KALEFELD, Germany (AFP) — Archaeologists have unearthed the flotsam of a battle fought in the heart of Germany between Roman legionnaires and Germanic tribes 200 years after Romans were believed to have retreated behind the Rhine.
Until now, the Teutoburg Forest defeat of three Roman legions by Germanic tribes, 2,000 years ago next year, was thought to have ended Rome's expansion into northeastern Europe and set the limits of the empire at the Rhine.
The latest archaeological find was originally made by amateurs using metal-detectors who discovered a number of Roman weapons in a hilly pine-wooded region between Hanover and Kassel.
The precise location of the site is being kept secret to prevent pilfering, with more supervised digging to take place next summer.
Archaeologists, who began exploring the site in 2006, have now ascertained that a bloody battle took place on the approach to a pass, involving archers and cavalry equipped with long-range catapults capable of piercing shields at a distance of 300 metres (yards).
"The findings show that possibly 1,000 Romans were involved" in the battle, according to archaeologist Petra Loenne.
"This is an unrivalled, well-preserved site," she added.
Some 600 artefacts have so far been found, including spears, arrowheads, axes, armour plating, tent pegs, catapult bolts and coins.
One such coin depicts Roman Emperor Commodus, who reigned from 180 to 192 A.D., while fragments of swords and carts suggest the battle took place in the first half of the third century A.D.
Arrowheads point to the involvement on the Roman side of Persian and North African archers, while the paths followed by the Roman soldiers can be traced thanks to nails left from their sandals.
Archaeologists do not know who won the battle.
They have discovered little by way of artefacts left by the Germanic fighters and believe the tribes may have carried away their dead for burial.
But, unlike other battlefields where victims were stripped of their belongings, the Roman dead appear to have been left where they lay, their armour and weapons untouched.
The archaeologists believe the Roman soldiers might have been heading home, some 200 kilometres (125 miles) to the southwest, after carrying out a raid deep into enemy territory.
Eighty percent of the arrowheads were found to the south of the battlefield, suggesting the legionnaires were attempting to break through in that direction.
Until now, historians believed that, in the wake of the Teutoburg Forest massacre in which thousands of legionnaires were slaughtered, the Romans limited their military operations east of the Rhine to short punitive raids.
Maximinus Thrax, the first Roman soldier-emperor who reigned briefly from 235 to 238, was personally involved in operations against the Germanic tribes.
Historical records even suggested he had led an army towards the North Sea to subdue the "barbarians".
"Until now these sources had been considered quite unreliable," said historian Michael Geschwinde.
But "we must now look at the historical records in a new light," said Henning Hassmann, another archaeologist involved.
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