Friday, 8 September 2017

Xanten, LVR Archaeological Park & Roman Museum (Part 1) - Holland 2017

One of the highlights of our holiday to Holland this year was taking the time to cross the border into Germany and head for Xanten, or more precisely the LVR Archaeological Park and Roman Museum built around and on the remains of the Roman town of Colonia Ulpia Traiana.

The Roman town of Colonia Ulpia Traiana in the second century AD - H Stelter, APX
Finds in the area of Xanten show that people were living in the area since the stone age, but it was the occupation of the Rhineland by Julius Caesar that began an era of intensive settlement and cultural change.

The first military fortress, Castra Vetera I, was established in 15 BC on the high ground known as the Furstenberg, above the River Rhine, and acted as a base for Roman conquest east of the river.

This first base was destroyed in 70 AD during the Batavian Revolt requiring a second base to be built following the putting down of the rebels; and this second fortress, Castra Vetera II, built close to the position of the first would be occupied continuously from 70 AD to at least 270 AD.

Alongside of the fortress, a settlement grew housing Romanised Gauls and Germans together with veterans which developed into the town raised later to the status of Colony around 110 AD under Trajan with a population numbering 10,000.

Being built close to the banks of the Rhine required the driving in of oak piles on the eastern wall to secure the stone foundations built on top.

This map illustrating the tribal alliances post Varus' defeat in 9AD in the Teutoburg Forest, shows the strategic importance of Vetera (Ulpia Traiana) on the Rhine Frontier
By Cristiano64 - Own work (Cassius Dio, Roman History book 56; Suetonius, Life of Tiberius), CC BY-SA 3.0,

The rise of the Franks ended the period of the town's prosperity in around 276 AD, with a fortified town rising at its centre taking materials from the disused buildings.

In time the whole of the Roman town became abandoned and disappeared, with its stone gradually taken away to build the nearby town of Xanten and its church.

The construction of the park has resurrected the old street pattern and outer wall with sections reconstructed based on the knowledge of ancient techniques and gives a vivid impression of the original town together with the finds that have been gathered in the museum.

Alongside this the park is an ongoing archaeological investigation together with other reconstruction work looking at the boats used by the Romans to navigate the coast and rivers of the region.

Needless to say there was going to be a lot of stuff to see and take in and as this was my birthday, I got to indulge myself in everything Roman and came away with around 650 photos of which I have shared a selection here on the blog.

However to do the subject justice I have split this post into two parts with part one focusing on the military items held in the Roman Museum and the second part looking at the park, its reconstructions and the finds that link it with key moments in Roman military history.

The view of the entrance to the park as we walked from the car park. As you can see the weather was perfect for our visit

We entered the park in the top left corner of the map seen below at point E, with the amphitheatre to our right and made our way to Point E centre right of the map at the building numbered 10 for reference, which houses the Roman Museum, right next door to the building covering the excavation of the bath house.

The layout of the park with the original street pattern now indicated by the paths lined with trees that criss-cross it and using beechwood hedges to fill in the gaps between the sections of reconstructed walls and various gated towers, really give you an impression of the town's size as you make your way to the museum.

The Roman Museum building
Before the arrival of the Romans, the area was populated by the local Germans, some of whom may have looked a bit like the chap below alongside some of the items that he might have carried.

The coins and jewellery discovered reveal a distinct Celtic influence.

As mentioned, the first Roman incursion was military under Julius Caesar, and with the establishment of a major forward operating base that in time developed into a major fortress it is therefore not surprising to see an impressive collection of military exhibits; including an impressive collection of Roman coolus type helmets showing that transition to the Imperial Gallic style as shown in the similar collection held at Nijmegan with the additions of wider cheek, neck and ear guards together with the reinforcing peak with the last example showing the improved slope added to the large neck guard.

With the attention given to the legions military capability, it is easy to forget the other key role they performed with regard to Romanising the conquered territory; which as well as spending soldiers pay to buy local stuff also included bringing their building skills to create the towns and roads that brought the territory firmly into the empire

As well as tools to build, the Romans brought fine living with items needed to complete a comfortable home particularly for Romans at the higher end of the social strata; something for the higher social elites of the conquered peoples to aspire to and enjoy.

