The Quest For the Lost Roman Legions:
Discovering the Varus Battlefield
by Tony Clunn
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1987: The First Find
Excerpt reprinted with permission of Savas Beatie LLC:
For more than six hundred years, people have searched for the site where the Roman army had been annihilated. Early in the sixteenth century, when the story was becoming widely celebrated, the Lippischer Wald was renamed the Teutoburger Wald . In 1875, a monument to Arminius was erected on the supposed site of the battle near Detmold . Nearly everyone with a strong interest in the battle had a theory as to where Varus and his legions met their end. In 1998, however, German archaeologists made a shocking pronouncement: after ten years of research and excavations, the location of one of the most important events in Germany history-in many respects, the birthplace of the German nation-was no longer in doubt.
In 1987, using the most sophisticated metal detectors available, I launched my investigation of what ultimately turned out to be the Varus battlefield. For three years I studied old maps and documents of antiquity, walked fields and woods, surveyed the land, dug into the soil, and pondered over the artifacts I was turning up. Thankfully, all of this was carried out with the blessing, assistance, and guidance of the German museum and local archaeological authorities.
This was not the first time the Detmold position of the battlefield had been seriously challenged. Archaeologists and historians had previously offered up some seven hundred and fifty alternative sites, but never before had the evidence so strongly favored a new location. Extensive desk research led me to the Kalkriese area, but the actual site was pinpointed almost by accident. One month after arriving in Germany in 1987 to begin a tour of duty with the Armored Field Ambulance unit in Osnabrück, I set off on a journey that would consume years of survey, research, and laborious days when it seemed as if the artifacts and the answers would never come. In the beginning, all I really expected to find was the odd Roman coin or artifact. It had been well established by the resident county archaeologist, Dr Wolfgang Schlüter, that not one Roman coin had been recovered from the Osnabrück area during his thirteen years in office.
My story began to unfold shortly after visiting the local museum, where I first met Dr Schlüter. He was naturally very cautious, but decided to take me at face value. After learning my main interest was Roman history and coins, he suggested I start my search in an area about twelve miles north of the city, saying simply it was worth further study. Among the documents and old papers consulted as part of the research on the area was a series of nineteenth century maps and a thesis by Theodore Mommsen, the nineteenth century German historian.
Like many other German historians before him, Mommsen believed he had correctly identified the probable site of the " Teutoburger Wald " Varus battlefield. He based his thesis on the fact that resident landowners of the area, the (Baron) von Bar family, had accumulated a large collection of Roman silver and gold coins, a good majority of which were from the reign of Augustus Caesar. Mommsen had originally been informed that the coins had been found by farm workers in the local fields over the previous centuries and accumulated by the von Bar family (whose family tree can be traced back to the early tenth century). However, Mommsen was also informed, perhaps as an adopted defensive stance, that many of the coins had been collected from finds made all over northern Germany , and not exclusively from the local parish area. Nevertheless, he maintained his theory but was never able to advance it in the absence of further evidence.
After closely studying Mommsen's theory, I noted that a very old road known as the " Old Military Road " (Heerstrasse) ran through this area. I decided to center my main point of reference on a small crossroads in the middle of the parish area, and it was there my investigation began in earnest.
I read the small number of archaeological publications that described the coin and artifact finds made in the area over the preceding one hundred years. Obviously, the finds made more recently over the last thirty years would perhaps be easier to relocate than those made in the previous century. Because the majority of the publications had been written by Dr Schlüter, I was able to discuss with the author firsthand the basis for his writings. One of his early publications, Osnabrücker Mitteilungen, Band 88-1982, contained a complete listing of many of Mommsen's records. After careful study, I decided a "recent" find of a Roman denarius, recovered in 1963 by a young lad in a field near the military road crossing, might bear further investigation. I drove out to the area with Dr Schlüter to talk to the local farmers.
Having been introduced to residents living in the immediate area of the crossroads, I met the farmer who vividly remembered the find, for it was his own young son who had brought the coin home some twenty-five years earlier. Ironically, the coin was still lying around the farmer's house (regrettably they have never been able to find it again). The field where the coin had been recovered was a short distance from their house, and we walked over to look at the general area. I was given an idea of the area where he thought the coin had been found-some fifty meters square-but since time was pressing I decided to return the following day.
