A team of archaeologists, including students and professionals, has uncovered a burial ground near Nauheim, a town southwest of Frankfurt in the central-western German state of Hessen.
The excavation was conducted over six weeks as part of a rescue operation to recover valuable archaeological materials before intensive agricultural work and soil deterioration could destroy the site. The region had a known history of a Roman military camp, leading the team to expect Roman remains. However, they were surprised to discover the graves of early settlers who had arrived in the middle of the 1st century CE.
The Hessian Ried region, situated in the Upper Rhine Plain, was characterized by swampy terrain and sparse population during the 1st century. While the area was initially settled by the Germanic Chatti tribe in the 1st century BCE, any indigenous Celtic population left no archaeological evidence. It was in the 1st century CE that the Roman army expanded from the Mainz fort to secure the Rhineland, constructing roads and waterways for transportation. This infrastructure attracted tribes from northern Germany, seeking better opportunities, leading to the development of rural settlements along these routes.
In total, the archaeologists unearthed 46 graves at the site, predominantly consisting of 44 cremation burials, with only two inhumations. Additionally, six rectangular ditch systems were discovered, which were likely used to enclose special burials and are believed to date back to the founding phase of the burial ground. Notably, the foundation of a tomb, once several meters high, was also found, although it had been dismantled in the Middle Ages, likely for its stone.
The origins of the burial ground trace back to the early 3rd century, and it had been used for over 150 years by residents of a neighboring estate as a burial place. The presence of certain items, such as complete glass urns, suggests a degree of prosperity among those interred.
One remarkable form of burial that stood out was the “early Nauheimer in the bucket.” This unconventional burial practice involved placing a person in a bronze bucket and providing tools like scissors or knives, a departure from typical Roman burial customs. Importantly, this discovery marked the first evidence of such grave enclosures in southern Hesse, even though this custom was widespread in eastern Gaul during the late Iron Age (1st century BCE) and the 1st century CE. This unconventional burial practice provides clear evidence that immigrants brought not only their culture but also their burial traditions with them.
Professor Markus Scholz, the head of the Archeology and History of the Roman Provinces course at Goethe University, commented on the uniqueness of this burial practice. He noted that the bucket must have been imported and likely cost one or two dinars. The high-quality grave goods, including a complete urn made of green glass, suggest a certain level of affluence among those interred.
These findings help paint a vivid picture of life in the Nauheim region nearly 2,000 years ago, showcasing the cultural diversity brought by immigrant settlers and their adoption of Gallic funerary customs. The presence of immigrant ethnic groups, such as Germanic military farmers, drawn by the Romans from the north, who took over security responsibilities in the province on the Roman Empire’s border, offers insights into the dynamics of the time.
The burial ground’s location near a Roman military camp aligns with the historical context of the mid-1st century when a growing rural settlement emerged in the region. Prior to the arrival of Roman legions, the area had been sparsely populated. This suggests that settlers were intentionally brought to this location to foster settlement and development.
The diversity in grave equipment further underscores the unique nature of these burials, with the bronze vessel burial, accompanied by metal items like scissors and small knives, deviating from typical Roman burial practices.
Additionally, six rectangular ditch systems were uncovered, all associated with the founding phase of the burial ground, suggesting the enclosure of special burials. Some wealthier individuals were buried separately, potentially reflecting social stratification.