Early History of the Rhineland-Palatinate and Heidelberg: Celts, Germans and Romans

Early History of the Rhineland-Palatinate and Heidelberg: Celts, Germans and Romans

My 2018 visit to Heidelberg’s Kurpfalzisches Museum, with its excellent Roman exhibit, inspired me to carry out some further research on the Celts, Germans and Romans in the area of Heidelberg in particular and in the surrounding Rhineland-Palatinate in general.

Modern Heidelberg with the Heiligenberg, former site of the Celtic fort, on the far bank of the Neckar Rive. Photo 2018 L. Dyck

Picturesque Heidelberg lies nestled by the Neckar river where it emerges from the wooded hills of the Odenwald into the Rhine plain of today’s southwestern Germany. Already 550,000 BC, early man, homo heidelbergensis, inhabited the area. Celts from the early iron age Hallstatt culture, the Mediomatrici, moved in the 9th century BC from their homelands in what is today Germany  to settle west of the Rhine in the Ardennes Mountains.i Although their capital was far to the west, at Metz (Divodorum “the citadel of the gods”) their realm stretched east to include Speyer (Spires Eng.) in the Rhineland-Palatinate. At Speyer the Mediomatrici worshiped the goddess Nantosuelta (meaning winding stream), who presided over birth, death and recuperation and was represented by a raven or by a woman with a birdhouse on a staff.ii

A depiction of Nantosuelta from Speyer showing her distinctive scepter and birds.

During the fifth century BC, Celts of the late iron age La Tene culture (which succeeded the Hallstatt culture) build a stronghold on the Heiligenberg (Holy Mountain) across the River Neckar from today’s Heidelberg.iii The Celts gave the River Neckar its name, which meant “wild companion.”iv Mining iron ore in the hills of the Odenwald, the settlement grew rich and powerful.

Circa 104-101 BC, a number of Germanic Cimbri and Teutones settle among the Belgae while the remainder of their tribe set out on their advance on Italy.  Some of the Cimbri and Teutones remaining behind would later end up in the Rhineland-Palatinate and Heidelberg area.

In 70 BC,v the Nemetes, a Celtic-Germanic tribe, settled in the Mediomatrici’s eastern border along the Rhine. The Nemetes continued the veneration of Nantosuelta and also worshiped the goddess Nemetona at the healing waters and sacred grove on Rhine at Altrip. Nemetona, whose name means “sacred grove” was a dual healing and war goddess.vi

Rendition of Nemetona by Fenech, Selena. Selena Fenech Fairies and Fantasy. 2009. Website.

In 58 BC Caesar shattered the tribal Kingdom that Ariovistus (58 BC) had carved out of the Alsace region in Gaul with his Germanic Suebi confederation. In the aftermath, the Germanic Vangiones, Nemetes and Triboci continued to hold on to their Gallic conquests west of the Rhine but submit to Roman suzerainty. Eventually they were absorbed in the predominant Celtic culture.vii Other tribes of Ariovistus’ coalition chose to forgo Roman rule and settled east of the Rhine, where they too merged with Celtic culture.viii The Suebi Nicretes (Suebi of the Neckar)ix settled in the area of Lopodunum (Ladenburg) and the Toutoni (Teutones/Cimbri) by the Odenwald of Miltenberg and Heidelberg.x Votive statues dating from after Julius Caesar’s Gallic conquests, discovered in Roman territory along the Main river and in Baden, near Heidelberg, feature inscriptions indicating that the dedicators were Cimbri. Probably they were descendants of survivors of their tribe which had all but been wiped out by the Marius in 101 BC.xi

Around 5 BC, the Celts built a double rampart around the Heiligenberg where their stronghold had grown and prospered. Remains of the 5 km-long circular wall are still visible today, and were part of one of the largest Celtic fortifications in south-central Europe. Built of stone and wooden buttresses, the wall towered up to 5 m in height.xii

