What would London be like, if Boudica had won? The answer may possibly be, like Waldgirmes. In AD 9 the Germans rebelled against the Roman conquerors and this time the Germans won: the Romans were defeated and three legions were destroyed. But what happened to Waldgirmes, the town that was intended to be the capital of the new Province?
When the Emperor Augustus began to tidy up the Roman Empire, he realised that one of the more untidy aspects was the eastern frontier which ran along the Rhine and the Danube for rather a long way.
If only one could straighten it out and move the frontier eastward from the Rhine to the Elbe, this would shorten the length of the frontier by 1000 miles or so. He set about making the necessary adjustments and in 12 BC he sent out his stepson, Drusus to conquer Germany. Unfortunately three years later, Drusus died. The troops were needed elsewhere and it was not until AD 6 that Varus was sent out with three legions to complete the conquest of Germany.
Varus spent a couple of years rampaging around Germany while a fleet explored the north coast as far as Denmark. But in AD 9 came disaster. The Germans acquired a leader of genius, one Arminius, who had actually trained in the Roman army and in the Teutoberger Wald – the actual site has recently been discovered – he lured the Romans into a trap and Varus and his three legions were destroyed. Augustus was in despair, crying out “Varus, give me back my three legions”, but he was a realist, so he withdrew the Roman forces back to the Rhine, and even though a short-cut series of defences were constructed to shorten the frontier, nevertheless, for the next 400 years or so, the frontier was 1000 miles longer than it should have been, and the Germans remained barbarians.
But while Drusus and Varus were busy campaigning in the east, the process of Romanisation was already underway. A number of forts were established in Germany, of which the most interesting, and one of the largest was at Haltern, nearly 35 miles inland from the Rhine. It was large – at 20 ha it was the size of a legionary fortress, and indeed for the most part, it was a legionary fortress. However it also contained a number of large and luxurious houses and it has been argued that civilian administrators had already begun to move in to administer the new region. However like the other fortresses, Oberaden, Rodgen and Dangstetten, Haltern was essentially a military camp: it was full of barracks and the pottery was all Roman. There was no German pottery so the Germans did not come into the camp. The process of civilianisation, making Germany into a proper civilian province, had not begun at all. However at Waldgirmes, some twenty miles east of the Rhine, and twenty miles north of what is today Frankfurt, the first Roman town in the new province of Germania has now been discovered. The discovery of this town has been one of the most remarkable discoveries of archaeology in the past twenty years.
The site of Waldgirmes today, as laid out for visitors.
It all began with an ambitious project funded jointly by the German Research Society – the Deutsche Forschungs Gemeinschaft – and the state funded Römisch Germanisch Kommission, part of the German Archaeological Institute, to explore the Romanisation of Germany. And they decided to carry out intensive research into the land to the east of the Rhine, to explore the process of Romanisation. They began in 1991 exploring a new site at Dorlar, just north of Frankfurt, which appeared to be a briefly occupied Roman marching camp. However, this was not really what they were looking for because it contained only Roman material, and they wanted a site that had both Roman and German material. At this point they were approached by a local amateur archaeologist, Ingrid Schmidt (what was her real name?) who did extensive fieldwalking in the area, who suggested that they should look at the neighbouring village of Waldgirmes where she had discovered a sitewhich revealed both Roman and German pottery. Furthermore, the local village was planning to build a supermarket in the field concerned, and if they did not dig it quickly, it would go. The RGK decided to investigate and furthermore since it was threatened, the local rescue team, the Hesse Heritage Organisation could also move in with their funding and personnel. In 1993 they began digging at Waldgirmes.
At first it appeared to be yet another Roman fort. Geophysics quickly revealed the not very regular outline of the fort with a box rampart surrounded by a double ditch – the formula that is typical of the area. It would appear that when it was decided to lay out the town, the first thing was to bring in the army to surround it by proper military fortifications. Geophysics also revealed what appeared to be the headquarters building at the centre of the fort. However when excavations began, several oddities started to emerge. The structure consisted of a courtyard with a large building with stone foundations running along the northern side.
Attached to this however was a large apse, and though such apses were entirely normal in basilicas in Roman towns of this period, particularly those in north Italy, they were anomalous in military buildings. Further work began to reveal further anomalies.
A street ran in front of this large central building and this was fronted by a portico; again such porticos were never found in Roman forts but appear to be typical of north Italian towns. Behind them were not the barracks that might be expected, but small houses with several rooms centred round an enclosed central area, which is not unlike the classic atrium building; though unlike the classic atrium the central areas appear to have been roofed. And there were no barracks. Could it be that this was not a fort at all, but a proto-town?
