Follow the archaeological rabbit hole

I love archaeology and history, it has been a lifelong passion of mine. It all started with a teacher, back in year 5 when we first started to have history lessons. His name was Oberlehrer Dölitzsch (to this day I do not know his first name). He was already in his late 50’s or even 60’s when I went to school. He also taught Geography and German (Literature, Spelling, Grammar and Writing). He had such a passion for the subjects he taught that I loved all his classes. He spoke so eloquently about certain times in Earths History that it installed this drive in me to want to know more. I sometimes wish I could tell him how grateful I am, alas he has long since passed away.

However, it is not just to him I owe this passion, my father and grandfather also loved history, we went to many castles and historic sites in my youth and even now my dad and I love a good day out that involves some kind of historical building or site.

So all things considered, I should have followed my dream and interests and become an archaeologist or historian but the powers at large back in the days when I went to school did not permit me to sit my A-Levels due to political reasons (namely I was a Christian and did not follow the trend of Communist Germany and go through the “Jugendweihe” – a Socialist swearing in to the state). In larger cities, they only had a certain amount of places on the Higher Education Schools that would have lead to the Abitur (or A-Level) and in mine, they preferred students that had done the “Jugendweihe”. Without that no University…

But who knows where that would have lead me – certainly I would have not changed jobs and professions as much and I would most likely not have traveled as widely as I have now so I do not hold a grudge but the opposite is true – I have seen more historical sites than most and thanks to some lovely people in the UK have helped at real archaeological excavations without the pressure of having to write the site up:-) Winning!

You may ask, why am I telling you all this? Well, I visit a lot of sites that have either a historical background or are an active archaeological site or both. Today I am going to tell you about one of those moments in German History that my teacher back in school spoke so passionately about and I have been meaning to visit ever since, but it has taken me over 35 years to do so. And yesterday’s visit was literally just by chance…

I am talking about the “Varusschlacht” or the “Battle in the Teutoburger Forrest”  or better known in English speaking areas the “Varian Disaster” were the Roman’s lost the 3 Legions and Auxiliaries in a battle with the German tribes under Arminius.

More detail about this battle can be found in a lovely Wikipedia article here.

As luck would have it, I was driving along the German Autobahn #1 when I spotted a brown sign saying “Varusschlacht”, on came the brakes and the indicator at the next exit and I followed the brown signs like Alice into the Rabbit hole…

Just 8minutes from the Autobahn lies the small village of Kalkries, near Osnabrück. It was here that extensive and ongoing archaeological excavations have found the most compelling evidence yet for this famous battle. One has to bear in mind that for the most part of over 1500 years the battle and its site were forgotten. It was only in the 16th century that anybody even heard of it and many theories have been flung about as to were it may have taken place.

Kalkriese has now been excavated more or less continuously since the late 1980’s – drawing some parallels to another famous Roman site I love to visit: “Vindolanda” – simply as its an ongoing excavation.

At Kalkriese the Museum and Open Air Archaeological walk are made up of 4 areas. The first is the main building that houses the ticket office and an upstairs gallery that at the moment has a temporary exhibition about the Roman Legions. The main or continuous exhibition is at the steel tower building – a rather foreboding structure but it follows the same design ideas as the walk through the landscape and various smaller huts also made of steel.

The permanent exhibition there has some of the finds on display, the most famous of these being the Kalkriese Mask, a metal mask that was worn by a Roman Soldier to protect his face. Also on display are many, coins that have been found here and various objects of military and also civilian background. All these finds combined with the results of the excavations of a defensive wall and drainage ditch points towards the site of at least some of that famous battle having taken place here.

The walk-on steel plates through the current landscape and excavations are informative and eye-opening at the same time. The Section drawing on a steel retaining wall explains in great detail (albeit only in German) what they mean (e.g. what a post hole looks like in section). For the non-archaeological visitors this is important to visualize this important part of what archaeology is all about (the best I have seen so far).

The 4th part of this park is a walk all around it with information panels on the geology and plants and soils in the area.

There are steel plates with German inscriptions, describing not only how and when the site was found but also raising questions about current world politics and so encouraging the visitor to use the past to think about the future and to reflect.

Currently (summer 19), visitors can also experience a temporary exhibition about the Roman Legions in the Entrance building. It is very informative and hands-on (good for kids). It explains in simple terms and not overly much detail what a Legion is and how they moved about the landscape and what they carried with them etc. People can touch and lift certain items and it also explains to some degree why the battle went as it did.

Basically, the Roman Legions did not just fight the Germans and a Roman trained Leader at that but they also fought the weather and mostly the Terrain of the location. The sheer size of their train meant the beginning of their Legion might be as much ahead from the end as 20km’s – so it could take hours before the back knew what happened at the front.

All in all, a childhood dream of visiting this particular site has come true and whilst I added many places to visit onto my list over the years and many more probably still to come, this was the one I had my earliest historical memory about and I am glad I followed that rabbit hole of a brown sign from the Autobahn!

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