After successfully concluding archaeological research campaigns at two Roman military camps near Bad Ems, the findings and discoveries have been presented to the public in Mainz. For the first time, researchers have managed to recover sharply pointed wooden stakes from a Roman defensive trench (1st century AD) virtually intact.

So far, this defense technique and potentially lethal trap for attackers were only known through written sources: now, for the first time, these stakes have been archaeologically recovered and examined in the specialized restoration laboratories of the Leibniz Center for Archaeology (LEIZA). The research network, comprised of experts from the General Directorate of Cultural Heritage of Rhineland-Palatinate (GDKE), Goethe University Frankfurt, LEIZA, and other partners, has summarized the scientific results in a publication.

We found the sharp wooden posts in a defensive system in the inner pointed ditch of the small fort. It is remarkable that the findings have been preserved in their original functional construction context. The exceptionally good preservation of the wooden objects and the very well-preserved and recovered fabric remains from this period are mainly due to permanent waterlogging. This type of access obstacle was already described by ancient authors like Caesar, but this is the first archaeological evidence of such a pila fossata throughout the Roman Empire, says archaeologist Prof. Dr. Markus Scholz from Goethe University Frankfurt, describing the discovery situation.

In 2019, the 23 wooden finds were delivered to the specialized laboratories of LEIZA for conservation and restoration over the following 2.5 years.

We owe these unusually well-preserved archaeological finds mainly to the moist soil with low oxygen levels, which was covered by dense layers of sediment. In my 35 years of work, I had never had to deal with such compact sediment layers, says Markus Wittköpper, a wet wood conservation expert at LEIZA, describing his first impression.

The Director-General of LEIZA, Prof. Dr. Alexandra W. Busch, adds: These wooden stakes from the military camps near Bad Ems, which at first glance seem unassuming, are a small sensation for archaeology, of which the Roman military specialist in me is particularly pleased. I am also personally very proud that LEIZA’s restoration and conservation laboratories have been able to once again utilize their unique expertise to permanently preserve the wooden finds.

The remains of the two Roman military camps, which were occupied for a few years around the mid-1st century AD, were discovered as part of a three-year scientific project between 2017 and 2019. Analysis was completed in 2023.

It is highly likely that the camps are related to the search for silver veins under the Roman governor Curcius Rufus, as transmitted by the Roman historian Tacitus.

The larger of the two camps, covering an area of about 8 hectares, provided space for 3,000 men. It was fortified with pointed ditches, an earthen wall, and wooden towers. This discovery was not made until 2016 by the volunteer monument conservator Jürgen Eigenbrod.

Until now, the forest area at “Blöskopf” was considered a Roman foundry due to its location above the silver mines of Bad Ems and in the vicinity of historic mining remains (Pingenfelder) from the 19th century. Due to its proximity to the Limes, it was dated between the 2nd and 3rd centuries.

Following surveys and excavations conducted between 2018 and 2019, researchers discovered that it was a small fort of about 0.1 hectares, apparently used to control a Roman mining district around 50 AD. Inside this small fort is one of the oldest stone buildings on the right bank of the Rhine, identified as the central defensive structure of the complex.

Dr. Heike Otto, Director-General of Cultural Heritage of Rhineland-Palatinate, remarked: It is rare to have such a deep look into the era of the Roman Empire. I want to thank all the experts from numerous disciplines who have participated in this project and highly recommend this publication on the topic.


LEIZA | Dr. Peter Henrich und Prof. Dr. Markus Scholz (Hrsg.): Die frühkaiserzeitlichen Militäranlagen bei Bad Ems um Kontext des römischen Bergbaus, Berichte zur Archäologie an Mittelrhein und Mosel Bd. 23, 2024.

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