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1. Imperial Baths of Trier
The Imperial Baths of Trier, known in German as Kaiserthermen, are the beautifully preserved ruins of a Roman public bath complex constructed in the fourth century AD. Not only are these ancient baths some of the best ancient Roman ruins in Germany, they are also some of best preserved and largest examples of Roman baths outside of Rome. With much of their walls and underground tunnels still intact, this is definitely a fascinating set of Romano-German ruins.
Considered to be the largest Roman baths outside of Rome, the remains of the Imperial Baths of Trier are centrally located within the city and are a fantastic site, with many of their walls standing and even the option to explore their underground tunnels.
Germany's 12 Oldest Cities That Belong in the Roman Times
Germany’s oldest cities date back to the Roman Empire, which was founded in 27 BC and encompassed vast territories in today’s western Germany. Troops set up military camps along the Rhine River, many of which developed into cities that still exist today. Here are the 12 oldest cities in Germany.
In ruins: The Roman empire in Germany
By today’s standards, the Romans were hedonistic, savage warriors – educated and cultured yet brutally barbaric. They are also considered one of the most powerful civilizations in history, dominating Europe for more than 1,200 years. Their mastery of architecture, engineering, government and law would become a foundation for modern civilization. Their military’s crushing power and enduring control – from monarch, to republic to empire – would influence further attempts to resurge imperialism, witnessed in both World Wars.
Today, 1,500 years after the fall of the Empire, we are still fascinated by the Romans, their legendary gladiators, lavish lifestyles and military genius. To gain insight into their lives, visit one of the many preserved Roman ruins and museums found across Europe. But before you head to Rome, consider that most of Germany was occupied by the Roman Empire at one point during its rule exceptional ruins, artifacts and architecture are discoverable right here in your host country.
Trier is Germany’s oldest city, founded by the Romans in 16 B.C. and named Augusta Treverorum after Emperor Augustus. In A.D. 306, Constantine the Great became emperor over the western region of the Roman Empire, and moved to Trier, the capital of the western front. A significant figure in world history, Constantine would soon control the entire Roman Empire, establish the Byzantine Empire and as the first Roman emperor to adopt Christianity, spread the religion among the Empire. Several Roman ruins in Trier, most of them attributed to Constantine, have been discovered and preserved Roman artifacts are also on display at local museums. Learn more about the following exhibitions and locations at the city’s official website.
Porta Nigra —This “Black Gate,” built around A.D. 180, is one of the most dramatic Roman remains in Germany, and one of the best preserved Roman gates in the world. Visitors may enter the interior, upper levels of the gate, and seasonal tours are provided.
St. Peter’s Cathedral – Although most of the cathedral is Medieval, the ”Dom” sits on the remains of Trier’s early Roman structures, including Constantine’s gigantic palace and basilica complex. Visitors may tour the excavated underground site to see columns, reliefs and tombs. Don’t miss the relic, Holy Tunic, supposedly worn by Jesus shortly before his crucifixion and later brought to Trier by Constantine’s mother, Helena.
The Basilica of Constantine — Constructed as Constantine’s audience hall, the Basilica is impressive its size and window optical illusion leading into the apse were designed to portray the emperor as larger than his audience. The building is now occupied as a church.
Imperial Baths of Trier — Constructed as part of Constantine’s renovation of Trier, the Imperial Baths are one of the most well-preserved and largest examples of Roman baths outside of Rome. Like the luxurious spas of today, Romans constructed bathhouses as both hygienic facilities and social gathering places. Superior engineering and plumbing systems allowed for heated water and flooring. Visit the labyrinth of rooms, tunnels and passageways below ground.
Trier Roman Amphitheatre — This well-preserved amphitheatre dates to at least to the second century and is one of the few Roman amphitheatres utilized for open air events. Originally it was capable of seating 20,000. Like other Roman amphitheatres, it was used for gladiator fights, executions and animal battles. The basement below the arena is still intact, with holding cells and hallways used to confine animals and prisoners during events.
Rheinisches Landesmuseum — The Rhineland Museum holds one of the best collections of Roman artifacts in Germany. Exhibits include architectural reliefs, columns, burial tombs, mosaics, jewelry, coins, sculptures and more.
