Returning to the Roman winter camp on the Rhine, Publius Quinctilius Varus, governor in Germania, had no idea of the impending danger when he received a message from his confidant Arminius, a born Cheruscan and leader of Germanic auxiliary troops in Roman service, asking him for support against rebellious Germanic tribes. Varus had his three legions turn around – and ran right into a catastrophe. Arminius had lured the Romans into an ambush that left the most powerful army of antiquity almost defenseless.
The Germanic forces were far inferior to their opponents – both in terms of number and weaponry – and would have had no chance on an open battlefield. Therefore they turned to a kind of guerilla tactic. From the protection of the forest they repeatedly attacked the slow and totally surprised Roman platoon.
The Germanic forces had taken advantage of the peculiarity of the landscape. Between Kalkriese Hill and the Great Moor to the west, there was a natural narrow pass which prevented the about 20,000 men in the legions from keeping close together. There was no hope of getting into battle formation or reaching an agreement between the groups. Days of rain and heavy marching equipment also afflicted the Romans. By the third day the Romans suffered a devastating defeat and commander Varus took his own life. After that, in the following decades, the Romans retreated behind the Rhine border.
Since the first finds pointing to a battle between Romans and Germanic peoples were recovered in Kalkriese in 1987, approximately 6,000 other pieces have surfaced. These include Roman weapons such as spearheads, fittings for weapon belts, sling ammo, and fragments of blades and sheathes. Among the most spectacular finds is the iron face mask of a Roman cavalry helmet. "This face mask was originally covered with silver. Since the Germanic forces hardly had any metal of their own, however, the silver was an especially welcome booty when plundering the battlefield", explains Gisela Söger, Press Spokesperson for Kalkriese Museum and Park.
Traces of the plundering can be found on almost all of the finds. Most pieces have survived only as fragments, because the Germanic forces forcefully tore off clasps and buckles to get to the desired metallic body armor. Unwieldy sheets of metal were folded or pressed together, but were then probably left sitting. Civilian equipment is also among the finds: Tent pegs, cookware, pruning knives, and axes for clearing woodland, even sewing needles. The remnants of transport crates, medical instruments, pens, and pieces of jewelry indicate that doctors, writers, merchants, and other civilians accompanied the train. That way the legions could be self-sufficient, as it were, in the enemy territory of Germania.
"The ground in Kalkriese is sandy, therefore only metal can survive over time here. Organic pieces decompose", explains Christiane Matz, a conservator. This means the transport crates remain identifiable only by their metal nails, which were found in a rectangular arrangement. The wood has decayed.
Since metal corrodes, the finds are concealed by thick layers of corrosion. By the color of the corrosion, however, Matz can already see what material she is dealing with. Iron has a rust-red layer of sand, while bronze has a compact, green-colored layer. Finally, silver finds have a black corrosion crust. "When uncovering an archeological find, I have to apply careful mechanical precision to approach the original surface with its patterns and signs of usage", explains the expert. "The objects are not supposed to look like new. Rather the goal is to discover and work out details that can still provide us with information about the find after such a long time."
Millimeter by millimeter the restorer removes the corrosion. To do so, she has micro sand blasters, dental instruments, diamond cutting tools, and an ultrasound chisel at her disposal. Depending on an object's state of preservation and size, she may work on it for one or more days. "The most important instrument, however, is the microscope", says Matz. "That is the only way I can control the micrometer-small instruments and examine the results."
The stereo microscope has a particularly large working distance, which enables easy access to the object while it is being processed. "Since I work at the microscope for hours, the ergonomic viewing angle is very important to me", she adds.
Despite the particular ground conditions, two mule skeletons and a large number of unconnected human bones were also found in Kalkriese. “The mule skeletons were lying in an area where a defensive wall constructed by the Germanic peoples probably stood. When the wall collapsed, the mule was buried under the sod and thereby conserved by exclusion of oxygen,” explains Gisela Söger. The human skeleton remains, on the other hand, were taken from the eight bone pits found to date.
Anthropological examinations show that they must have lain on the surface for several years before being buried. “From the sources we know that the Roman commander Germanicus visited the place six years after the battle and ordered the remains of the fallen to be buried,” says Söger. “As the Romans were on enemy territory, they no doubt buried them in a hurry in bone pits.”
Kalkriese is the first battlefield of antiquity to be researched with modern scientific methods. That means that, apart from examining the finds themselves, their distribution is also studied. For the first time, fragments of finds are also playing a key role in the reconstruction of events.
International research scientists from a wide variety of disciplines are working together on the Kalkriese project. As well as archeologists, there are paleozoologists contributing knowledge on the animal bone finds, archeobotanists examining the traces of vegetation of over 2,000 years ago and geologists showing how the ground was cultivated by Germanic tribes.
"The methodic basics elaborated in Kalkriese can now be compared with other find sites of military activity and further developed", says Dr. Susanne Wilbers-Rost, Archeological Director in Kalkriese. Large areas in Kalkriese still await archeological investigation. Most of the find area, however, will be left to future generations, so that they can use improved methods to research this special place.