Roman Villas in Limburg - Exhibition Review

By Lauren van Zoonen

When thinking of the Roman Empire, the little country by the North Sea known as the Netherlands may not come to mind, let alone its southernmost province known as Limburg. In the Roman period, however, Limburg was a thriving part of the empire, grown wealthy through its grain production that was in great demand in the wider area, ultimately leading to the highest concentration of villas in the Netherlands. The travelling exhibition 'Roman Villas in Limburg', currently on view at the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden (hereafter: RMO), brings these villas, and the people who lived in Limburg over 1500 years ago, back to life with stunning reconstructions and both interesting and beautiful objects.

Caesar’s nemesis

With its rolling hills and endless fields, the southern part of Limburg truly stands out from the rest of the Netherlands which is a predominantly flat country. In the first century BC, this landscape would have featured small self-sufficient farming hamlets amongst fields of swaying grain stalks. 

Conditions for agriculture were excellent in Limburg due to its fertile soil types (loess and river clay), and the first room of the exhibition at the RMO contains a display showing the tools of the trade, such as sickles, scythes, and other utensils used at this time. One can only imagine how backbreaking farming must have been, and the introduction of new techniques, such as the vallus (a Gallo-Roman harvesting mechanism), must have come as a welcome relief.

At this time, Limburg was populated by the Eburones, who were a Gallic-Germanic tribe dwelling in an area situated between the Ardennes and Eifel region in the south, and the Rhine-Meuse delta in the north. The Eburones were a force to be reckoned with, as Julius Caesar discovered during his campaigns in Gaul. In his Gallic Wars, Caesar reports the massacre of the Eburones around 53 BC, which he ordered out of revenge.

A pitchfork on display at the RMO (© Lauren van Zoonen)

Atuatuca, the Eburones' primary settlement, and every village and building his troops could find in their territory were burnt, and thousands of Eburones are said to either have been murdered or sold along with their livestock. In addition, Caesar invited neighboring tribes to invade and plunder the Eburones’ territory, his goal being the annihilation of the tribe, and their name (Gallic Wars, 6.34–35). 

A limestone funerary relief from Germania Inferior depicitng the innovative harvesting tool known as the vallus (© Carole Raddato)

Whether the massacre of the Eburones as described by Caesar actually took place is a matter of debate. The archaeological record, however, does show signs of a demographic decrease in their territory, amongst others in Limburg. To fill in the gaps, newcomers were brought in by the Romans from various neighbouring regions.

Limburg: Breadbasket of Roman cities and army camps 

In the first century AD, in the wake of emperor Augustus’ military expansion east, fortifications popped up along the Limes Germanicus where troops were permanently stationed. Cities, such as Xanten (Colonia Ulpia Traiana), emerged in Germania Inferior, to which Limburg also belonged, and the Romans began to build roads, such as the Via Belgica, and bridges to more easily move soldiers and other goods.

Along these roads, small settlements (such as the Dutch city now known as Venlo) arose, consisting of a mansio (an inn) where travellers and traders could spend the night, as well as shops, taverns, and a few houses. Some of these settlements grew into cities, such as Maastricht (Mosa Trajectum) and Heerlen (Coriovallum), boasting other facilities, including bathing complexes and temples. All these people in Limburg and its surroundings needed to be fed, and by the end of the first century AD, there was an explosive growth of farmsteads (villae rusticae) in Limburg.

The villa rustica

The villa rustica can best be described as a large estate consisting of a main building (the villa) and other outbuildings such as sheds, storage rooms, workshops, and a horreum (granary). The villa served as a residence for the owner of the property and his family but was also the administrative centre of the estate and a place where guests could be received. The estate itself was home to many others, such as the villicus (overseer), and land workers.

Like Rome, the villae rusticae of Limburg were not built in a day but rather evolved from the small wooden farms with thatched roofs that were rebuilt every few decades due to their organic building materials. It was only at the end of the second century and beginning of the third century that stone foundations were laid, and the villas took on a more Mediterranean style. Wealthy homeowners might adorn their estates with ponds and gardens, and they could also afford a large gateway with a path leading towards the villa. The exhibition at the RMO boasts various fragments of Jupiter Columns which adorned such pathways and had a religious purpose.

