Saturday, April 08, 2006

Friday Archaeology Blogging - Special Saturday Edition

Well, in honour of my having written the departmental German exam yesterday, I thought I'd go on a bit about the early Germanic peoples who plagued the Roman Empire through much of its existence.

An Ostrogothic Helmet

The Germanic tribes poured out of the lands to the north-east of the Roman Empire in a series of waves, and achieved a number of signal successes. On October 6th, 105 B.C., the combined tribes of the Cimbri and the Teutones annihilated a Roman army at Arausio (modern Orange, in France), killing about 80,000 soldiers by most accounts. At the Battle of Teutobarger Vald in A.D. 9, as discussed on these pages awhile ago, the Cherusci under Arminius wiped out three Roman legions. In the years that followed, the Germanic tribes were by-and-large kept in check, although it was often a full-time job to do so. Marcus Aurelius, in particular, spent much of his reign scrapping against the Marcomanni in the area of what is now Austria.

However, in the later years of the Roman Empire, the tide could no longer be fully stemmed. In the third century in particular, the Germanic tribes became a serious problem; in the 270s, the Juthungi advanced all the way into central Italy before being defeated, an intrusion that prompted the first re-fortification of the city of Rome in centuries. In A.D. 378, at the Battle of Adrianople, a Visigothic army managed to kill the Emperor Valens and destroy his army. And of course, in A.D. 410, Alaric's Visigoths sacked the city of Rome itself, an event which prompted St. Augustine to write his City of God.

The Visigothic sack of Rome - Click for larger version

In fact, it was the Germanic peoples who put an end to the Western Roman Empire. In A.D. 476, Odoacer, chief of the Heruli, removed from power Romulus Augustulus, the last Western Roman emperor, and tersely informed the Eastern Empire that the West would go it alone. Ironically, the man the Eastern Emperor sent out to rectify that situation was Theodoric, an Ostrogoth. By the end of the Western Empire, the Germanic tribes were well-established in the borders of the Roman Empire, often with the blessings of whoever happened to be in charge. Germans had risen high in the Imperial bureaucracy and military hierarchy, and most of the actual emperors were little more than figureheads. Furthermore, the Germanic tribes had begun carving out kingdoms of their own; the Saxons, among others, in Britain, the Franks in central Europe, and the Vandals in North Africa being just a few examples.

Vandalic silver coin

Not surprisingly, given their rather nomadic nature, the Germanic tribes have not left much in the way of archaeological remains that date to earlier than their integration into the Roman empire, although individual artefacts are not uncommon.

Anglo-Saxon Brooch

However, a number of cemeteries have been discovered, which reveal a rather bizarre habit among many of the Germanic tribes. These people often deliberately deformed the skulls of their fellow-tribespeople (both men and women), possibly to look more imposing, or possibly for some reason that we have no idea about.

Deliberately deformed skull of an Ostrogoth

This practice, visible in between 1 and 80 percent of Germanic burials, depending on the tribe, was presumably carried out in infancy, and probably used tight bands to direct the skull's development.


Alison said...

Ouch! I had never heard of this Ostrogoth head-shaping practice.
But of course modern goths achieve much the same effect using hair glue.

Bazz said...

I wonder if the head-shaping accounts for the general crankiness of the early Germanic peoples? It'd be a reasonable explanation, I think! :)

the rev. said...

I always thought "The Vandals" or the "The Visogoths" would be good names for punk bands

Bazz said...

Indeed - I actually quite like The Vandals! There was also, back in the early early days of punk, a band out of Boston called The Visigoths.