As the local people accepted Roman influence you see finds illustrated below, described as a local scout or perhaps an auxiliary for the Roman army, with grave goods showing a mixture of German and Roman military kit.

Could that be the remains of an undyed Roman style tunic?

As has been revealed in Vindolanda and the many writing tablets discovered there, the Roman military was a very bureaucratic organisation that needed to communicate and record, and the bigger the base the more that bureaucracy increased with the need for stylus and tablet.

As mentioned, the first Roman base, Castra Vetera I, was destroyed in the Batavian Revolt in 70 AD and evidenced below with this smashed alter from that period.

Revolt of the Batavi

Castra Vetera II became the base for VI Victrix Legion, until they were moved to Eboracum (York) in 119 AD by Emperor Hadrian, to be replaced by XXX Ulpia Victrix; and both legions feature in the many monuments, graves and alters uncovered in the town.

Being one of the principle Roman bases on the Germania front I was keen to see the military finds from the area.

Ring linked mail, together with other key items of legionary kit

How about that for an example of an almost perfectly preserved caliga
After seeing so many examples of Roman military kit here and at Nijmegan I have been struck by the variety, all be it on a common theme, and impressed by the uniformity in a pre-mass production age.

The next development in the Imperial helmet design, seen here with a much wider flare to the neck guard together with an angled design to deflect as well as protect the neck and shoulder from a heavy cut. Interesting this example lacks any evidence of the ear guards or reinforced peak often seen as well, as seen in the illustration above.

The addition of larger more robust cheek guards also added to the improvement in helmet design

A gloriously preserved pugio (dagger) and scabbard

Corbridge style, named after the first find site for this type, armour plates, that pre-dates the Batavian Revolt in 69 AD.
This is one half of the shoulder chest/back plate, as seen in the illustration above, and you can clearly see the upturned edge designed to catch a sliding blade aimed across the shoulder at the neck.

Remains of the Iron binding designed to prevent the scutum (shield) from being split by a heavy blow 

I am always amazed that these thin shank pila survive as well as they do over the centuries spent in the ground, and the one with that quite distinctive bend, makes you wonder if that one was thrown in anger.

Just in case you can't remember what these pila would have looked like

The Centuriate were a very select elite group of soldiers within the Roman army, appointed to lead from the front and command respect as well as being formidable warriors in their own right.

The phalera worn by centurions, it is thought, were very much like modern day medals and as emblems of their prowess, are always of interest for me and you cant help wonder how these prized possessions would have become lost to posterity, but I'm glad they have.

Alongside the legions one would have commonly found units of auxiliaries, infantry and cavalry as seen below.

Perhaps the variety in auxiliary kit is a little less surprising but nevertheless interesting in the displays of shield boss and spear heads.

Again the modern replica gives a good idea of how formidable these
weapons would have looked in their day

Interesting to see the smaller heads probably from throwing javelins and quite distinctive from the larger variety obviously designed to deliver a deadly thrust.

For an army that had such a small proportion of its force trained as archers it was interesting to see the array and number of arrow heads on display with two and three tang heads.

One thing that seems common to all Roman sites are sling shot in lead and stone, some with cute messages or unit identities stencilled on them. It really does make you consider that perhaps the cohorts themselves may well have had contingents trained in the use of the sling as well as the specific units that used the weapon exclusively.

As at Nijmegan the cavalry finds here at Xanten are also very impressive and reassuring to see for those of us embarking on painting up miniatures of these chaps, in that much of the detail on the figures in confirmed with the finds.

The cavalry helmet seen in the illustration above reflects the theme in cavalry helmets to design the bowl to resemble human hair styling combined with a much shallower neck guard than in the infantry model, principally to prevent the trooper from serious injury falling backwards from his mount with that neck guard striking the ground first.

That said the illustration does not do justice to this splendid example which you think must have been in the possession of an officer and perhaps a senior one at that.

I wanted to get these close ups to illustrate the amount of detail and craftsmanship applied to this amazing helmet.