St. Matthias Abbey — This Benedictine abbey is of the Medieval period, but within is an impressive Roman cemetery said to hold the remains of the last appointed apostle, Matthias. Matthias replaced Judas Iscariot as one of the twelve apostles after Iscariot’s betrayal of Jesus and subsequent suicide.
Although not the complete list of ruin sites, these will more than get you started on your discovery of the Romans among us. For more details about each of these ruins, or to learn about more locations with Roman ruins near Trier, visit www.trier-info.de/english.
Originally called Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium, Romans founded Cologne in A.D. 50 as an outpost, which later became the capital of the Empire’s colonies in Lower Germany. Colonia Claudia continued to thrive as a Roman capital until the Franks’ occupation of 462. Today, Cologne is the fourth largest city in Germany and a center for culture and art, with more than 30 museums and 100 galleries.
Roman-Germanic Museum in Cologne — As one of the most visited museums in Germany, it holds three million Roman artifacts. Included are the reconstructed tomb of Poblicius, an exceptional collection of Roman glass and jewelry, and a complete mosaic floor with depictions of the life of Dionysos. The museum was actually built around the floor.
Praetorium — Beneath the Alt Rathaus is the structural remains of the praetorium, or parliament building from the Empire’s military command center in Colonia Claudia. Request a dual ticket when visiting the Roman-Germanic Museum to see both. Plus, see the Roman sewer exhibit and earthquake stimulator.
Weiden Roman Burial Chamber — Just 10 kilometers west of Cologne is a second century Roman tomb. This lavish burial chamber impresses with its architectural arches, intricately carved stone casket and busts.
Want to see more? You’ll find remains of watch towers, fortification walls and more around the city, such as at Komödienstraße and the corner of Tunistraße, and at the intersection of Zeughausstraße and St.-Alpen-Straße. For more Roman ruin locations, information about these sites and exhibits, visit www.museenkoeln.de.
The Romans founded a military camp here in 12 B.C., and colonized a settlement in A.D. 98 called Colonia Ulpia Traiana with a population of 10,000. In 1975, the Xanten Archaeological Park was opened and is Germany’s largest open-air museum. The park contains the original Roman Colonia Ulpia Traiana settlement, with partial reconstructions and ruins including an amphitheatre, temples, a city hall, bath house and homes. Visit www.xanten.de/en for more information.
The German Limes
Using the Danube, Rhine and North Sea as natural boundaries, the Romans built connecting fortified walls, called Limes Germanicus, to create territories that would help control their settlements from invasion. A 700-kilometer tourist road, called the German Limes Road, was built to allow tourists to follow the path of the limes, now UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It runs from Bad Hönningen on the banks of the Rhine through Rhineland-Palatinate, Hesse, Baden-Wurttemberg and Bavaria to Regensburg on the Danube. Along the road are several points of interest about Roman culture and history in Germany, including an original Roman fort, in Saalburg near Bad Homburg. For more information, visit the sites www.limesstrasse.de and whc.unesco.org.
Once you’ve navigated these locations, you may want to start creating a new list of Roman sites to see, perhaps in neighboring France. A good place to start would be in Nîmes the city’s amphitheatre, La Maison Carrée, and Pont du Gard aqueduct rival exhibits in Rome … but we’ll save that for another story.
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TIPS FOR VISITING TRIER
- Trier is easily accessible by train (from Koblenz and Saarbrücken) but there’s also plenty of car parking. I can’t remember where exactly we ditched our campervan but I remember that parking fees weren’t prohibitive like they can be in so many German cities.
- Most monuments are withinwalking distance, except perhaps for the Igel Column and the Roman Villa Otrang. Both are best reached by car.
- Admission to the Roman monuments is relatively inexpensive (about 4€ each) and only charged for the Porta Nigra, Imperial Baths, Forum Baths and the Amphitheatre. If you want to visit them all, a good option is to buy the Antikencard(18€), which offers access to all four monuments, plus the archaeological museum. There’s also a basic version of the Antikencard that allows admission to two monuments and the museum (12€). You can buy the card directly at the sites (or at the tourist information).
- If you love guided tours, join one of the Toga Tours with a Roman legionnaire. They rather sound like fun but are definitely on the pricey side (120€ per person, 2 hours) and mostly only offered on weekends during summer. Tours take you into the Porta Nigra and Imperial Baths.