The finds appear to confirm this. There were few obviously military finds, and several obviously ‘civilian’ finds, notably several intaglios typical of the jewellery of well to do Romans. The pottery while being mostly of the more normal Roman types also contained a substantial amount both of Germanic, and indeed Celtic pottery types. Unlike the fort of Haltern, where there was virtually no Germanic type pottery, and where presumably the native Germans never entered the fort, at Waldgirmes nearly 20% of the pottery was Germanic, suggesting that there must have been a substantial German native presence in the town. The historian Cassius Dio in a famous passage (56, 18) said that in Germany ‘already cities were being founded; the barbarians were gradually reshaping their habits in conformity with the Roman pattern and were becoming accustomed to holding markets and were meeting in peaceful assembly’. Prior to the discovery of Waldgirmes, this passage was controversial, but now it is clear that not only was a city founded, but it would appear that Germans were actually entering the city and leaving behind their broken pots as evidence of their presence.
As the excavations continued, two wells were excavated in the western half of the fort. Both proved to be timber lined in their lower reaches and these timbers soon provided a firm tree-ring date for construction. Both wells were built of wood felled in 4 BC, and since one assumes that the wells would be among the first parts of the town to be constructed, one assumes that 4 BC is more-or-less the foundation date of the town.
Even at this early stage the arrangements for water were being attended to. Down the centre of the street in front of the Forum there is a deep gulley which appears to have been the main sewer, but it was not covered over and it appears that at least at this early stage, the main sewer ran down the centre of the main street. However, in the north of the town some wooden water pipes have been discovered suggesting that already an aqueduct had been constructed to bring water into the town.
Other aspects of the town have also been discovered: just inside the eastern gate there are rows of post foundations for an above-ground granary, though not a particularly big one compared with those usually found in a fort. To the north there is an area apparently of workshops, while to the west there are some larger houses.
The date of the ending of the town was soon established from two sources: on the one hand over 300 coins have been discovered, the majority of which were Roman coins over-stamped with the letters VAR standing for Varus. It would appear that at this time Roman commanders were in the habit of over-stamping the coins they paid out to their troops with their own names. And since Varus was killed in AD 9, it would appear that the town ended with his defeat. The other source is tree-ring dating, and here the latest date is given by a ladder found down a well, constructed of timber dated to the autumn of AD 9 or the spring of AD 10 – we shall discuss this later.
When news of the destruction came through, the natives ran riot. In the centre of the forum was a magnificent gilded bronze statue of the Emperor Augustus proudly riding his horse, and this was hacked to pieces. Fragments were discovered everywhere throughout the fort. The finest piece was a horse’s head magnificently sculpted that was found down a well in 2009. There was also a large piece of a leg and a lesser fragment of horse harness stretched across a horse’s chest. All are of superb craftsmanship, presumably sent out from a workshop in Rome itself or Italy. These have now become the prize exhibits of Waldgirmes.
Indeed there was probably at least one further statue, for a further fragment was discovered of a human arm that was not gilded, and a non-gilded fragment of a human arm surely implies that there was a second human statue. In the centre of the Forum there are five statue bases. One assumes that the centre one was occupied by the gilded equestrian statue, presumably Augustus but this is merely an assumption, but there must have been at least one other statue too.
The ending of the town is complex because there appear to have been two different events separated by a sterile layer. The first event was the orgy of destruction which led to the smashing up of the gilded statue, and indeed the end of occupation throughout the town. The second event was a layer of burning which presumably marks the final abandonment of the town. However, the two events are separated by a sterile layer from which no datable finds have been discovered and whether it lasted six months or six years is quite impossible to say.
The most problematic object from this phase is the wooden ladder found down the well already mentioned, and made from wood cut down in the autumn of AD 9 or the spring of AD 10, and so it does rather look as if this was made after the defeat of Varus and then thrown down the well. However in the western part of the town are the remains of what has been called a supply base, separated from the rest of the town by a palisade, and with several workshop type buildings similar to those of a later date found at Corbridge.
With a certain amount of imagination and the use of history it is possible to propose the following sequence: following the Varus’ defeat, the natives ran riot, smashed up the statues, the town was abandoned, but the buildings were mostly left standing; a small detachment of troops moved in as caretakers. The turning point came in AD 14.
In AD 14 Augustus finally died after having been the first citizen of the Roman world for over forty years. He was succeeded by Tiberius who was not his first choice, but who proved to be a wily old bird who finally established that the Roman Republic had gone for good, and that emperors were here to stay. However there was rebellion, or at least unrest in the Northern provinces where he finally established that the Rhine was to be the frontier. Could it be that this final layer of burning should be dated to AD 14, and marked Tiberius’ decision that Rome should give up its dream of establishing a province in Germany, and that the detachment in Waldgirmes withdrew, burning the remnants of the city behind it?
The threat of the supermarket has now been averted, the site has been declared an ancient monument, and the main outline of the Forum has been outlined on the ground so that it can be seen by those visitors who succeed in locating a field on the far side of the village of Waldgirmes. The excavators would have liked to continue to reveal the whole of the town, but the money ran out, the threat no longer existed, and some remains should be left for future investigators with no doubt superior technology. Waldgirmes is not indeed yet on the tourist route, though no doubt one day it may well be, as this is the site of a remarkable episode in which the Roman attempt to found a new town completely failed. Is this what London would have been like if Boudica had succeeded in driving out the Romans?