Saturday, February 18, 2006

Friday Saturday Archaeology Blogging

Yup, it's that time again! Now, this past week was a big one archaeologically, what with this, and, somewhat less reported but just as important, this. However, my interest was caught specifically by this unrelated item:

U of Minnesota professor investigates ancient battlefield
Andrew Sain Staff

In the year 9 CE, three Roman legions, 15,000 troops in total, were attacked and destroyed by German tribespeople in the Teutoberg Forest. Despite its relatively recent discovery, this battlefield is on its way to becoming the best-researched ancient battle site in the world, according to Peter S. Wells.

The Battle of Teutoburger Wald was one of the great Roman disasters. The Cherusci, one of those ferocious Germanic tribes that were such a bugbear to the Romans, pulled a neat bit of deception and caught an entire Roman army, under the leadership of Publius Quinctilius Varus, completely unawares somewhere around here:

As the above article notes, the result was the deaths of thousands of Roman soldiers, and the humiliating loss of the legionary standards, which were recaptured under later Emperors. The disaster actually, according to some sources, drove the Emperor Augustus mildly insane; he is reported to have spent a good chunk of time after the battle wandering the halls of his palace shouting "Quinctilius Varus, bring back my legions!" In the 19th century, the event became a symbol of German nationalism, and a monument was raised to Arminius, the Cheruscan chieftain who masterminded the victory.

Anyway, it seems that people are now getting down to the serious work of proper archaeological research on the battle. Battlefield archaeology has always been a bit of a tricky business, particularly when dealing with ancient battles; only rarely can the actual events of a battle be recreated (as mentioned in the above article, the victors did tend to clean the place up after the fighting was done). Furthermore, the precise locations of many ancient battles are not known. Some of my own fieldwork (unrelated to the battle) has been done very close to the site of a Hannibalic victory over Rome in 218 B.C. Although the local placenames are full of military imagery (e.g. Ossaia="The Bone Place", Sanguineto="Bloody", Sepoltaglia="Place of Tombs"), nobody actually knows exactly where the fighting took place. Another example is the famous Battle of Mons Graupius, between the Romans and the Caledonii. This location of this fight has been narrowed down to "somewhere in northern Scotland," but beyond that, so little of it is known that some people have questioned whether it happened at all. For this reason, it's always rather fun to see one of the famous battlefields properly identified, and professionally excavated.

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