The helmet seen below looks much more likely to have been worn by the more common trooper, but again showing the design common in cavalry helmets.

Xanten can't boast the collection of masked cavalry helmets seen at Nijmegan but has a similar example with the remains of the horse hair platting seen in the replica alongside it.

Spear, rounded shield and spatha (long cavalry sword) designed to get a swipe in at those pesky barbarians who will try to hide under your war pony, complete the outfit of your fashion conscious Roman cavalryman.

And if appearing on horse with all those flashy helmets and fancy long swords wasn't enough to impress the long suffering infantry, then all the bling carried by your war pony certainly would, with more phallus' on show that you could take a stick to!

See what I mean about this thing the Romans have about the male member!
And having covered the infantry and cavalry, it was really exciting to see the artillery represented, in as it turned out such a unique way.

I have become a little blaze at seeing this arm represented by the ballista bolts and round shot often discovered at major Roman sites, but I was blown away to see the next exhibit, almost looking as if it was being used a few years ago.

How about that then, worth all the entrance fee just to see this amazing exhibit - the best preserved example of its kind found in the whole Roman empire!
Oh and the collection of bolt heads that came with it were equally impressive.

One thing that struck the enemies of Rome, apart from the odd pilum or two, was the discipline attached to their daily routines and the provisions made for their, what would become, full time professional army, which often makes it hard for modern day observers not to see them through the lens of a modern day army.

That said, the examples of field kit designed to allow the eight man section or contubernium to encamp and prepare a meal after a sixteen mile march and preparation of a fortified camp are very contemporary to the modern eye.

Each contubernium was issued a mule to carry their goatskin tent together with other heavy items of field kit such as cooking cauldrons and mill stones to grind their wheat ration for flour and bread, examples of which can be seen below, including the all to necessary tent pegs.

A Roman marching camp illustrated by Angus McBride

You have to feel for that poor mule carrying this lot. Even the grind stone gets named

The Roman army recognised three types of discharge:
Missio causaria, or released from service through sickness or injury.
Missio ignominiosa, or dishonourably discharged, and
Honesta missio or honourable discharge at the end of their service.

All through a soldiers time in the army he was accompanied with the appropriate documentation and being discharged at the end of service was no different as he transitioned back into civilian life.

Praetorian Guardsmen and auxiliary soldiers on completion of their term and discharge received a copy of a bronze diploma, which listed in detail their new legal status as veterans.

The particular example of a section of one of these diplomas seen above reads:
"( .... taken from the Civil law) in the consulate year of Servillius Fabianus and lallius Bassus. (The document has been drawn up) from the mounted cohorts of Pannons and Dalmatians, commanded by Numisius, from the infantry troops from Aiiucco, the son of Leubasnus (?) copied and authenticated by the bronze plaque mounted in Rome on the wall behind the Temple of the venerated Augustus by the (stutue of ) Minerva.

The third century Roman army is not really my period of interest, but I am sure it will be to many.

This period was one of great tumult to the empire and to Ulpia Traiana and the enemies of Rome were quite different from earlier periods with the need for the army to be able to deal with more cavalry type enemies and with better armed and amoured infantry foes.

I was struck though how the heavily constructed helmet and belt accoutrements still appear typically Roman.

The helmet of a 3rd Century Roman soldier, reflecting centuries of experience in its design

The gladius is gone, replaced by the spartha

The long spear is now the preferred weapon of close combat

The items seen displayed below are dated to the 7th century and are depicted on a typical Frankish warrior of the period.

There are distinct similarities in the design and look of this equipment to that seen in my recent trip to York with the displays of Saxon and Viking finds.

So there we are, my highlights of the military collection held in the Roman Museum in Xanten.

In the next part of this post I will go through the displays in the archaeological park, the Roman boat yard and the other interesting finds associated with the history of  Colonia Ulpia Traiana and its Roman past.


  1. Excellent tour of a place unbeknownst to me until now!

  2. A very nice exhibition, and a very nice place. Haven't been there for more than a decade, but I'm still very fond of Xanten!

  3. This place is a new one on me but WOWS what an information source

  4. I didn't know this Dutch Museum. Thanks to share with us. ciao