Archeology: The Last Intact Roman Rail Armor – Knowledge

The iron parts are corroded, but their function is clearly recognizable. The buckles with which the wearer fastens them in front of the chest look as if they are still functional. Even crystallized leather parts have been preserved. The Roman rail armor, which is now on display in a special exhibition at the Varusschlacht Museum in Kalkriese near Osnabrück until November 5, should look familiar to anyone who has ever seen a sandal film set in the time of the Roman Empire. And yet this is the first nearly complete armor of this type ever found.

This find was like “winning the lottery with an additional number,” says Stefan Burmeister, managing director and head of the collection in Kalkriese. The archaeologists did not immediately realize what kind of significant lump it was that was unearthed in the summer of 2018 during excavations on the presumed Varus Battle site in southern Lower Saxony.

The only thing that was initially clear was that an unusually large metal object had been lifted here. But only a scan in the world’s largest publicly accessible computer tomograph at the Fraunhofer Institute in Fürth brought certainty: It was what is now known as Lorica segmentata. Except for damage in the shoulder area, probably caused by a plow centuries later, the tank was completely preserved.

Roman armor design also had a weakness

This type of armor had only just been introduced in the course of the Augustan army reform when it was used in the year 9 AD at the Battle of Varus. It was lighter, quicker to make, easier to repair, and better protected against blunt blows than the mail shirt that had been standard legion equipment until then. One can only speculate as to why none of these tanks had ever been found before on the territory of the former Roman Empire, and hundreds of thousands, even millions, must have been produced over the centuries. Stefan Burmeister points out that the material was valuable, so most of the armored rails were probably dismantled at some point and their parts recycled.

The best-preserved Lorica segmentata to date comes from Corbridge, England, near Hadrian’s Wall. It was discovered there in 1964 in the excavated remains of a wooden box. But the example presented now from Kalkriese is far more complete. However, it was also in a much worse condition because the individual parts had been compressed over the centuries by the overlying layers of earth. In addition, the soil in Kalkriese is very acidic and attacked the metal. It is “fragile like glass,” says restorer Christiane Matz. So have other recent finds near the armor, such as the tip of a Roman javelin, a dagger sheath, and a chain that may have been used by a mule.

After the 403 fragments of the tank were glued together with a special two-component glue, it turned out that this early model looked the same in many ways as the later ones. The shoulder area alone was less elaborate and also had a design weakness: the plates that protected the front shoulder area and upper arm tended to bend – this was found in tests with a replica in Kalkriese.

The legionnaire may have fallen into a bush and was therefore overlooked

The legionary wearing this armor took part in what is believed to be the infamous defeat of Publius Quinctilius Varus at the hands of the Cheruscan Teutonic leader Arminius, one of the costliest military ventures in Roman history. The rail armor carrier would therefore have been a member of one of the three legions XVII, XVIII or XIX that were destroyed in the Varus Battle. But what became of him?

For a time, the most plausible hypothesis was that the Roman was captured alive and bound with the fiddle that lay by the rail armor. The Romans used these combined neck and handcuffs to restrain prisoners. However, the fact that the buckles of the tank were open and the neck fiddle with the handcuffs was pointing towards the tank’s neck area cast doubt on this scenario.

It is also possible that the legionnaire’s body was so decomposed when it was found that the Germans refrained from looting it. Maybe he was lying in a bush and was overlooked. Whatever the reason for the armor surviving over the centuries, it is a find that is unique in this form, which gives reason to hope that more spectacular pieces are waiting to be discovered on the Varus battlefield.

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