Badenweiler Roman Baths
The Badenweiler Roman bath ruins (Römische Badruine Badenweiler) are among the most significant Roman remains in Baden-Württemberg. To this day, the complex remains the best pre-served Roman spa north of the Alps.
When the Romans conquered this region in what is now southwestern Germany, they brought with them their established custom of bathing. Many of the thermal springs that had been used by the Celts became Roman spas. The bath in Badenweiler was constructed in several phases. In the second half of the first century AD, a small building housing two pools was erected. This was later followed by a reception area, changing facilities, the Roman equivalent of a sauna, with two cold pools, and stone terraces.
The Roman bath ruins have retained their symmetrical structure. The pools for warm and cold water still have their original surfaces. And large parts of the relaxation room and sauna area, which were lined with sandy limestone, also remain. The remains of the hypocaust heating system &ndash a forerunner of today&rsquos underfloor heating provide a further point of interest.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, the distinctive bathing tradition also began to wane. The Badenweiler complex had long been forgotten &ndash until it was rediscovered and excavated by Margrave Carl Friedrich von Baden in 1784. In the late 19 th century, the ancient spa received a more contemporary counterpart: marble Neoclassicalstyle baths that were extensively extended during the subsequent decades. The natural springs, with temperatures up to 26.4 °C, were enjoyed in Roman times and form the basis for Badenweiler&rsquos status as a spa town today. Since 2001, a spectacular, multiple award-winning glass roof, designed by Stuttgart engineers Schlaich, Bergermann und Partner, has protected the historical site.
The permanent exhibition at the bath ruins offers an insightful look at the Roman culture of bathing and provides fascinating facts about the entire complex.
Roman Sites in Germany
Angelokastro is a Byzantine castle on the island of Corfu. It is located at the top of the highest peak of the island"s shoreline in the northwest coast near Palaiokastritsa and built on particularly precipitous and rocky terrain. It stands 305 m on a steep cliff above the sea and surveys the City of Corfu and the mountains of mainland Greece to the southeast and a wide area of Corfu toward the northeast and northwest.
Angelokastro is one of the most important fortified complexes of Corfu. It was an acropolis which surveyed the region all the way to the southern Adriatic and presented a formidable strategic vantage point to the occupant of the castle.
Angelokastro formed a defensive triangle with the castles of Gardiki and Kassiopi, which covered Corfu"s defences to the south, northwest and northeast.
The castle never fell, despite frequent sieges and attempts at conquering it through the centuries, and played a decisive role in defending the island against pirate incursions and during three sieges of Corfu by the Ottomans, significantly contributing to their defeat.
During invasions it helped shelter the local peasant population. The villagers also fought against the invaders playing an active role in the defence of the castle.
The exact period of the building of the castle is not known, but it has often been attributed to the reigns of Michael I Komnenos and his son Michael II Komnenos. The first documentary evidence for the fortress dates to 1272, when Giordano di San Felice took possession of it for Charles of Anjou, who had seized Corfu from Manfred, King of Sicily in 1267.
From 1387 to the end of the 16th century, Angelokastro was the official capital of Corfu and the seat of the Provveditore Generale del Levante, governor of the Ionian islands and commander of the Venetian fleet, which was stationed in Corfu.
The governor of the castle (the castellan) was normally appointed by the City council of Corfu and was chosen amongst the noblemen of the island.
Angelokastro is considered one of the most imposing architectural remains in the Ionian Islands.
Roman border defences have become much better known through systematic excavations financed by Germany and through other research connected to them. In 2005, the remnants of the Upper Germanic & Rhaetian Limes were inscribed on the List of UNESCO World Heritage Sites as Frontiers of the Roman Empire,  with lower Limes being placed on the tentative list in 2011, aiming to extend the world heritage site to the whole limes.  The Saalburg is a reconstructed fortification and museum of the Limes near Frankfurt.
The first emperor who began to build fortifications along the border was Augustus, shortly after the devastating Roman defeat at the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD. Originally there were numerous Limes walls, which were then connected to form the Upper Germanic Limes along the Rhine and the Rhaetian Limes along the Danube. Later these two walls were linked to form a common borderline.
