Hitting the jackpot on a dig in Gernsheim: Long lost Roman fort discovered

In the course of an educational dig in Gernsheim, located in the Hessain Ried, archaeologists from Frankfurt University have discovered a long lost Roman fort: A troop unit made up of approximately 500 soldiers (known as a cohort) was stationed there between 70/80 and 110/120 AD. Over the past weeks the archaeologists uncovered two V-shaped ditches, typical of this type of fort, and the post holes of a wooden defensive tower along with various other evidence from the time after the fort was abandoned.

A remarkably large number of finds were made in this dig. This is because the Roman troops dismantled the fort and filled the ditches on their departure. In the process they disposed of a lot of waste, especially in the inner ditch. “A bonanza for us,” according to Prof. Dr. Hans-Markus von Kaenel from the Goethe University Institute of Archaeology. “We filled box after box with shards of fine, coarse and transport ceramics; dating them will allow us to determine when the fort was abandoned with greater accuracy than was possible before”.

Until now, little was known about Roman Gernsheim, even though discoveries from the Roman era have been appearing at the site since the 19th century. “Previously, the only thing that seemed certain based on the finds was that an important village-like settlement, or “vicus”, must have been located here from the 1st to the 3rd century, comparable with similar villages which have already been shown to have existed in Groß-Gerau, Dieburg or Ladenburg”, explained dig leader Dr. Thomas Maurer. He has been travelling from Frankfurt to South Hessia for many years and has published his findings in a large publication about the North Hessian Ried during Roman imperial times.

Discovery at Gernsheim: Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main
Discovery at Gernsheim: Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main

“It was assumed”, continued Maurer, “that this settlement had to have been based on a fort, since it was customary for the families of the soldiers to live outside the fort in a village-like settlement.” “We really hit the jackpot with this excavation campaign”, said a delighted Prof. Dr. Hans-Markus von Kaenel. “The results are a milestone in reconstructing the history of the Hessian Ried during Roman times.” For almost 20 years, von Kaenel has been studying this area with the support of his colleagues and students usingsurveys, digs, material processing and analyses. The results have been published in over 50 articles.

The Romans built the fort in Gernsheim in order to take control of large areas to the east of the Rhine in the seventh decade of the 1st century AD and to expand the traffic infrastructure from and to the centre of Mainz-Mogontiac. The fact that Gernsheim and Rhein were very important during Roman times is supported by its complimentary location for travel: A road branches off from the Mainz- Ladenburg- Augsburg highway in the direction of the Main Limes. It can be assumed that a Rhine harbour existed as well, but this could not be proved during the course of the dig. “That was always unlikely on account of the chosen location”, according to Maurer. Gernsheim proceeded to expand during the 20th century, and this expansion threatened to wipe out a large amount of the archaeological traces. While the Roman remains were mostly hidden under fields and gardens in the year 1900, they were gradually built over and thus lost to methodical archaeological research. The last plot of any measurable size where is might still be possible to make findings from the Roman era was in the south west of the city between B44 and the River Winkelbach. But in 1971 the excavations moved in here as well. Maurer added: “At the time, a few volunteers from the Heritage Conservation Society were barely able to save a few Roman finds.”


On August 4th of this year, the annual educational dig run by the Goethe University Institute of Archaeology began on one of the few remaining properties which had not be built on; a double lot at Nibelungenstraße 10-12. “According to my maps of those Gernsheim sites which could be located, we are at the far western edge of the area in which the finds are concentrated, right at the edge of the lower terrace, since the nearby River Winkelbach flows into the Rhine basin from here”, explained dig leader Maurer. Isolated Roman discoveries were made on almost all neighbouring properties during the 1970s and 1980s. “Thus the site seemed to be a worthwhile location for a dig, which turned out to be very much the case.”

Over the last five weeks, 15 students of the “Archaeology and History of the Roman Provinces” course carefully stripped away the soil, mapped and documented the finds, and recovered and packaged them by type. The work was supported by Frankfurt archaeologists from the Hessain State Office for the Preservation of Historical Monuments (Hessen ARCHÄOLOGIE, Darmstadt branch) and by the Art and History Society of Schöfferstadt Gernsheim. Some members of this society, which also operates the local museum, helped the dig team on a daily basis. The documentation and the findings from this excavation campaign form the basis for a thesis at the University, work on which will start in the winter semester.



Contributing Source: Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main

Header Image Source: Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main



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