Wilkenburg Roman Legionary Fort (castrum)

The Roman fort at Wilkenburg (Lower Saxony / Niedersachsen, Germany) is a "marching" fort (German Marschlager) dating from the time of the emperor Augustus. It lies in the Gemeinde (municipality) of Hemmingen in the Calenburger region, near the River Leine and about 1 km. from the Southern limit of Hanover (8 km from the centre). Following its discovery through aerial surveys, archaeological investigation of the site in 2015 by the Niedersächsische Landesamt für Denkmalpflege (the authority in charge of the upkeep of historical monuments in Lower Saxony) and the University of Osnabrück  revealed the typical features of a Roman fort- V-formed outer ditches and fortifications with rounded corners (roughly in the shape of a playing card). The fort lies on a sandy knoll as protection from flooding, strategically placed near the narrowest crossing of the River Leine. The nearby stream Dicke Riede was incorporated into the structure of the fort, an unusual feature which presumably ensured a supply of fresh water for the soldiers stationed there.


Current research suggests that the fort is the only surviving archaeological trace of the bellum immensum (Velleius Paterculus, II,104) of 1-5 A.D. carried out by Augustus' son-in-law and adoptive son, Tiberius. It is also the most northerly of all Roman marching forts and the only one north of the Limes which has not been built over. At present the coin finds from the site suggest a date between the years 1 B.C. and 6 A.D. The size of the fort, about 30 hectares (74 acres), would have offered place for at least three legions, or more than 20,000 legionaries. It has been argued from the finds that an important general or perhaps even the later emperor Tiberius himself were based on the site. If this theory is correct the fort would date to 4-5 A.D.


Further archaeological features on the Wilkenburg site include a possible grave mound in the  western part of the Roman fort, where fragments of a dagger dating to the early Bronze Age were found, although much of this has been destroyed through ploughing over the years. Also in the western part was a Celtic La Téne era settlement (before c. 500 B.C.) and a cemetery dating to the time of the Roman Empire or later. Ridge and furrow remains from medieval ploughed fields have been found in the SW part of the site, which is also heavily marked by modern agricultural activities. The oldest signs of human activity are flint objects and early Neolithic (Stone Age) finds. The area where the Roman fort later stood was apparently used on frequent occasions, at times intensively. It is therefore likely that the Romans constructed their fort within a cultivated landscape. This is also suggested by the presence of the cemetery, which is covered by the fort. The surrounding land was occupied by the Germanic tribe of the Cherusci.


The archaeological finds from the Roman fort suggest that it was occupied for a very short period- a few days to at maximum a few weeks. Nevertheless, finds from Wilkenburg include over 2000 metal objects, from which about 200 can be unequivocally identified as Roman. These include Roman gaming dies, sandal nails, metal fittings from armour and equipment and from horse harnesses, tweezers (for plucking beard hairs), appliqués in animal form, spoons and fibulae. These have been found through metal detecting as well as through excavations carried out by the Niedersächische Landesamt für Denkmalpflege.


Of particular importance for the dating of the Wilkenburg fort are the coin finds. To date over 60 coins have been found: the oldest is a denarius from the Roman Republic dating to 113 B.C. The latest (i.e. most recent) coin is a denarius of Gaius and Lucius Caesares, the adopted heirs of the emperor Augustus, dating from 2-1 B.C. Many halved or quartered coins have been found on the site, as well as over 20 low-denomination bronze Celtic coins of the Aduatucci, which circulated in the Rhine area and functioned as small change. Through these finds the fort can be dated to the time of Augustus and narrow the occupation time down to the period 0-6 A.D. As mentioned above, the fort would then fall within the period of Tiberius' bellum immensum which, according to Velleius Paterculus (II,105), consisted of two campaigns penetrating into the territories of the Cherusci (Leine-Mittelweser-Deister-Harz) and the Langobardi on the River Elbe with the aim of subduing the unruly tribes. From these calculations the occupation of the fort can be narrowed down to the year 4 or more likely to 5 A.D.


The size of the fort makes it one of the largest sites of archaeological interest in Lower Saxony. Despite this its survival is currently under threat due to plans to extract gravel from the site for the construction industry. Gravel extraction has already had a major impact on the landscape in the region surrounding Wilkenburg. If the latest plans are carried out, the fort, which has already delivered notable finds in archaeological excavations and metal detecting surveys, would be destroyed by a gravel pit and then transformed into a reservoir. The Roman archaeological site would thus be destroyed completely. Neither the Hanover regional government nor the German Ministry for Culture (Ministerium für Wissenschaft und Kultur) recognise the need to preserve the site for future generations, although Wilkenburg could potentially yield much more archaeological information as well as being an important educational resource. The society Römer AG Leine (RAGL) was formed  in November 2015 to fight for the preservation of the Wilkenburg fort and has been active in transmitting information about the site to a wider public. This has been carried out in association with the nearby town of Hemmingen and the Niedersächsische Landesamt für Denkmalpflege, and has included the construction of information panels on the site, the distribution of flyers as well as guided tours and open days where visitors can inspect the archaeological excavations and view the finds.