14 to c. 73 Edit
From the death of Augustus (14 AD) until after 70 AD, Rome accepted as her Germanic frontier the water-boundary of the Rhine and upper Danube. Beyond these rivers she held only the fertile plain of Frankfurt, opposite the Roman border fortress of Moguntiacum (Mainz), the southernmost slopes of the Black Forest and a few scattered bridge-heads. The northern section of this frontier, where the Rhine is deep and broad, remained the Roman boundary until the empire fell. The southern part was different. The upper Rhine and upper Danube are easily crossed. The frontier which they form is inconveniently long, enclosing an acute-angled wedge of foreign territory between the modern Baden and Württemberg. The Germanic populations of these lands seem in Roman times to have been scanty, and Roman subjects from the modern Alsace-Lorraine had drifted across the river eastwards. The motives alike of geographical convenience and of the advantages to be gained by recognising these movements of Roman subjects combined to urge a forward policy at Rome, and when the vigorous Vespasian had succeeded Nero, a series of advances began which gradually closed up the acute angle, or at least rendered it obtuse.
Flavian dynasty Edit
The first advance came about 74 AD, when what is now Baden was invaded and partly annexed and a road carried from the Roman base on the upper Rhine, Straßburg, to the Danube just above Ulm. The point of the angle was broken off.
The second advance was made by Domitian about 83 AD. He pushed out from Moguntiacum, extended the Roman territory east of it and enclosed the whole within a systematically delimited and defended frontier with numerous blockhouses along it and larger forts in the rear. Among the blockhouses was one which by various enlargements and refoundations grew into the well-known Saalburg fort on the Taunus near Bad Homburg. This advance necessitated a third movement, the construction of a frontier connecting the annexations of 74 and 83 AD. We know the line of this frontier which ran from the Main across the upland Odenwald to the upper waters of the Neckar and was defended by a chain of forts. We do not, however, know its date, save that, if not Domitian's work, it was carried out soon after his death, and the whole frontier thus constituted was reorganised, probably by Hadrian, with a continuous wooden palisade reaching from Rhine to Danube.
Hadrian and the Antonines Edit
The angle between the rivers was now almost full. But there remained further advance and further fortification. Either Hadrian or, more probably, his successor Antoninus Pius pushed out from the Odenwald and the Danube, and marked out a new frontier roughly parallel to, but in advance of these two lines, though sometimes, as on the Taunus, coinciding with the older line. This is the frontier which is now visible and visited by the curious. It consists, as we see it today, of two distinct frontier works, one, known as the Pfahlgraben, is a palisade of stakes with a ditch and earthen mound behind it, best seen in the neighbourhood of the Saalburg but once extending from the Rhine southwards into southern Germany. The other, which begins where the earthwork stops, is a wall, though not a very formidable wall, of stone, the Teufelsmauer it runs roughly east and west parallel to the Danube, which it finally joins at Heinheim near Regensburg. The southern part of the Pfahlgraben is remarkably straight for over 50 km (31 mi) it points almost absolutely true for Polaris.
This frontier remained for about 100 years, and no doubt in that long period much was done to it to which precise dates are difficult to fix. It cannot even be absolutely certain when the frontier laid out by Pius was equipped with the manpitts and other special fortifications. But we know that the pressure of the barbarians began to be felt seriously in the later part of the 2nd century, and after long struggles the whole or almost the whole district east of the Rhine and north of the Danube was lost, seemingly all within one short period, about 250.
Late Roman Empire Edit
Germanic invasions in the late 3rd century led to the abandonment of the so-called "Upper Raetian Limes" in favour of a Roman defence line along the rivers Rhine, Iller and Danube (Donau-Iller-Rhine-Limes). Support was provided to some degree by fast river boats, the navis lusoria being the standard type, that could reach outposts or points of crisis quickly. Watch towers were in sight contact and heavily fortified castra placed at important passes (e.g. Castrum Rauracense instead of the previously unwalled Augusta Raurica near to Basel) and in the hinterland of the frontier (e.g. Vindonissa in today's Switzerland).
The limes itself is a relatively simple construction. It is similar to the fortification that a travelling troop of Roman soldiers would construct every evening to protect their camp from attacks. On the outside, the soldiers dug a ditch. The earth from the ditch was used to build a mound. On top of the mound, stakes were attached. The limes had a deeper ditch and a higher mound than a camp fortification. The stakes were higher, too, and placed in front of the ditch on several parts of the limes, instead of stakes, there was a simple stone wall.