Heidelberg Celtic Ring Wall, Civic Information Panel. Photo: L. Dyck

After AD 70, as part of Vespasian’s policy of pushing the Roman frontier east of the upper Rhine, the Romans built forts in the area in the area of today’s Neuenheim and Bergheim, across the River Neckar from Heidelberg. The forts, originally of wood, were built of stone after AD 90. Among the cohorts garrisoned there was the 2nd Augusta Cyrenaica equitata. The first wooden pile bridge over the Neckar was built by the Romans to connect these forts to the southern bank. Around AD 200, architect Valerius Paternus replaced the wooden bridge with a 260m long stone one.xiii The fort at Neuenheim was held by Rome until it was lost to the Alemanni (Swabians) in AD 260.xiv The latter emerged in the third century in former Suebi territory east of the Rhine and south of the Main, and after multiple westward invasions spread into Alsace and south into the Alps.xv In 769, during the early Middle-Ages, the village of Bergheim (mountain home) was first mentioned.xvi

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Model of Roman bridge over the River Neckar, from exhibit at Kurpfalzisches Museum. Photo L. Dyck, 2018.

Exhibits in Heidelberg’s Kurpfalzisches Museum relating to the Celtic-Roman-Germanic period.

Roman Freighter

In addition to the Roman high sea fleet, larger sailing vessels were used to transport goods along coastal waters and along rivers. Due to the depth of their loaded draft, such ships could only be sailed on the major rivers and up slow currents, otherwise they had to be pulled up stream. The high-swung stern of the freighter was often decorated by animal heads. Two large oars were used to steer the ship from atop the stern cabin. The cabin was reserved for the Magister navis (master of the ship), the captain, ship pilot, the senior helmsmen. The crew slept on deck, or if necessary, in the hold.

Model of Roman Freighter, Kurpfalzisches Museum. Photo L. Dyck, 2018.

Roman Burgus with Shipping Quay at Ladenburg

As part of Valentinian’s frontier defense strategy, in AD 369/70 the Romans built a burgus at the site of the abandoned Roman city of Lopodunum (Ladenburg) on the right bank of the Neckar River. Once the center of Roman presence in Upper Germania’s hinterland, Lopodunum, alongside the Neuenheim fort 10 km upriver, was lost during the collapse of the Limes in the mid third century AD. The burgus at Ladenburg controlled the Neckar passage and served as a Roman bridgehead east of the Rhine against the Alemanni.i The walls protecting the quay reached into the water, so that the quay was only accessible by ship. Landward, further walls enclosed a courtyard. The 18m-tall central tower dominated the burgus. The garrison likely numbered 45-50 men.ii The Ladenburg burgus was abandoned after AD 400.iii

Roman Burgus with Shipping Quay at Ladenburg. Model by M. Genter, A Gotz and Ch. Rendtorff, Heidelberg’s Kurpfalzisches Museum. Photo: L. Dyck, 2018

 

Late Roman era, artificially elongated Skull of elderly Woman

A grave site discovered at Dossenheim (six km north of Heidelberg) contained the remains of a 70-year-old, 6th century woman. Not only did she reach an extraordinary old age for the period, but her skull was found to be artificially elongated in central Asian fashion. The shape of the skull was obtained by wrapping the skull of an infant with tight cloth. The cloth was continually replied as the child grew, preventing the skull from growing forward and upward, so that the skull was forced to grow backward. The skull wrapping custom was brought into central Europe by the Huns during the 5th century AD. In isolated cases it has been found in the graves of women among the Burgundians and Alemanni. It provides an example of the cultural mix of the migration age, where foreign women were accepted by and mixed with natives. Genetic tests among elongated skulls found among the Bavarii has co-corroborated that the women were in fact not locals adopting eastern customs but foreign brides.i

Source: Kurpfalzisches Museum panel, Heidelberg. Photo: L. Dyck, 2018.

Cemeteries and Physicians in the Roman Era

The wall painting at the Kurpfalzisches Museum depicts a local Roman cemetery (see image below). The accompanying information panel focuses on Roman medical practitioners: “In addition to contemporary writings, consecration inscriptions, gravestones, paintings and reliefs give us important information about the medical profession in classical antiquity. Especially interesting are the numerous graves of Roman physicians, which with their instruments as burial objects, are a seemingly endless source of information.” Over a period of 400 years, it was common to place medical instruments into the grave of physicians. Although the practice occurred in the earlier Egyptian, Greek and Etruscan cultures, it became the rule during the Roman period. The instruments included, scalpels, lancetts, dental pliers, trepanation instruments for opening the top of the skull, bone lifters, cataract needles, cupping glasses, specula and catheters.

Roman Cemetery Painting, Kurpfalzisches Museum, Heidelberg. Photo: L. Dyck, 2018.