Early next morning I got up with the birds and was soon standing in the field, ready to proceed with my detector survey. I have always believed every field has a distinctive part that stands out from the rest. In my experience, it is always best to move to the central point of a field to "get the feel" of the land, so to speak: nothing magical, nothing strange, just a straightforward good spot to pick up the potential activity areas. I walked a few paces and noticed the early morning dew highlighted a very slight elevation running across the field, possibly part of an old track or trail. I moved onto it and tried to orientate its course with the other roads some short distance away, but initially there appeared to be no logical link. (Much later, in the winter months, the connection would become abundantly clear, but at this particular point in time I was a little foxed!) Very often I found the edge of tracks more productive than the center, and I began searching along the side of the grassy elevation.
Over the next few hours I carefully moved up the northern edge of the line of track and outward, meter by meter, toward the edge of the field. Other than the odd piece of silver paper and bottle top, I found nothing. I took a late lunch break and decided to change tack and cover the southern edge of the track. Five minutes later, as I neared the center point of the track, I heard a familiar double-ringed tone in my headset. Some years before I decided to use Fisher metal detectors from America . In 1987, I was using the 1265X model, which was always an infallible source of good finds for me. This occasion would prove no different. In fact, it was the beginning of an incredible series of amazing and wonderful finds which, to the present day (now seventeen years later) continue to amaze as they are unearthed from the soil.
I cut away a square of turf, checked that first and, when I did not get a signal, continued carefully to clear out the black peat from within the hole. I rechecked the signal tone then picked up a handful of soil. No signal in the hole. Painstakingly, I sifted through the contents in my hand, but I could see nothing resembling a solid object as indicated by the signal. I sifted through again and then I saw it: black, small . . . and round! A tiny glint of silver caught my eye. It was a perfect silver coin, blackened with age, with the same black hue as the peaty soil: a Roman denarius. I saw the proud aquiline features of Augustus Caesar on one side, and on the other, two figures standing behind battle shields and crossed spears. I could hardly believe it. I stood transfixed, savoring a combination of disbelief, excitement, and the pure exhilaration of finding such a wonderful 2,000 year old artifact from ancient Rome .
According to Dr Schlüter, no Roman coins had been found in the Osnabrück area during his tenure, and here I was, three months after my arrival in the district, holding a beautiful Roman coin in the palm of my hand. Rather than put it into a plastic bag in my collecting pouch, I carefully placed it on top of the inverted cut-away turf, and then checked the immediate area of the hole and surrounding area for other signals. At first there was nothing. Then, within a few paces farther along the side of the track, I picked up another clear signal. I repeated the process, but this time the coin proved to be much deeper than the first.
Nevertheless, the Fisher detector gave good signals and the second coin, an early period denarius, was recovered and placed on top of the second turf. Having checked the immediate area of this find without any further signal, I again proceeded up the line of the side of the track. Four yards had separated the first and the second coin, and seven yards further on, another clear signal produced the third find, another early period denarius!
For the next few hours my spirits knew no bounds. I paced up and down the track line, fired with great enthusiasm about the whole area. The military road nearby, the tales from local farmers, the finds made from centuries before-something was about! As I looked across the fields toward the rising hillside some 2,000 yards away, I asked myself over and over again, "Who lost these?" "Who was he?" "What was he doing: running, riding, walking?" "Who came this way?"
Looking up from my reverie, I noticed weekend walkers about, particularly around the small crossroads area about 100 yards away. Some seemed to be taking an interest in my activities, and I decided to withdraw quietly from the field. Holes were filled, turfs were carefully replaced, and after noting the exact locations of those three finds, I packed my kit carefully into the car.
Dr Schlüter was away on a short holiday during the following two weeks, and so I was unable to speak to him and tell him of the find. I was a little worried about revealing the location and finds to the German police at this early stage, not being fully conversant with either their expertise or the recognized procedures to be adopted in these matters. I therefore decided to await Dr Schlüter's return.
I was fairly busy at work during the following week. It was not until some days later that I had positively identified the three coins. Two were from the era of Augustus and a third was pre-Republican from 100 BC. As the doctor was not back at work until the following Monday, I decided to revisit the site on the weekend and see if I could locate any similar scattered finds.
Based on the position of the previous three coins, I decided to concentrate on a 50 x 20 meter rectangle with the coin-find sites as the center of the survey. The earth had been very peaty and very dark, and locating blackened silver denarii was exceedingly difficult. Even sifting the compressed peat in my hand had failed to reveal them straight away, so I decided to take a common garden sieve with me. For a change, I also took my son and daughter to give them a few hours out in the countryside while I searched for more coins. They both proved to be of invaluable assistance as the day wore on.
