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Last week a rare Roman bronze horse’s head made international headlines because it gained a German farmer a pretty penny. Now the sculpture fragment is back in the limelight because archaeologists say it provides evidence that relations between Germanic tribes and Romans were not always as tense as some historians suggest. Actually, it seems life was mostly comfortable almost 2,000 years ago when the two cultures lived alongside one another at Waldgirmes.
The horse’s head was found amongst other artifacts and ruins at Waldgirmes, the site of a Roman settlement covering nearly 20 acres in Hesse, Germany. To date, the site has the oldest known stone buildings in what used to be Magna Germania. Between 1994-2009, archaeologists with the German Archaeological Institute’s Roman-Germanic Commission excavated the land and National Geographic reports that the findings suggest Romans did not only try to obtain control over Germanic tribes by fighting. In fact, it seems the so-called German “barbarians” peacefully lived beside and traded with their Roman neighbors for years.
Roman Forum of Waldgirmes in Hesse, Germany. ( Public Domain )
Livius explains that “Hardly any military objects have been excavated, and barracks have not been identified” at Waldgirmes. The website suggests that “Perhaps it was a town for veterans ( colonia).” As National Geographic points out, there are signs of the Romans having built a large timber defensive wall, but no military buildings at the site. Instead, the ruins show evidence of the Romans having constructed pottery and woodworking workshops, residences, and lead plumbing around 4 BC.
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Sebastian Sommer, an archaeologist at the Bavarian State Office for Monument Protection in Munich, who was not involved in the excavations at Waldgirmes, expressed the general sense of shock over the discoveries, “Realizing there were civilian buildings in there was really a surprise. Waldgirmes shows an exclusively civilian approach—and maybe a misconception by the Romans about how easy it would be to settle these people.”
Waldgirmes also had an administrative building and a forum. It seems the bronze horse’s head came from a statue that was probably placed on one of the four pedestals built around the marketplace. It is an important discovery. Experts believe the gold-leaf adorned horse head comes from 9 AD and was once part of a large statue depicting Augustus on horseback. Even today, Augustus is considered one of the most efficient, yet controversial, of all Roman leaders. There are many statues and busts of this Roman emperor.
Replica statue of Statue of the Roman Emperor Augustus in the forum of Waldgirmes in Hesse, Germany. (Cherubino/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
It is estimated the statue of Augustus on his steed in the forum would have weighed approximately 900 lbs. (408.23 kg) and it would have been an impressive sight to viewers when the gold-leaf covering the bronze shone in the sun. The Roman bronze horse head alone weighs about 55 pounds (24.95 kg) and is almost 20 inches (50.8 cm) long. It was found underwater in a 36-foot (10.97 meter) well.
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The bronze horse head was discovered at the bottom of a 36-foot (10.97 meter) well. (DAI RGK/ CC BY NC ND )
At first, Experts believed the artifact was probably abandoned when the town’s inhabitants had to flee a surprise attack. However, lead researcher Gabriele Rasbach of the German Archaeological Institute said it may have been deliberately thrown in the well as part of a ritual. He explained that “Tribes in northern Europe often sacrificed horses, depositing their bodies in bogs or rivers. Perhaps the bronze head was part of a similar ceremony, with millstones and other junk thrown in on top of it to seal the sacrifice.”
The Roman bronze horse head before restoration. ( Jurgen Bahlo )
Waldgirmes was abandoned in 16 AD. For many years, it was believed that the town was hastily evacuated following difficulties between the Germanic tribes and the Romans surrounding the Teutoburg Forest battle of 9 AD , in which a Germanic force under Arminius attacked and slaughtered the Romans.
Recent discoveries go against this belief. In fact, Rasbach says there are no signs of the people of Waldgirmes having suffered a battle at their settlement. It was only left behind when Roman forces were ordered to leave the territory they had once controlled to the north and east of the Rhine.