Sunday, 1 October 2017

Xanten, LVR Archaeological Park & Roman Museum (Part 2) - Holland 2017

The "Minerva Tritonia" transported people and freight and was deployed to protect the Rhine border

The first part of my post covering our visit this summer to the Xanten LVR Archaeological Park, focused very much on the military artefacts held in the Roman museum and can be read on the link below.

Xanten LVR Archaeological Park Part One

In part two I have put together my highlights from our walk around the park that encompasses the Museum within the protected site of Colonia Ulpia Traiana.

The towns important location close to the banks of the River Rhine is well illustrated together with the layout and defensive wall. The two temples can be seen with the Harbour Temple close to the river on the left of picture and the Capitoline Temple centre-top of picture. The great Northern Gate is closest to camera.

As explained in the first post the town Colonia Ulpia Traiana was a settlement of some 10,000 people comprised in the main of veterans, their families, Romanised Gauls and Germans. The new town received an organised infrastructure with water conduit, sewers and a street grid, which encompassed temples, a forum, an amphitheatre and was surrounded by a city wall and gates.

The town was very much involved in supporting the army and its activities providing a point of embarkation for troops and vital supplies along the German river network.

Much of the remains of the Roman town still remain uncovered and awaiting scientific investigation, with the whole area now protected it's preserved for future generations and improved archaeological techniques.

The park however takes the archaeology further with the reconstruction of working replicas and copies of the finds to further research the techniques and usage of various pieces of equipment and discover what was actually possible.

So the reconstructions of the town-wall, amphitheatre, temple and guesthouse are reconstructions based on the original archaeological footprint of these buildings using the same materials and building techniques as in the originals and corresponding to the originals size and position.

Likewise the boat yard has been able to take the remains of Roman transports and warships used in the area to serve as blueprints for building full size replicas using the Roman construction techniques and then seeing what was possible with these boats when navigating the local waterways.

This is all great stuff for the academic historians but also serves as food for the mind for the historical wargamer interested in how the Romans, operating along the Limes lived, worked, soldiered and died and really helps to underpin a greater understanding and depth to our hobby.

The Town Park

On entering the park one immediately gets a perfect idea of the size of the town, with the network of paths lined with trees and the perimeter wall indicated with part reconstruction, part box hedge, giving a great perspective, with the areas of open ground indicting the various Insulas (housing and town buildings in an area encompassing twenty equally sized plots) that lie buried below.

Carolyn, Tom and Will on one of the paths laid out in the park to show the original road plan of Colonia Ulpia Traiana

The illustration taken from the guide book gives a really good idea of how these streets would have been arranged and any visit to somewhere like Herculanium or Pompeii helps the mind recreate the look of the buildings.

The streets were some 10-12 metres wide with 4 metre wide pavements on both sides, with the north-south road being wider still

The Roman Museum hosts a marvellous architectural model that gives a vivid impression of the town by the second century AD.

This excellent model gives a vivid impression of how the Roman town may have looked in the 2nd century AD

After the Capitol, the Harbour Temple was the second largest building in the town to which deity remains unknown 

We started our tour in the museum and by seeing the models of the layout it brought to life the few reconstructions that can be seen in the park, none more impressive that the Harbour Temple to a deity still to be revealed, but a building that has to be imagined in its entirety painted in the classic Roman style that seems so gaudy and inappropriate to twenty first century eyes.

The part reconstruction of the Harbour Temple really gives a vivid impression of the scale of this building

This painted cast in the Roman museum of the ornate columns seen on the Harbour Temple reconstruction gives a good idea of Roman taste in colour coordinating their public buildings

The park is a living archaeological research centre with areas under excavation and observable by the interested visitor.

The area of the town and its immediate surroundings are a protected ancient monument with most of the Insulas (partitioned sectors of twenty building plots of equal size between the various streets) awaiting archaeological investigation, as seen here

The Harbour Gate through which the trade of the town via the river relied
Again an early visit to the museum before touring the park informs the casual viewer of the techniques used in underpinning the foundations of the mighty town wall that had to rest all that weight through its foundations upon wet river deposits close to the bank that served as a harbour to the town.

Examples of the large wooden piles driven into the ground to underpin the town walls

The multiple array of wooden stakes were discovered when an analysis of the wall preceded the reconstruction and the dating of the timbers enabled the calculation of when the Colony was granted the permission for its construction which was revealed to have been in the years 105/106 AD when the timbers were felled.

Drawing of the construction of the town walls built over the wooden piles

The wooden piles were sheathed in iron at their tips and the timber dated to 105/6 AD when it was felled following Emperor Trajan's granting the civil rights of a colony and the privilege to construct a town wall.