When we arrived at the area of the field early on Saturday morning, I carefully checked the find positions of the three coins and marked them with three small colored stakes. It was interesting to see, just one week later, that there appeared to be no visible evidence of the old track; it was as if the path had disappeared altogether.
Using the field fence posts as reference points from my logbook, I had my son and daughter lay out a rectangle of white tape straddling the coin find sites, aligning it with the general line of the "missing" path. Once this had been done, I carried out a search of the marked area. I have always believed in working outward from a find site and maintaining a straight-line search pattern. Across the marked rectangle in the grassy field I laid out two white tape lines running through the line of the left- and right-hand find sites. This internal rectangle I began to search first, my theory being that the line of the track may have been very relevant to the loss of the coins some 2,000 years ago.
My son and daughter had gone off to play at the very end of the field. It was a beautiful summer morning. Only the birds' gentle chatter could be heard, and though the main crossroads was not far away at the end of the field, nothing moved or disturbed the wonderful tranquility of the setting. I scarcely noticed anything going on around me after that, so intense was my concentration at this point. Adjusting my headset to a more comfortable position, I turned up the gain control a little more and carefully walked across the grass. After a few minutes, halfway up the first leg of my search pattern, I came upon the first coin of the day. I knew it was a coin even before I cut away the turf. The Fisher 1265X "loved" coins, and particularly relished Roman silver! It gave a great sounding signal. When I heard that double ringing tone yet again, I knew it was another good find. Cutting away the turf, I carried out the normal checks of turf first, then the hole. The ringing tones remained. I was amazed. From a good 30 centimeters down, I brought the black earth containing the coin to the surface. Again I found it very difficult to locate the coin. In the end, gently sifting away the excess, I uncovered another beautiful blackened denarius.
It was in marvelous condition, again showing the proud aquiline features of Augustus. On the reverse this time was a large bull, head lowered, as if ready to charge. I took out a small plastic bag and dropped it in, noting the site and depth of find in my small logbook. Considerably excited at this fourth find, I continued with my sweep of the inner marked rectangle.
During the next hour another five denarii came to light. Each one was carefully noted in my log. When the search of the inner rectangle was complete, I called my children over to sit down for a quick coffee and to discuss the remainder of the day. It was my son's birthday, and I wanted to ensure any plans of his for the rest of the day were not spoiled by my staying at Kalkriese. However, their enthusiasm was as great as mine, and they both decided to remain with me as long as was necessary.
I looked over my log and the map, trying to work out any obvious pattern in the scattered coin finds. I spent some five minutes attempting to orientate the location. First, I took the line of the old track and then other obvious lines of activity across the field. Having now completed my first good sweep of that area, I decided to move outside the inner marked rectangle and search down the side of the path where I imagined it ran through the field. This was now a good twenty yards from the other find sites, and I had little hope that I would be as successful as before. I could not have been more wrong
I had only moved some five yards in this new sweep area when I heard the familiar Fisher double tone. I cut the turf away and laid it to one side, then swept the detector over the exposed area. Again the double tone, not once, but now three distinct separate "marks." I nearly forgot the golden rule, but swept over the cut-away turf as well. Another double tone! I gently pulled at the black earth on the underside and a small black coin dropped out. Only then did I start to imagine that perhaps I had found the center point of the scattered coin finds. I rechecked the turf again, both sides, and with a slight quickening of pulse moved the Fisher over the hole. The first coin I recovered was only some four or five centimeters down, but again the black soil was making recovery slow. I called my children over, gave them a quick explanation of what was happening and suggested we work as a small team. It was necessary to ensure each coin was logged as we went deeper into the hole, and I also wanted to avoid intrusive shovel work to ensure no damage was caused to the precious coins.
A large piece of black plastic sheeting was unfolded and placed over the complete work area. I had used it before for similar recoveries. I cut a large hole out of the middle to fit around the excavation area, leaving a large area of plastic around the sides to lay the soil on. In this way, when it was time to fill in the hole at the end of the hoard recovery there would be no trace of where we had been working: no tell-tale marks to reveal the site to inquisitive eyes.