Women as Medical professionals in the Roman empire

Beyond providing aid for common women’s ailments or as midwives, women were skilled medical professionals during the Roman empire. A grave of a Roman-era female dentist was found at Wederath in the Rhineland-Palatinate, graves of female surgeons were found in Spain, Belgium and Switzerland, while a female general practitioner was buried at Heidelberg-Neuenheim.

“Women were therefore able to a practice an occupation, two thousand years ago, which they had to struggle to regain over the last hundred years. In Germany, women did not gain the right to study medicine until 1899” (Kurpfalzisches Museum panel).

 

medica
Stele for a medica, a Roman female physician. Second Century AD. Musée de La Cour d’Or Metz Métropole. CC BY-SA 3.0
Oculist examining a patient’s eye, 2nd century AD relief (not from Heidelberg area).

 

The Spatha Sword

The spatha was introduced into the Roman army during the early imperial period by warriors from subjugated Celtic and Germanic tribes who served in Roman auxiliary units. They brought with them the spatha, the typical Celtic broad sword used by both ethnic groups which dated back to a long line of Celtic long bladed swords.1 The spatha was popular among the cavalry who appreciated its long reach.2 The double-sided blade measured 65 to 80 cm (2 feet to 2.9 feet).3 It was worn on a belt or from a baldric.4 One shortcoming of the spatha was that it was more likely to break in battle than the gladius hispanienses (the legionary short sword). Such broken blades were at times given a new point to be made into short swords.5 Starting in the late 2nd century AD, the spatha gradually replaced the gladius becoming the main side arm of the legionaries by the end of the third century.6

Image: Double-edged spatha swords found in Heidelberg-Kirchheim and Dossenheim from the late Roman period (Kurpfalzisches Museum, Heidelberg). Photo: L. Dyck, 2018.

The Shield Boss

Show below, a shield boss from one of the Kircheim graves in the Heidelberg area. The bronze cast ornament is in shape of a Christian cross. The cross decorated armaments as well items used in daily life. To the Christian-pagan population of the Merovingian period, the cross was seen as both a defensive and healing symbol.1 During battle, the infantry man would lean their shoulders into the shield. Opposing shield walls would typically become tense shoving matches. Sword and spears slid through the tight openings, here and there drawing blood, but for the most part it became a contest of stamina. Behind the shield wall, their comrades threw missile weapons.2

Image: L. Dyck, 2018. Kurpfalzisches Museum, Heidelberg.

More to come, ongoing project…

 

Sources and Notes

Early History of the Rhineland-Palatinate and Heidelberg: Celts, Germans and Romans

i Harry Mountain, The Celtic Encyclopedia Vol. IV (Parkland: Upublish, 1998), p. 194

ii One of the Belgic tribes, the name Nemetes is Celtic as was the name of their chief town Noviomagus noviios ‘new’ and magos ‘”plain’,” “market” (Xavier Delamarre (2003). Dictionnaire de la langue gauloise. Éditions Errance, p. 233), but Tacitus considered them Germans (Harry Mountain, The Celtic Encyclopedia Vol. IV (Parkland: Upublish, 1998), p. 888, Celts and Myths, Nantosuelta – a Celtic Nature Goddess,  http://celtsandmyths.mzzhost.com/nantosuelta.html.

iii International Dictionary of Historic Places, Volume 2 Northern Europe (New York: Routledge, 1995), p. 340

iv Stadt Heidelberg Website, Wissenwertes uber Heidelberg, https://www.tourism-heidelberg.com/destination/history/index_eng.html

v One of the Belgic tribes, the name Nemetes is Celtic as was the name of their chief town Noviomagus noviios ‘new’ and magos ‘”plain’,” “market.”as are those of a number of gods worshipped (Xavier Delamarre (2003). Dictionnaire de la langue gauloise. Éditions Errance, p. 233) but Tacitus considered them Germans (Harry Mountain, The Celtic Encyclopedia Vol. IV (Parkland: Upublish, 1998), p. 888, Celts and Myths, Nantosuelta – a Celtic Nature Goddess, http://celtsandmyths.mzzhost.com/nantosuelta.html.

