Journal of Archaeology in the Low Countries 4-2 (April 2013)Laura I. Kooistra; Marieke van Dinter; Monica K. Dütting; Pauline van Rijn; Chiara Cavallo: Could the local population of the Lower Rhine delta supply the Roman army? Part 1: The archaeological and historical framework

1. Introduction

In the 40s A.D. the Roman army built a series of wooden forts and watchtowers in the Rhine delta between Vechten and the North Sea coast (fig. 1). Publications have appeared on the relatively small forts (e.g. Glasbergen 1972; Haalebos 1977; Polak et al. 2004; Ozinga et al. 1989) and on the size and composition of the army (Bechert & Willems 1995; De Weert 2006; Polak 2009; idem in press). We also have information on the reason behind the military installations; in the first century they mainly functioned to protect shipping on the Rhine, and from the end of the first century also to mark the northwestern border of the Roman province Germania inferior (Graafstal in press; Polak et al. 2004, 249-250).


Figure 1 Research area in the Netherlands with Rhine delta forts projected on modern topography. Box indicates research area. (After Polak, 2009 )

A sustainable frontier, however, requires a well-organised food supply (e.g. Groenman-van Waateringe 1989) and limitless supplies of building materials. It is precisely these two important aspects that are relatively little known. The accepted belief is that both a large part of the food as well as that of the wood for construction were imported. The arguments behind this belief are that the carrying capacity of the landscape was insufficient, and that the local population was not used to producing a substantial surplus (Bloemers 1983; Van Es 1981, 166-173; Whittaker 1994). Moreover, there are a number of historical and archaeological indications for the import of food, especially. Tacitus (Hist. IV, 26) described how in the first century, forts had to be supplied by cereal ships along the river Rhine. In Nijmegen, an inscription from the second/third century was found referring to a Nervian grain trader (Driessen 2007) and a ship filled with cereals was found near the fort of Woerden; the ship dates to the last quarter of the second century, and the cereals probably came from the loess area (Pals & Hakbijl 1992). Furthermore, there is a Late Roman source that mentions grain imports from Great Britain, destined for the Roman army (Mattingly 2006, 491, 505). The same seems to apply to animal food products for the army. The revolt of the Frisians in A.D. 28 is famous, and one of the reasons behind the revolt was the size of cattle hides that was demanded by the Romans (Tacitus: Annales IV, 72-73). An indirect deduction that has been made from this is that not only the hide but the entire animal was supplied. This is why the model pictured by Bloemers (1983) has been followed for a long time: the Roman army in the Rhine delta was supplied by cereals from the loess zone (northern France, Belgium, Dutch South Limburg and the German Rhineland) and meat from the terpen region (the northern Netherlands and northern Germany). However, this model is due for a revision.

Recent research has demonstrated that, contrary to what people used to believe, the local population around the northwest frontier was fully integrated into the Roman world (e.g. Derks & Roymans 2002; Heeren 2009; Vos 2009) and involved in supplying the army with food (Groot 2008; Groot et al. 2009; Kooistra 1996; idem 2012; Vos 2009). This, despite the fact that the population lived not in villas but in wooden byrehouses (Heeren 2009; Meffert 1998; Roymans 1996; Van Londen 2006; Vos 2009; Wesselingh 2000) in a dynamic landscape with an alternation of dry and wet areas and soils rich and poor in nutrients. In this context, an infrequently used quote from Tacitus in Germania (caput 5) is interesting:

‘Their country, though somewhat various in appearance, yet generally either bristles with forests or reeks with swamps; it is more rainy on the side of Gaul, bleaker on that of Noricum and Pannonia. It is productive of grain, but unfavourable to fruit-bearing trees; it is rich in flocks and herds, but these are for the most part undersized, and even the cattle have not their usual beauty or noble head. It is number that is chiefly valued; they are in fact the most highly prized, indeed the only riches of the people’ (Tacitus Germania, caput 5,

Excavations of military installations and rural settlements in the Rhine delta have produced a wealth of data on food and on wood as a construction material. All these data combined with detailed information on the landscape make it possible to investigate to what extent the local population was involved in supplying the Roman army in the Rhine delta, and what the carrying capacity of the landscape was with regard to food and wood.

The research is based on published and unpublished archaeological, palaeo-ecological and geomorphological data. Information from historical sources and ethnographical research has also been incorporated. The research area covers a zone of five kilometres to the north and to the south of the river Rhine, from a point eight kilometres to the east of the fort at Vechten to the estuary of the Rhine near Katwijk (fig. 1). The results are published in a diptych of articles. The current article, part 1 of the diptych, analyses the data in a descriptive way. To gain insight into the required amounts of construction and fire wood and food for the Roman army and their associates, as well as in the potential scale of the food production by the local population and the carrying capacity of the landscape with regard to food and wood, a conceptual model was developed. The model will be presented in part 2, by means of an example of calculations. The combination of descriptive and mathematical archaeology leads to new insights into the supply of food and construction wood -- most importantly for the period A.D. 40 to 140 -- to the Roman army in the Rhine delta.