I opened up a box of small freezer plastic bags I carried with me and placed inside the extra-special finds. With my son wielding the Fisher and my daughter holding the garden sieve on the other side of the hole, I began to pull out handfuls of the loose soil, placing each, one by one, into the garden sieve. My son swept the detector over the sieve after each handful, and after two or three handfuls came the first clear double tone. We could not see any coin, and my daughter carefully shook the sieve to remove as much surplus earth as possible. We got down to the bare minimum of small clods of peat but there was no obvious "find" to be seen. I carefully squeezed each clod and we were delighted finally to see yet another blackened denarius.
"That's the first of three," I said, and proceeded to repeat the exercise over again. Once we had recovered the three "signals" and logged the three coins, I indicated that my son should sweep the hole again. We had disconnected the headphones so all three of us heard the distinct but puzzling sound of a good metal tone, but no clear double tone indicating a coin. I eased a small trowel into the sides of the hole to loosen the earth some 10 centimeters from the epicenter of the signal, and proceeded to pull out more soil, depositing each handful into the sieve. Only two or three handfuls had gone in when a detector sweep again gave a clear double tone: not once, but twice! From that small accumulation of earth emerged two more denarii, one looking a little worn, but the other in very good condition. Another sweep, and again we heard that solid but non-specific tone. By now it was evident that there was more to this find than we originally thought.
I decided to widen the extremities of the hole to allow the detector room to sweep the bottom fully, now some 30 centimeters below. I cut away more of the center of the plastic sheet, then we cut more turf away from the circumference of the hole, and each time checked the grass clods. The detector was swept over the new exposed area. Two more specific double-tone signals! The same procedure was repeated; each handful of earth went into the sieve, and we recovered two more beautiful denarii. The hole was now some 50 centimeters in diameter. I placed the detector carefully into the bottom, making two short sweeps from one angle, and repeated at right angles. The central core signal was still there, as strong as ever, but was now surrounded by many other strong double-tone signals. I looked up and said, "I think we're going to need a lot of find bags for this. Before we go down into the center point, let's recover the outer signals, and get them out of the way."
Just as we were about to start, I realized that with all the excitement of the finds, I had not been aware how quickly the morning had passed. I took a cursory look over to the crossroads area 100 yards away, out of no more than idle curiosity, to see if there were any country walkers in the vicinity who might be taking more than an a passing interest in a man and two youngsters digging a hole in the middle of a grassy field.
I could not believe my eyes! A complete coach load of pensioner day trippers was slowly getting out of their coach. Four or five walkers were moving up the road toward the gate leading into the field and, on top of that, the farmer who had shown us the site in the first place was making his way toward us across the field from the other direction! What had been a quiet peaceful crossroads in the country now had all the makings of a city pedestrian throughway.
The approaching farmer was neither the owner nor the tenant of the field we were in (I had obtained permission from the primary landowner in the area to prospect and detect on the fields), and I felt a great need to preserve the secrecy of my finds. This was particularly important as neither Dr Schlüter nor the owner were yet aware of the treasure site. I carefully covered the find bags and the main hole with my large waterproof "poncho" groundsheet before standing up and telling my children to go to the car and get out the coffee and sandwiches we had brought for lunch. As they moved away, I walked slowly to meet the farmer. We exchanged a few pleasantries about the layout of my search pattern and the general methods involved, and I explained we were looking at one or two more interesting signals by sieving through the loose earth. Although this gentleman was later made aware of what had been recovered in those early days in the summer of 1987, I believed that at that time, I could not trust any person with the details of what we had found save Dr Schlüter, who was still away on holiday.
It was a long frustrating hour of waiting until all the trippers had faded away, by which time the day had slipped into one of those heady, tranquil summer afternoons. Thankfully, the farmer had left to take up his afternoon siesta. Once again alone with our work, I removed the waterproof sheet and began the recovery of the other singular signals lying around the central core. More denarii followed until finally, all that remained was the primary hard signal. By then, about twenty denarii had been found, logged, and bagged. In case of further interruptions, I took another short break to log the exact location of the hole, pacing out the distances from three distinctive markers around the sides of the field: a gatepost, a fence post and a lone tree.
Once completed, the hole beckoned me like a magnet. I returned to pulling away further handfuls of soil from the center of the large signal. For the first time I actually saw a single coin lying in the bottom of the hole, and as I went to recover it, the next sweep of the detector by my son produced a cacophony of double and half-toned signals. As my daughter gently shook the sieve, three or four denarii were revealed.