The North Gate or as it should be called the Burginatium Gate is based on comparable gates found around the Empire that generally correspond to the design as laid out in the Xanten reconstruction.

The interior view of the great Northern Gate with its twin towers that project beyond the wall

The cast foundations of the original gate are preserved and serve as the footprint for the two reconstructed towers that straddle the original sewer and conduit into the town ditch.

The plan of the North Gate with the route of the drain leading out to the town ditch

For anyone thinking of modelling such a structure, you know who I am talking to, for those inevitable "barbarian attack on a Roman town" scenario, seeing a building like this, close up, is very informing.

Carolyn and Will lend scale to the amazing reconstruction of the Northern Gate

Beneath the gateway ran the drain which led off the waste water into the town ditch

The road leading north ran in the direction of the military fort of Burginatium (Altkalkar) and
was known as the Burginatium Gate

The gate is three stories high with the second level housing the portcullis mechanism

The reconstructed stairs which were surprisingly steep led up to the third story tower floor and gate platform

The attention to detail with those typically Roman style wooden stair and floor rails and not a fire extinguisher in site was great to see. All it needed was a few re-enactors in full panoply on guard at various points to complete the picture.

The ample space of the third story platform with plenty of room to set up artillery pieces

On the gate platform I found myself imaging a battery of Scorpio bolt throwers pointing out towards the open ground between the town wall and ditch and the German 'wald' beyond.

The view of the interior with the box hedge following the line of the along the river and harbour area

The view from the gate platform when looking out over the town area, again gave a very good idea of the scale of the place together with the water beyond suggesting the busy Roman harbour that would have been.

Further along can be seen the Harbour Gate and still further the temple

The view that would greet any potential aggressor from the north

"The dead should neither be buried nor cremated in the town" Cicero.

This rule was laid down in the Twelve Tables in Rome in the 5th century BC and Cicero's reference to it shows that it was still in force 400 years later.

Roman tombstones line the northern road, bottom-right of picture

In Roman times burial grounds were not demarcated and graves lay along main roads outside settlements and military camps, with anyone coming into the town able to see the monuments to the dead.

The pictures of these tombstones are a story in their own right so I have grouped them in the last section looking at the key memorials to be seen in the park.

Looking along the exterior of the north wall with the remains of the town ditch partly displayed

On re-entering the park through the north gate we followed the path along the harbour wall until we arrived at the reconstructed Guesthouse, the Roman equivalent to a Holiday Inn Express providing home away from home to the weary Roman merchant on a business visit in Ulpia from Britannia; and eager to grab a meal, visit the bath house and entertain associates and close on that deal to supply grain to the Roman army base at Vetera II,  just up the road, before getting the next ship back to Isca Dumnoniorum and taking home a few of those interesting German beers plus gifts for wife and kids.

The reconstructed Guesthouse lies close to the Harbour Gate and would have provided accommodation to visiting merchants 

The reconstruction of this Roman hotel follows the principals that guide the other reconstructions and is built on the footprint of the original.

The guest house is decorated in the classic Roman style
The interior decoration and furniture are based on examples from other areas of the northern empire and serve to bring the accommodation alive.

The Roman equivalent of the Hotel Suite for the visiting merchant to entertain business associates

The look of the living rooms takes its cue from the living rooms of Roman domestic houses and a kitchen discovered in the original building has been reconstructed that would have served the food in the attached restaurant, with its cellar and food storage amphorae studiously recreated.

In one corner of the complex could be found a bar and restaurant for the guests

In the basement floor leading out to the herb garden were found the storage jars
designed to keep foodstuffs cool and preserved

The rear of the guest house opens out to a sunny terrace alongside the garden 

All set for tonight's dinner party

One of the key reconstructions has been the private bath house for the guests to use which, following the design of this and other Roman baths, has enabled the park to run and see the effectiveness of Roman plumbing and heating needed for a building like this to operate.

Exact details of temperature and fuel consumption yield data about Roman techniques of energy use and have been assessed using this reconstruction

Visitors to the guest house could also relax in the private bath house, here is the changing room

All the 'mod-cons' of civilised living!

Picture from the guide-book illustrating the reconstructed boiler

The replica baths are fully functional and built on the Roman design

On leaving the guest house we headed back to the wall and the section of built parapets that lead round to the amphitheatre.

The reconstructed part of the town wall built corresponding to the techniques and materials used in the original

Carolyn and I have visited a few amphitheatres around the northern Empire and I have posted on several here from the mighty Colosseum in Rome, the amphitheatre in Carthago in Spain to the Roman army amphitheatre in Carleon, South Wales home to the II Augusta Legion.