Behind the wall or mound a system of control towers, built of wood or stone, was installed, each within sight of the next one, and usually able also to signal to the forts several kilometers to the rear.
The limes was never able to prevent whole Germanic tribes from entering the territory of the Roman Empire. This was not the intention of the builders. Near the watch towers, the limes was open to passage, especially by traders or persons coming to live or work within the Empire. The purpose of the limes was control of this traffic. To cross the limes it was necessary to pass the towers and so come to the notice of the garrison, or try to climb or destroy the wall and the stakes. Only individuals or small groups could climb the obstacles without being noticed, and they could not drive much stolen livestock with them. Large groups would be noticed they could destroy one or several towers, but this also would draw the attention of the Romans.
This knowledge of all traffic crossing the border was crucial to the Roman military. For a territory as large as the Roman Empire, there were few soldiers, and almost all of the legions were based close to the frontiers. Any hostile band that managed to pass this outer area of defense could travel within the Empire without much resistance. The limes provided an early warning system, deterrence of casual small-scale raiding, and the ability to counteract attacks while the enemy was still near the border fortresses and garrisons. The limes may also have been a bulwark to control the movement of groups of people, like the fence system along the American-Mexican border. 
Top 10 Medieval Castles in Germany
Which castles should you see in Germany? Here is our list of ten castles you can explore that have largely remained the same since the Middle Ages.
Dating back to the 11th century, Wartburg Castle was one of the most important fortresses in the Holy Roman Empire, and was once home to St. Elizabeth of Hungary and Martin Luther. Located in the central state of Thuringia, the castle was named to UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1999.
Located in the Rhineland, this moated castle dates back over 600 years. While privately owned, visitors can enter the castle and it is home to many events and festivals.
This castle is known as a ‘Ganerbenburg’ – where several branches of the same family own parts of the fortress. The Eltz Family have owned this castle for more than 800 years, and recently they finished extensive restorations and repairs.
Mark Twain wrote about this place: “A ruin must be rightly situated, to be effective. This one could not have been better placed. It stands upon a commanding elevation, it is buried in green woods, there is no level ground about it, but, on the contrary, there are wooded terraces upon terraces, and one looks down through shining leaves into profound chasms and abysses where twilight reigns and the sun cannot intrude. Nature knows how to garnish a ruin to get the best effect.” First built around the end of the 12th century, Heidelberg Castle fell into ruins in the 17th century, and saw some restoration in the early parts of the 20th century. It now serves as an important tourist destination.
One of the few castles in western Germany that was not destroyed in past centuries, Marksburg was purchased by the German Castle Association and restored. Located on a hilltop along the Rhine River, this castle dates back to the 12th century.
Located in Saxony, this well-preserved castle was built in the late 12th century. Originally it protected German settlers who were migrating eastwards. After serving for centuries as a residence, the castle is now home to a natural history museum.
Built in the 12th century, this castle’s post-medieval life included it serving as a military garrison, jail and a hospital. Today, there is a youth hostel and a museum in the castle.
Dating back to the early 12th century, it was named an Imperial Castle by Conrad III. French forces left the castle a ruin in the 17th century, and it was rebuilt in a more modern style in the 19th. However, some parts of the castle have been preserved.
Located in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate, this castle was built in the 13th century but is now an impressive ruin. A museum can be found in the castle’s chapel.
Located in the state of Hessen in central Germany, this fortress was built in the 11th century. Also known as the Landgrave Castle, this site is now home to a museum.
Roman sites in Southern Germany and Tirol
We are planning a late June trip to Southern Germany and Tirol, and are interested in Roman history. Any information on places to see and learn about the Roman Limes or settlements? Has anyone been to the Roman Limes museum in Aalen recently? Hechingen? Is there information there in English? Any sites near Lake Constance or in the Tirol? Any information welcomed. Thank you!
There is a small museum of Roman archeology in Seebruck, on the north shore of Lake Chiemsee, more or less between Munich and Salzburg. It's a small place, but the lake is beautiful, so you might like it if you are in the area. I was near Ingolstadt (north of Munich) once, on the bike path, and was surprised to see (restored) old Roman forts along the river (and bike trail). Regensburg, north of Ingolstadt, has a Roman gateway, one of two standing Roman ruins in the country. The other is in Trier (in the very western part, near the border with Luxembourg), which also has a Roman amphitheater and imperial baths.
