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1987: The First Find
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...