The 10,000 seater amphitheatre with the crane in the foreground and its controlling windlass closest to camera

You could say that once you have seen one amphitheatre you pretty well have the idea of what these public buildings looked like.

Again, the Xanten park came up with added detail and information about the building and its history together with some amazing building statistics that the Roman engineers worked with.

A reconstructed Roman crane, essential for putting up all these imperial buildings

Reconstructed from technical descriptions and pictorial representation this Roman crane would have been used to hoist heavy loads into place.

The capacity of the crane was limited by the strength of its ropes with ropes 4cm in diameter able to lift up to 9 metric tons.

Apparently using the five pulley block and tackle transmission gear system reconstructed here, even children can move the one metric ton (1,000kg) stone block seen in the picture below.

The crane in operation

This particular crane is one of the babies with much larger models with thicker ropes able to deal with much heavier loads.

A really interesting reconstruction - great to see

The 10,000 seat amphitheatre with it 10 metre high exterior wall created a building weighing in at some 40,000 tons with that weight resting on a series of three foundation pillars supporting the upper tiers.

During excavation on the arena a gaming piece was found depicting scratched drawings of a gladiator. There are links with place to Colchester here in the UK where a clay beaker was discovered showing gladiators belonging the the 30th Legion, stationed in Xanten from 120 - 350 AD.

The sand in the arena really helped the imagination whilst looking down from the plebeian cheap seats

The Boat Yard

Colonia Ulpia Traiana and the nearby army base grew here because of its strategic position on the River Rhine and access to the River Lippe valley, one of the most used routes for Roman armies moving into Germania Magna.

The Rhine also provided access to the north sea and beyond to the German coast and Britannia, all of which required suitable riverine and marine craft able to provide transport for goods, animals and people.

Over time several examples of these craft have been discovered here in Germany and in the Netherlands that reveal the design and building techniques that allowed the Romans to support their military expeditions with appropriate craft as well as providing transport for commercial trade with the wider empire.

Discovered in 1991 during gravel works near the town, the remains of  an original Roman barge/ferry built in 100 AD in use on the River Rhine

The wide flat bottom design of the barge perfect for shallow river navigation with loads

The original construction methods in this boat provided the blueprint for the reconstructions

As you would expect the park have taken these archaeological finds and translated them into working replicas that have helped to shed light on their capacity and capability.

A marvellous reconstruction of the workhorse of the Roman military and trade economy along the river frontier, built in 2014

The wide flat deck gives plenty of space for goods or people to be transported along or over the river

There would likely have been a fleet of these and larger examples plying along the German waterways providing transport and military support to forces operating in the interior and help inform the wargamer when it comes to modelling similar craft on the tabletop.

As Xanten is a living museum you would expect them to have tried these replicas out to see what they could do

A fishing skiff with an interesting fish trap/box construction alongside

I loved seeing the craftsmanship put into building these glorious replicas

I wanted pictures of the rigging, just in case I needed to build a model of this going forward

The Roman method of caulking the seams of their boats -
 hemp chord soaked in wood tar and nailed into the gaps

The build method included recreating the Roman soft style iron nails with heads that flatten out

And the description of how they could be used

Several Roman boats were discovered at the old harbour of Mainz on the Rhine including this oak hulled ship dating to 300 AD providing yet another blueprint for the Xanten boat yard

And here is that reconstruction still being worked on the day we arrived 

These are very large and sturdy river and inshore boats able to allow the Romans to navigate deep into Germany along the Lippe and around the North Sea coat to enter along the other large German Rivers

Evidence of that wood tar in use running down from the caulking chord as described above

The Monuments

Finally I present some of the many monuments discovered in the park that I often find the most interesting items as they link our time to the people back then with names of individuals their roles and age and sometimes an insight into their deaths.

The military tombstones very often provide a tangible glimpse of the appearance of these warriors that informs our modern interpretations.

As mentioned in my look at the Northern Gate, the town burial plot lined the north road and the park has displayed some of the best examples of military tombstones.

Rebarrus, son of Friatto, cavalryman in the Ala Frontoniana

The head stone of Frimus, son of Eco has been reconstructed to illustrate the likely paintwork that would have been seen on Frimus, centre, his son on the right and his slave, Fuscus, to the left.

Frimus, son of Eco, soldier in the Raetian Cohort, of the Montani tribe
(from the Maratine Alps, Liguria, Italy), 36 years of age, .... years of service, is buried here.
His heir raised (this tombstone) as instructed in the will. Fuscus the slave (also lies here).

