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Die Gräber von Diersheim (Kopie)

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Archeologists from the University of Freiburg are working on a dig near the French-German border. They are examining the graves of soldiers that date back to the first century A.D. The Romans brought the troops from the Baltic to what is today Baden. The auxiliary troops’ mission was to guard the Rhine, which was then the border of the Roman Empire.

What archeologists find in the graves could provide clues about how the region was settled, but burial rites are posing some puzzles for the researchers.

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It’s a mild autumn day in Diersheim, a place not far from the French-German border near Rheinau. Combine harvesters work noisily in the fields. The smell of freshly cut hay wafts through the village and a crowing rooster can be heard in the distance.

In the midst of the rural idyll stands Johann Schrempp. He’s in a large rectangular hole about five by ten meters in size. One of his team is showing him a fibula, a metal brooch he’s uncovered digging through this layer of soil.

Schrempp has been leading the dig in a field in Diersheim since 2015. Where farmers once grew wheat, the archeologist and his team of volunteers and students have been looking for the remains of first century A.D. graves.

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The finds could fill a gap in archeological research. “They come from a time for which there is no evidence of settlement in southwestern Germany. Many researchers have already tried to address this phenomenon,” explains Schrempp. “Our finds indicate that during this period, the Romans intentionally brought a group now known as the Germanic Peoples of the Upper Rhine from the Baltic to this region in order to secure the border at Strasbourg.”

A lucky find

Back in 2013, an historic preservation volunteer was out in a field with a metal detector. He was actually looking for remains from a Napoleonic battle – musket balls and uniform buttons. But when the detector’s alarm went off, what he found were bent pieces of steel between clumps of soil and blades of grass. Bronze shards were lying next to them. Diersheim was already a familiar site for archeologists. In the 1930s, sixty graves of Germanic Peoples of the Upper Rhine were discovered there.
 
A race with time

Historic preservation workers presented the discoveries to the experts in Stuttgart, who then decided to carry out an emergency excavation. They asked the University of Freiburg’s Department of Archeology of the Roman Provinces to do the work. Time was of the essence, because the farmer’s plow had already destroyed a great deal.





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Schrempp and his team began in 2015 to use training digs to examine the site bit by bit. In the autumn of 2018, they came back to investigate another section. “The 2015 dig was already right on target,” says Schrempp.

Back then, the archeologist excavated a small part of the field and discovered ten graves. But the euphoria didn’t last long. “Many of the artifacts had been destroyed. Sometimes we found ourselves sitting there with half an urn, or that funerary offerings had been torn out,” Schrempp explains.

The farmers and their plows had unknowingly been unearthing valuable objects for years and years. Wind and water erosion merely accelerated the process.

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Photo: Landesdenkmalpflege Baden-Württemberg
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Nevertheless, Schrempp and his team were surprised to find many swords, scissors, and knives. “We don’t exactly know what they mean, or if it indicates a certain type of vocational activity, for example. Yet with the scissors especially, we think they are symbolic funerary offerings. After all, everyone certainly wasn’t a tailor ,” explains Schrempp.

During the digs in the autumn of 2018, the group discovered more objects that belonged to the Germanic Peoples of the Upper Rhine.

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Photo: Landesdenkmalpflege Baden-Württemberg
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Something has baffled the archeologists up to now. It’s a drop of birch pitch placed on top of each cranial plate, which was then put over the cremated remains. The drops were small and easy to overlook, but Schrempp says their significance is undeniable. He says it is proof that the graves cannot be those of dead Romans. “We haven’t seen this rite in Roman graves at all. Unfortunately, myths or traditions of the Germanic Peoples of the Upper Rhine that could explain it haven’t been passed down either,” says Schrempp.

Armed to the teeth

The people who were buried in the field seem odd at first glance, Schrempp continues. But what the archeologist do know is that the Romans are the ones who described them as Germanic People – inscriptions from other regions indicate that they, however, called themselves “Sueben.”

Schrempp assumes that they came to Baden voluntarily to support the Romans as auxiliary troops. They were there to secure the frontier of the Roman Empire, which was already back then marked by the Rhine. “They must’ve been allied with Rome because the Romans wouldn’t have tolerated people who were armed to the teeth on their borders otherwise,” says Schrempp. 

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Gesamtplan diersheim
Abbildung: Johann Schrempp
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At the same time, Schrempp concludes that the area where they were buried is about two hundred meters long and that around two hundred to four hundred people had graves there.

Anyone who’s at the site will barely notice that the graves are located on a rise. “That was likely an island or peninsula,” Schrempp explains. Back in the days of the Germanic Peoples of the Upper Rhine, there was a body of water where drainage ditches follow the edges of the field today. Today we can no longer clearly determine whether it is a swamp or a marsh.


Gesamtplan diersheim
Abbildung: Johann Schrempp
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The graves discovered in the 1930s in Diersheim provide archeologists today with few clues about the people who lived there. “Back then, they emptied the urns. The remains are missing and anthropological research is no longer possible,” says Schrempp.

Archeology today offers more opportunities. These have enabled the team to use modern methods analyze similar graves for the first time. The University of Tübingen is cooperating with the team to carry out an anthropological examination of the bones. The researchers are able to determine the age and gender of the dead and whether they suffered from certain illnesses or nutritional deficiencies. In addition, the excavations will continue in 2019 in another area of the field. This time a doctoral candidate will lead the dig, rather than Schrempp.
  
Schrempp says one thing is particularly important, even in view of researchers’ interest in the dead. He says, “People should guarantee the graves are respected. After all, people lie there who felt just as people of today do, and they laid their dead to rest with dignity.”

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