In fact, there is something called "Deutsche Limes-Straße" which runs along the Limes. They have their own website and this tells you where exactly the Limes used to be and where there are any museums today. I don't know what they show at this museum near Lake Chiemsee, but this is nowhere near the Limes, so I'd skip it and see the "real thing" instead, e.g. in Eichstätt or in one of the many other places.
There's one thing which I find unfortunate, and that is that the Limes is a bit hard to reach by public transport. So if you drive, it would be best to rent a car. You could also rent a bicycle, there is a cycle path next to the Limes.
It's perhaps not close enough to your route, but on the way to Basel, there's a superb Roman site just over the Swiss border, Augusta Raurica, best seen by car and in good weather. I felt slightly let down by Trier (but loved the Arena), but not many online posters agree with me. Cologne has the virtue (ok, not in the South) of being a magnificent destination by itself, with a big slug of Roman sites.
A couple more places to consider:
Mainz was one of THE centers of Roman life north of the Alps. Several ruins and monuments are visible throughout the city. http://mainz.de/WGAPublisher/online/html/default/mkuz-5t3hsm.en.html
Near Frankfurt in the Taunus mountains (where the Limes ran through) stands the reconstructed Roman fort Saalburg with other excavations nearby - http://www.saalburgmuseum.de/english/sb_en_home.html
The only Roman site I could think of in Tirol would be Aguntum - http://www.aguntum.info/?home
First, that website in #2 has a very distorted view of where the actual Limes was, I don't know why they couldn't depict it accurately. Second, I find the Roman ruins in southern Germany to not be that interesting as what usually remains are only the foundations.
Now, to some particular sites. Aalen ( www.aalen.de ) has the Limesmuseum and from reconstructions you can see how the Romans lived then. There is the archeological park at Welzheim which also has reconstructed ruins ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Welzheim http://www.welzheim.de/Welzheim.ASPX?H=馕' ). Also along the LImes is a reconstructed wooden observation tower at the monastery at Lorch, but watch your head when entering as it almost knocked me out! There are Roman castle ruin sites to the west of Schwaebisch Gmuend and also to the east at Böbingen. I always enjoyed driving the Roman road runniing north from Katzenstein across the barren countryside, straight and narrow, and probably looking like it did now as almost 2000 years ago. Unfortunately, the roads were built from logs, so the original road has long vanished but it gives a nice feeling for Roman engineering, build those roads straight and ignore the topography. There are also Roman ruins just south of Aalen at Oberkochen. Of course, Augsburg was a major city in Roman times, but I don't know what has been preserved from then. Donauwoerth has a small somewhat restored Roman temple. Just to the SW of Noerdlingen are the foundations of a Roman farm complex. There are remains of Roman farmhouses north of Stuttgart at Walheim with a museum, and by Hechingen. Sulz am Neckar has a Roman castle as does nearby Waldmoessingen. Rottweil ( www.rottweil.de ) is Baden-Wuerttemberg's oldest town from Roman times and has a Roman bath as does nearby Niedereschach. Baden-Wuerttemberg also hosts a themed route, the Roemerstrasser (Roman Route). Perhaps you can get more information on it from the Baden-Wuerttemberg tourist office- www.tourismus-bw.de .
I'll mention again that I'm not a big fan of actual Roman ruins in Baden-Wuerttemberg as to me they are underwhelming. I much prefer going back another 500 years or so to Celtic times when there are burial chambers, four-cornered earthen forts, and the remains of a major Celtic city at Heuneb(u,e)rg. The artifacts from thoise graves are amazing in their preservation, detail, and what they are as some items look modern in design when they are 2500 years old! Most are on display (along with local Roman artifacts) at the Wuerttemberg Museum in Stuttgart. But history in this part of Germany goes back much further to 35,000 years ago with mankind's first art and musical instruments which were recovered from caves of the Swabian Alb, which to me are the most interesting ancient artifacts. It gave me chills to hear those ancient instruments played on recordings for a special exhibition on them and the artworks.
Top 10 Surprising Archaeological Finds
The past can be both shocking and familiar. It&rsquos common to say that human nature never changes &ndash but it&rsquos still possible for archaeology to surprise us, by pulling things from the ground which transform our conception of the past. Here are ten of the most game-changing archaeological discoveries of recent history:
For centuries, the Roman Empire was held up as the pinnacle of civilization. Roman ruins were among the grandest buildings still standing, and majestic statues &ndash finer than any until the Renaissance &ndash were constantly being pulled from the ground. But for a long time, the shocking truth of everyday Roman life was completely hidden from the public.