vi Harry Mountain, The Celtic Encyclopedia Vol. IV (Parkland: Upublish, 1998), p. 894, 895, Patricia Monaghan, The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology (New York: Facts on File, 2004), p. 354

vii Gudmund Schutte, Translated by Jean Young, Our Forefathers the Gothonic Nations Volume II (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), p. 118.

viii Gudmund Schutte, Translated by Jean Young, Our Forefathers the Gothonic Nations Volume II (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), p. 118.

ix John George Anderson, Cornelius Tacitus (Bristol Classical Press, 1938), xlvi.

x Friedrich Kauffmann, Deutsche Altertumskunde (Verone, etext), Gudmund Schutte, Translated by Jean Young, Our Forefathers the Gothonic Nations Volume II (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), p. 118, International Dictionary of Historic Places, Volume 2 Northern Europe (New York: Routledge, 1995), p. 340

xi Thomas S. Burns, Rome and the Barbarians, 100 BC-AD 400 (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2003), p. 69.

xii Civic information panel on the Heiligen mountain, Heidelberg, Fink, Oliver (2005). Kleine Heidelberger Stadtgeschichte. Friedrich Pustet. p. 13

xiii Fink, Oliver (2005). Kleine Heidelberger Stadtgeschichte. Friedrich Pustet. p. 14, Bernard William Henderson, Five Roman Emperors (Cambridge: The University Press, 1927) p. 93)

xiv International Dictionary of Historic Places, Volume 2 Northern Europe (New York: Routledge, 1995), p. 340

xv Carl Waldman, Encyclopedia of European Peoples, p. 10

xvi Tourism Heidelberg. History. Tourism-heidelberg.com

Exhibits in Heidelberg’s Kurpfalzisches Museum relating to the Celtic-Roman-Germanic period.

Roman Freighter: Kurpfalzisches Museum, Heidelberg, information panel

Roman Burgus with Shipping Quay at Ladenburg: i Kurpfalzisches Museum, Heidelberg, information panel., Angaben nach Berndmark Heukemes: Ladenburg HD. In: Philipp Filtzinger (Hrsg.): Die Römer in Baden-Württemberg. 3. Auflage. Theiss, Stuttgart 1986, ISBN 3-8062-0287-7, S. 393f.; Ludwig Wamser, Christof Flügel, Bernward Ziegaus (Hrsg.): Die Römer zwischen Alpen und Nordmeer. Zivilisatorisches Erbe einer europäischen Militärmacht. Katalog-Handbuch zur Landesausstellung des Freistaates Bayern Rosenheim 2000. Zabern, Mainz 2000, ISBN 3-8053-2615-7. S. 384,  ii Kurpfalzisches Museum, Heidelberg, information panel, iii Britta Rabold: Topographie des römischen Ladenburg. Aufstieg vom Truppenstandort zur Metropole. In: Imperium Romanum. Roms Provinzen an Neckar, Rhein und Donau. Archäologisches Landesmuseum Baden-Württemberg, Esslingen 2005, ISBN 3-8062-1945-1, S. 180; dieselbe: Ladenburg (HD) – Die römische Stadt. In: Dieter Planck (Hrsg.): Die Römer in Baden-Württemberg. Römerstätten von Aalen bis Zwiefalten. Theiss, Stuttgart 2005, S. 164.

Skull of elderly Woman with elongated Skull: i Erin Blakemore, Pointy Skulls belong to Foreign Brides, DNA suggests, National Geographic.com.au, 13 March 2018

The Spatha Sword1 M.C. Bishop, The Gladius, the Roman Short Sword, Osprey Publishing Ltd. 2016. ebook, 2 Richard F. Burton, The Book of the Sword (Digitized by Google), p. 123, 156, 3 Sekunda, Northwood and Simkins, Caesar’s Legions (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2000), p. 118, Lesley Adkins and Roy Adkins, Handbook to Life in Ancient Rome (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), p. 87, 4 Simon Macdowall, Late Roman Cavalryman 236-565 AD (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 1999), p. 60, 5 M.C. Bishop, The Gladius, the Roman Short Sword, ebook, 6 Lesley Adkins and Roy Adkins, Handbook to Life in Ancient Rome (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), p. 87,

The Shield Boss

1 Information panel,Kurpfalzisches Museum, Heidelberg., 2 Simon MacDowall, Gerry Embleton, Late Roman Infantryman 236-565 AD (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 1999), p. 85

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