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Natural Sciences

Keyword »Interdisciplinary Research«

During excavations, archaeologists soon reach a point where they are confronted with issues that are the field of related disciplines. Particularly in Kalkriese, interdisciplinary collaboration with colleagues from various natural scientific disciplines is considered to be beneficial. Therefore it has been practiced right from the beginning of the excavations.

Soil Scientists

Due to several hundred years of Plaggen agriculture in the Oberesch area, archaeologists are facing special soil conditions here. Since the Middle Ages, local farmers have cut out pieces of sod to use them as bedding in their stables. Later on, these sod pieces called Plaggen, now saturated with manure, were put on fields as fertilizer. In this way, an up to one meter thick layer of Plaggen soil built up in Kalkriese over time. In various locations, the historical state of the surface has been preserved beneath this layer.

The 2,000-year-old soil conditions of the Kalkriese site were researched by soil scientists from the University of Oldenburg (Lower Saxony), who were able to partially reconstruct the state of the Oberesch’s relief in Augustean time based on soil surveys and core samples. The earth’s surface was much more diverse and irregularly shaped in that period. Currently, soil scientists from the University of Osnabrück and from Hochschule Osnabrück are investigating in which period soil erosion occurred on the Kalkriese Hill and how these layers can be distinguished from Plaggen soil.

In the past few years, soil scientists also tried to locate archaeological evidence underneath the Esch prior to excavations with the aid of magnetic prospection. For many years, this method has been applied very successfully in the search for archaeological sites in regions without Esch layers. Magnetic scans allow researchers to identify pits, ditches or wall fragments, so that settlement structures or burial sites can be found without excavations. However, in the Kalkriese region scientists soon learned that the Esch significantly impairs the use of this natural scientific method. Without excavations, substantial knowledge of archaeological findings can hardly be obtained here.


The examination of mule bone finds by archaeozoologists from the University of Tübingen yielded surprising results. Based on the state of the teeth and an analysis of the dental enamel it could be proven that one of the mules deceased in Kalkriese must have grazed in a Mediterrean country the summer before its death. This means that the provision of supplies for the Romans stationed in the North worked much better and faster than formerly assumed. The human bones are examined by anthropologists of the University of Göttingen. The majority of these bones comes from well-nourished men between 20 and 40 years of age, probably Roman soldiers. Some bones hint at the presence of at least one woman, who may have belonged to the Roman legions’ large entourage. Some skull bones show injuries without signs of healing. These injuries were likely caused in battle, and some of them may have resulted in the immediate death of the afflicted individual.

Most of the bones were found in pits, the so-called bone pits. The state of these bones found in the pits indicates that they have lain on the earth’s surface for several years before they were deposited in the ground. This discovery corresponds with the military action in the year 9 AD and the later burial of the battle’s victims by Germanicus and his legions in 15 AD. In the course of this rushed burial campaign – another attack by Germanic tribes loomed – the Roman soldiers collected all bones that could still be identified as such and deposited them in pits. In many cases, it was probably undistinguishable whether the bones were of human or animal origin. Therefore, excavators always discovered a mixture of human and animal bones in the eight bone pits discovered so far (the animal bones almost entirely belong to mules, with the exception of some individual horse bones). The bone pits can be seen as mass graves for the fallen ones.

Botanical remains

Botanical remains are rare in Kalkriese, because organic materials deteriorate fast in sandy soil. Single charred grains from storage pits belonging to a pre-Roman Iron Age settlement were examined by botanists of the University of Hannover. They provide information about the varieties of grain that were cultivated in the vicinity (e.g. barley and einkorn wheat). Remains of pea and oat straw as well as straw of common lady fern and water-plantain were discovered in a bronze bell that presumably had been diverted from its intended use to serve as a drawbar cap that was found close to a killed mule on the Oberesch. They were preserved due to the influence of copper oxides and could be analyzed by specialists. They indicate that the drawbar was repaired on the troops’ march in summer or late summer.

The scope of additional natural scientific examinations always depends on the questions that need to be answered and the archaeological observations during an excavation, as well as on the results of their evaluation. It is possible that in the future scientists from other disciplines, such as archaeometry, will get involved, for example in analyses of metal compositions.