From a small amount of soil, seven denarii were eventually put to one side and bagged. Another handful yielded another quantity of small blackened silver Roman coins: more logging and bagging. The coins recovered from the sand table, which lay at a depth of about 40 centimeters under the top bed of black peaty soil, were not in good condition. Three small pearl-colored stones were also recovered from the center of the mass, but at no time did I see any form of purse or container for the coins, which at the time I found a little surprising. As the afternoon began to draw on, we finally reached the point where no more signals could be found in the bed of the hole.
It had been a most remarkable day. Within a few hours I had recovered 89 coins, six from the main rectangle, and the others from the hole itself, plus the three pearl-colored stones. Counting the three denarii from the previous weekend, there was now a total of 92 coins bagged, ready for Dr Schlüter's return the following Monday. It had been a long day and I decided that we should refill the hole and conceal all traces of our work. Before we commenced refilling, I laid two black dustbin liners in and around the sides of the excavation to ensure I could ascertain exactly the outer edges of the hole when I returned.
We refilled with the soil straight off the plastic sheeting, and then just before we replaced the grass clumps, I staked four metal tent pegs into the ground. Once the turfs had been carefully replaced and the area generally tidied, with the exception of the flattened grass there was no sign of our earlier excavations. Satisfied, and with the exciting prospect of browsing through Seaby's books on Roman coins that evening, I called it a day. We made our way back to the car, and home.
The following week I spent my evenings carefully washing the coins to free them of the black peat. I also began perusing the Seaby catalog in an effort to identify them. By week's end I was able to identify the great majority of the coins. Some 50 percent were pre-Republican, and the rest were Augustan, all in very good condition. One curious aspect of my initial dating of the coins was that none appeared to be minted later than Seaby 43, or Augustus 2 BC-AD 14, the coin that showed the head of Augustus Caesar on one side, and on the reverse his grandsons, Caius and Lucius Caesar, standing behind battle shields and crossed spears. Almost all of these were in pristine, newly minted condition. A spark in my mind began to turn into a glimmer of light. I was extremely impatient to get down to the museum and give Dr Schlüter a big surprise on his return from holiday!
That weekend, I returned to the field with a larger detector head on the Fisher. In the unswept rectangle lying on the other side of the central find site, I located a further seven denarii. Then, from a sweep of the complete site again I found a further six coins-all fairly deep in the peaty soil, and all in good condition. From a grand total of 105 coins recovered thus far, there were only three in an advanced state of deterioration. No more signals were found.
Monday finally arrived. I had already phoned Dr. Schlüter to say that I had a big surprise for him, whetting his appetite by saying I had found "one or two Roman coins." When I came into his office that memorable day, I carried a large see-through plastic bag with countless smaller plastic bags inside. I had segregated all the coins to protect them and to assist in the dating process for the photographic procedures to follow.
I placed the bag slowly on the table in front of him and stood back to await his reaction. I don't recall his exact words, but I do remember his incredulity and amazement, and my remark, "I think this is just the tip of the iceberg."
During those early days there was always a degree of formality between us; after all, he had no knowledge of my aspirations or intentions with regards to the recovery of archaeological finds. However, from that time forward, our relationship developed and became more friendly and easygoing. We both agreed that for the immediate future, the best course of action would be to keep the whole affair quiet for as long as possible to allow him to set up the correct line of registration operations. After all, such a major treasure trove had never been found in his area of responsibility during his thirteen-year tenure as Chief Archaeologist in Osnabrück.
As Dr. Schlüter removed each coin packet out of the larger bag, I took one particularly fine and attractive coin and looked at it closely. It was the coin we were to see so many more times in my future searches: the face of Augustus Caesar, looking to the right, and on the reverse, Caius and Lucius Caesar standing behind battle shields and crossed spears.
This is an unedited excerpt from the book The Quest for the Lost Roman Legions: Discovering the Varus Battlefield , by Tony Clunn (ISBN 1-932714-08-1). It is provided to you courtesy of the author and Savas Beatie LLC ( www.savasbeatie.com ). All copyright protections apply. If you wish to reproduce this material in its entirety as presented above, you may do so provided: (1) You email Savas Beatie and alert us as to where it will appear ( firstname.lastname@example.org ), and (2) This introductory paragraph (and the one that opens this excerpt) remain intact. Should you wish to reproduce only a portion of this excerpt, please contact us for permission ( email@example.com ). Thank you.