Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Well preserved Roman fort discovered on Channel Islands

This summer saw excavations on the island of Alderney to investigate what was traditionally believed to have been a Roman structure – with surprising results.

Local tradition has indeed suggested that the site was Roman, but until recently any investigations had proved inconclusive. The site, known as the Nunnery, has had various uses over time including military works, a farm, the residence of the island's governor and holiday homes.  In 2008 Guernsey Museums and the Alderney Society joined forces to investigate and excavate and have managed to prove that the Nunnery is actually an extremely well-preserved Roman military structure.

The 2008 excavation put a trench against the outer face of the north wall of the structure. Whilst only two fragments of tile and 11 small Roman sherds were found the trench did show that the fort wall continued for almost 2m below the modern surface, giving the rampart a height of 6.8m. The foundations were made up of a layer of beach stones in mortar and built directly on sand. It may have been that the foundations were built on timber piles, a common Roman technique.

 In 2009 attention turned to a wall that was thought to be ‘new’, that is, a later addition thought to have been built to replace the collapsed east rampart. The ‘new’ wall did not seem to make sense militarily, and some scholars had previously observed that its outer face looked older than the fort it was repairing. When the overgrown ivy was stripped from the ‘new’ east wall it revealed a double tile-bonding course with two buttresses and running for 17m. It was a Roman wall. This proved there was a Roman building inside the Nunnery and the excavators began to suspect that it was a tower since all northern English Roman forts have a tower in the middle.
In 2010 the excavators went back to try and find the tower - and found it. Dr Monaghan of Guernsey Museums said, "The walls are 2.8m (9ft) thick, we don't know how high it was, but it would have been a very big structure - it's as thick as Hadrian's Wall." The tower was around 18 sq m.

Old postcard showing 'The Nunnery'
The fort is in an extremely good state of preservation: "It's in a better state than what they call the Saxon shore forts off southern England, it's in better nick than most of Hadrian's Wall” said Dr. Monaghan.  

As with the Saxon shore forts, this was build to guard the shore, in this case the entrance to Longis Bay, Alderney's only natural harbour. The fort is also placed to control the sea between the island and the French coast, some 8 miles away. It dates to the late 4th century, a period of anxiety for the Romans that led to the construction of these forts in various locations.

The extent of the Roman presence on the island of Alderney is still not well understood. There is some sparse evidence for Roman settlement on Alderney but it is known from literary sources that the Channel Islands were visited by Roman officials and traders. The traditional Latin name of the island is Riduna though the exact etymology of the Island's name is obscure.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Roman supply camp from Drusus' campaigns in Germany discovered

In 1890, archaeologists discovered a bronze Roman military helmet near Olfen, a spectacular find which led them to hope that a Roman camp might be nearby. The river Lippe, which runs through the area, was a natural defense which provided an excellent site for military camps, and several other camps were known which extended in a chain across the country. 
Photo: DPL

Olfen is a small town, not far from M√ľnster near the Ruhr Valley, and the find of the helmet in 1890 has led archaeologists to the area ever since to look for the camp, the ‘missing link’ in the chain.  It was known from literary sources that Olfen was strategically important for the legions during Drusus’ campaigns in Germania. Drusus, a Roman General, waged a long and bloody war against the tribes that inhabited what is now western Germany. But, until recently, archaeologists had not been able to locate the camp, used from 11 to 7 B.C. as a base to control the river crossing.
This year, volunteers discovered pottery sherds from the Roman period in the area, causing the Westphalia-Lippe Municipal Association (LWL) to initiate aerial photography to search for traces of building works. At the same time, archaeologists and volunteers field-walked, looking for artefacts which could confirm the location of the camp.

They found convincing evidence including coins, pottery and fibulae, but were also able to trace a moat surrounding the camp and the remains of a wooden wall that could have protected 1,000 legionaries from attack within an area the size of  seven football fields.
Photo: DPL

The camp was relatively small in comparison to other Roman military establishments in the area and this factor,  along with the construction of its wood and earthen wall and location on the Lippe River, suggest that it may have functioned as a supply depot.

“It’s a sensational discovery for Roman research in Westphalia,” LWL Director Wolfgang Kirsch said in a statement. LWL is also responsible for five other Roman military ruins along the Lippe and finds from Olfen, including the bronze helmet and latest material, will join artefacts from the other sites on display in the Roman Museum in Haltern.

LWL's chief archaeologist Dr. Michael Rind said “The monument has up to this point been allowed to lie in the ground widely undisturbed for over 2,000 years – an absolute rarity, and from an archaeological point of view, absolutely ideal.

“Our primary concern is to protect and preserve this monument for the future – and not, to completely excavate it as soon as possible,” Rind said in a statement. “The exploration of the camp will probably take several decades to complete.”

Around 2,000 years ago, the region now known as Westphalia became the focus of Roman campaigns aimed at expanding territory and Roman troops marched up the Lippe river.  The campaign to make Germany into a Roman province failed in the year 9 AD when Publius Quinctilius Varus was defeated in the Teutoburg Forest. An alliance of Germanic tribes led by Arminius of the Cherusci ambushed and annihilated three Roman legions, along with their auxiliaries, in the forest.