Marcinus, son of Surco, (of the) Breucian (tribe) soldier in the 8th Breucian Cohort,
35 years of age, 12 years of service, is buried here.

Pintaius, son of Pedilicus, (of the) Asturian (tribe) from beyond the mountains,
from the fort Intercatia, standard bearer of the 5th Asturian Cohort, 30 years of age,
7 years of service. His heir raised (this headstone) as instructed in his will.

Close up of the standard held by Pintaius 'The Standard Bearer'

Vellaunus, son of Nonnus, (of the) Biturigan (tribe) and cavalryman in the Ala Longiniana,
from the squadron of Lucius Julius Regulus, 38 years of age, 18 years of service, is buried here.
The Decurio (cavalry captain) Lucius Julius Regulus and Macer, son of Aspadius, from the same
squadron had (this tombstone) made as instructed in his will.

The Romans were a pious lot if their numerous altars and vows gladly given and dutifully kept are anything to go by.

As well as that the named individuals and their units and commanders often make fascinating reading for the period nerd who wants to immerse in the time and nomenclature.

(Dedicated to) Hercules Saxsanus. Caius Mettius Seneca, centurion of
the 15th Legion and the detailed soldiers of the same legion have taken
their vows gladly and kept them dutifully. 

Dedicated to Mars Camulus. For the benefit of Nero Claudius Augustus, victor of the Germans and Emperor, members of the Remer tribe, who had a temple district established (have consecrated this altar).
Gallic Remer from northern France dedicated an altar to their tribal god Camulus in Roman Xanten.

The legionary Crescens did not return to his sunny native Italy after his military service, but remained in Roman Xanten

To the protective god Jupiter, the greatest and most powerful, Tertinius Vitalis, soldier of the 30th
Legion and secretary of the Prefect, has (erected this altar and thereby) kept his vows gladly and
properly for himself and his own. Five days before the calends of May in the year that Lupus and
Maximus were consuls.

Here lies in peace Batimodus, who lived for 50 years and has died - The gravestone of Batimodus is among the earliest pieces of evidence of Christianity in the Lower Rhine.
Death in the Teutoburg Forest

Saving the best till last, this was for me, as someone interested in building a collection to do some Germania battles in the future the one exhibit I wanted to see close up.

I have seen this memorial to First Centurion Marcus Caelius in numerous books on the subject of Varus and his doomed campaign in 9 AD, and given its historical significance it is not surprising.

Each time I see it I picture the illustration by Peter Dennis capturing the desperate nature of the fighting and likely portraying the final moments of Marcus Caelius whose bones remain lost as one of the first 'unknown soldiers'.

And here it is pictured in the Roman Museum in Xanten Park in the town that would have been very familiar to this hard experienced soldier as he set out that spring in 9 AD possibly counting on this being his last expedition before settling down to a well earned retirement on the villa and farm purchased back in Spain on the proceeds of his military pension and retirement pot or some such.

Alas for Marcus it was not be and being only four years older than him at the time of his death I can only feel a great sympathy for him surviving his service for so long only to die because of the incompetence of his commander and the cunning skill of his leader's nemesis.

Death in the Teutoburg
The Commemorative stone for Marcus Caelius from Bologna is the only certain archaeological evidence of the Battle of the Teutoburg in 9 AD.
To Marcus Caelius, the son of Titus, from the constituency of Lemonia, from Bologna, first ranking centurion of the 18th Legion, 53 and a half years old. He fell in the Varian War. Permission has been granted to bury the mortal remains (of the freedman here). Publius Caelius, son of Titus, from the constituency of Lemonia, his brother, has erected (this commemorative stone). Marcus Caelius Privatus, the freedman of Marcus. Marcus Caelius Thiaminus, the freedman of Marcus.

Still lots to come from my trip to Holland this summer with a visit to the Roman museum and reconstructed fort at Haltern am See or better known to the Romans as Alisio their forward operating base in Germania Magna. Also a trip to see a Dutch replica Roman river boat and plenty for the WWI enthusiast with Market Garden and 1940 sites visited together with the great airborne museum, or Museumpark Bevrijdende Vleugels.


  1. What a marvelous site, and wonderful pictures!

    1. Thank you. Xanten is a great place to visit and we thoroughly enjoyed our afternoon there.

  2. Wonderfull trip and Report ! Thanks a lot. ciao, carlo

    1. Cheers Carlo, glad you enjoyed the read.

  3. Thanks for sharing, an interesting and wonderful place...and these gates must be difficult to open, very impressive!