have to struggle to obtain money every month."

Hornung has been director of excavations at the site on the border between Saarland and Rhineland-Palatinate for seven years. Originally, the intention was to investigate the Hunnenring near Otzenhausen in the St. Wendel region. It is some five kilometers distant from the Roman camp. The Hunnenring is a Celtic fortified settlement, an oppidum of the Treveri, one of the tribes immortalized by Julius Caesar in his commentary "De bello Gallico" or – in English – "The Gallic Wars," a text that students struggle with to this day in Latin lessons.

Roman legions at the gates of the Treveri

"Julius Caesar reports that the Treveri were split into pro-Roman and anti-Roman factions." The anti-Roman party under the leadership of the aristocrat Indutiomarus was responsible for repeatedly fomenting unrest. "De bello Gallico" describes the military reprisals undertaken by the Romans in the years 54/53 and 51 B.C. The Treveri made life difficult for Caesar.

Hornung and her team have determined that the Hunnenring, the Treveri's oppidum, was abandoned in the middle of the first century B.C., in other words, very probably at the same time as the Roman camp was set up five kilometers to the north, more or less within view. Was the threat represented by the Romans simply too great? After all there were up 10,000 legionaries facing off against a population of just 1,000 Celts in the oppidum.

The military camp was not intended to be permanent; the troops camped here only for a few weeks or months. A ditch with a maximum depth of two meters surrounded the camp. The legionaries used the excavated soil to build a defensive earthen wall behind it. "It was reinforced with turf and secured with wattlework on the inner side."

How is it possible to date such a camp so precisely when so little of it remains? Over the years, Hornung and her students have managed to gather together evidence, i.e., fragments that can help them reconstruct the original like a jigsaw puzzle. For example, they have found shards of wine amphora and fine Italian drinking utensils.

Numerous puzzle pieces help with dating

They also discovered millstones that the legionaries carried with them. "They preferred flat light stones." Hornung shows us an example found in the camp. She asked geologists for help in finding out where it originated. "The stone comes from the French Massif Central." Even at that time, the locals were producing for the Roman market. However, Hornung also uncovered a heavy Celtic millstone. "The legionaries were happy to use these if there was nothing better around." This indicated that the military camp was constructed at an early period. Later the legions were better equipped and could do without heavy Celtic millstones.

Other pieces that complete the puzzle are the numerous shoe nails from the Roman legionaries' sandals, which were found between the paving stones in a gateway. Their form helps with dating. "See these four studs and the cross-like pattern?"

Hornung is convinced that the Celts gave up their fortified settlement because of the intimidation represented by the nearby Roman camp and that the abandonment reflects one aspect of the ongoing conflict in the Gallic Wars. "I'd say there's a 90-percent probability that this was the case," states Hornung. But she is willing to concede that there is a possibility that the military camp may have been set up some ten years later. "There are hardly any records for the period around 40 B.C., so there might have been a lot going on that we simply don't know about."

Little money for excavation and research

Year in year out Hornung brings her students to the Hunnenring, to the military camp and other sites nearby. However she needs to raise the money for the excavations herself. To do so she turns to the local communities for help. She appears before town councils to convince the politicians to support her work. "I tell them: You have this and that. This is what is going to attract tourists to your area. I can use scientific methods to prepare all this appropriately for you."

But this work is becoming ever more problematic for her, as the constant struggle for new funding consumes ever more of her time and energy. "I raised the money for my part-time post at the institute myself. And I never know whether I can raise enough money for the next excavations. What I need is some planning security." Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz has already helped by providing backing from its research support fund. Hornung is grateful for it, as without this funding she would have been forced to give up the project long ago.

"My post at the JGU Institute of Pre- and Protohistory runs for another two and a half years," she says. "I now travel throughout Europe and give talks." The subject interests people and even the media is jumping on the bandwagon. But when it comes to money for excavations ... "The I can talk till the cows come home."