The discovery of Pompeii changed all this: it showed us that there was a constant presence of sexuality in Roman life. The Romans apparently had no shame associated with the male member in particular. The tintinnabula, or wind chimes &ndash found in many of the houses &ndash depict enormous winged phalluses surrounded by bells. To the Romans, the phallus symbolized masculine health, and was thought to ward off bad luck.
In 1901 an ancient shipwreck was discovered by sponge divers off the coast of the Greek island of Antikythera. Amongst the finds of typical trade goods such as statues and flasks was found a fused mass of metal. For almost a hundred years after its discovery, the mechanism was regarded as a simple curiosity.
It is now regarded as an early precursor to the computer. The various cogs and wheels of the mechanism are able to calculate where stars and planets should appear in the night sky. This discovery shows not only a keen understanding of the motion of the heavens but also the ability to replicate those movements on an artificial structure. It suggests a mechanistic understanding of the universe which points to the development of science as the best way to deal with the world around us.
At the Southern tip of South Africa, sharp stone fragments &ndash perfectly suited for spear tips &ndash were discovered. They were 200,000 years old &ndash and suggested that humans were hunting for their food much longer ago than had been thought possible. Some evidence suggests that humans may have been hunters even earlier than this: remnants of cooking fires have been found dating up to one million years old.
Scientific antibiotics are about seventy years old. But bones have been found in Nubia &ndash dating from 550AD &ndash which show traces of tetracycline, an antibiotic still used today.
How did people use an antibiotic more than a thousand years before it was discovered? Tetracycline is produced by yeast &ndash and yeast can be used to produce beer. It seems that the ancient Nubians &ndash including their infant children &ndash drank beer as a medicine.
One of the oldest statues ever discovered depicts an obese woman with swollen breasts. The Willendorf Venus was discovered in Austria, and is 26,000 years old. It is highly unlikely that any member of an ancient society would be so overfed as to be obese, and so the statues are symbolic rather than representative.
These figures were most likely carved to represent motherhood. The presence of rotund figurines in many ancient sites suggests that the earliest-known religious practices were related to the worship of femininity.
The Visby lenses are a collection of rock crystals found in Viking graves in Sweden. All are polished into very specific vision-enhancing shapes. They are able to magnify things, and would have allowed detailed artisan work &ndash but like modern magnifying glasses, they could also focus light. They could therefore have been used to light fires, or even to cauterize wounds.
Sometimes archaeologists discover an artifact whose purpose is a complete mystery &ndash but it is rare for a whole class of artifacts to remain unknown. All over the Roman world, small metal dodecahedra with circles cut in their faces have been discovered &ndash yet we have no idea what they were originally used for. Some suggest they were used as candle holders (unlikely in an age where oil lamps were the norm), while others think they might have been aids for judging distance.
In the ruins of Mesopotamia, jars were found containing iron cylinders and copper spikes. They are still a mystery, but speculation has brought some interesting theories. We know that if these jars were filled with acidic grape juice, voltage may have been produced. Modern reconstructions of the jars have shown that enough voltage would have been produced to allow electrical use &ndash but at this stage, more evidence is needed.
In a cave in Germany, mammoth bones were found with carved holes, making them resemble modern recorders. The bones found were 40,000 years old: they suggest that complex, musical societies existed in the distant past. It seems unlikely that one person alone would create musical instruments in a community, however, a specialist would have time to carve the instrument, and teach others to play it &ndash suggesting that early societies valued music enough to provide for the musicians.
In 1991, mountaineers discovered a frozen body in the melting ice of the Alps. Once freed from the ice, the body was found to be 5,000 years old. The surprisingly well-preserved remains have greatly helped us to understand the lives of our ancestors.
Holes in Otzi&rsquos ears would have been used for some sort of earring. The skin of his spine, knee, and ankles are tattooed. His body has several wounds, including an arrow wound &ndash suggesting that he was attacked by other humans before finally perishing in the mountains. This list has been about surprising archaeological discoveries: of these, human-inflicted death is perhaps one of the least surprising.