Reconstructing the past 

Some twenty villas have been excavated in Limburg, but their remains are scarce. To get a sense of what these villas looked like, the exhibition features two models of Roman villas as well as reconstructions in 3D – based on the latest research – projected onto a wall. These reconstructions are supplemented with tangible remains of, for example, roof tiles (tegulae and imbrices), glass from windows, locks and keys, and parts of an underfloor heating system (hypocaustum). By the third century AD, the villa rustica reached its zenith in terms of size, and some villas were even equipped with a separate bathhouse, as at the villa of Lemiers, for example.

Moving on to the next room of the exhibition, one gets a sense of the interior of these villas, which was also decorated and furnished according to Roman tastes: floor tiles made of natural stone, murals, and in the case of the villa of Bocholtz-Vlengendaal, remains of a mosaic floor have been found. The mural fragments from the villa of Maasbracht have been beautifully reconstructed at the RMO, depicting scenes from mythology and of gladiatorial combat. In this setting, visitors can admire some of the domestic items found in Limburg, such as bronze, ceramic, and glass tableware, a boardgame, bathing equipment, writing utensils, and furniture components.

A fragment of a Jupiter Column, dated to AD 1-300 (© Lauren van Zoonen)

The Lady of Simpelveld

Besides the villas of Limburg, the exhibition draws special attention to the various graves and their contents found in this Dutch province. The grave goods that have come to light provide an insight into, for example, the social status of those living here in the Roman period, and finds range from amber sculptures, jewellery, and glass dishes to turtle shell plates from a wooden box, and even an Egyptian tambourine (sistrum). 

In addition to the cemeteries unearthed in Limburg, some of the deceased were found ‘closer to home’, so to speak, as they were buried in the vicinity of a villa, as at Bocholtz, Nieuwenhagen, and Stein. One of the finest examples of such a burial, and one of masterpieces of the RMO, is the so-called Lady of Simpelveld. Her sandstone sarcophagus was discovered along with two others in the vicinity of the villa of Simpelveld and is dated to AD 150–175.

Model of the Roman villa Mook-Plasmolen (© Lauren van Zoonen)

The sarcophagus of the Lady of Simpelveld contained the remains of a woman who had been buried with various items. What which makes this particular sarcophagus stand out, however, is its interior, of which the four sides have been decorated with reliefs depicting a furnished villa with cabinets, tables, and a chair, including a woman reclining on a couch, but also portray the exterior of a villa, providing additional information to the archaeological record. For this exhibition, a 3D-model (open to touching) has been created, but the real sarcophagus can also be admired as it is part of the RMO’s permanent collection. 

A view of the interior of the Lady of Simpelveld sarcophagus (© Rijksmuseum van Oudheden)

A melting pot of cultures 

The sepulchral context of Limburg not only tells us much about the social status of certain members of society, but also provides an insight into the origins of the people living here (despite their efforts to come across as ‘Roman’). The most significant ethnicities living here were Celts and Germans, as attested through garments and hairdos, as well as names displayed on their funerary steles. One example in the exhibition is the grave stele of a woman named Ammaca Gamaleda, dated to ca. AD 100–300.

The evidence regarding the deities worshipped in Limburg is another give-away: besides the gods of the Roman pantheon, local deities were also revered here, and some villas even boasted their own little chapels or temples.

Evidence of public temples has also been found in Limburg, at Maastricht, for example, but also in Buchten, where the goddess Arcanua was worshipped. A lovely find discovered here is the so-called Rooster from Buchten, dated to AD 175–300. It was dedicated to Arcanua by a man named Ulpius Verenus, who served in the Sixth Legion, and presumably bought this rooster in Britain. Although Limburg itself did not boast any permanent military camps, the presence of the Roman army along the limes was very much felt here, and many veterans took up residence in Limburg (some of whom would have originated from different parts of the Roman Empire).

Decline and abandonment 

In the third century AD, trouble was brewing in the Roman Empire, and the disturbance would eventually be felt in Limburg. Around the second half of the third century AD, Limburg’s population decreased, and the archaeological record shows signs of militarization taking place. In addition, evidence of burning has been uncovered at various villas, such as the villas of Kerkrade-Holzkuil and Heer-Backerbosch. 

Precious items were sometimes left behind, either as a possible gift to the gods or with the intention of collecting these personal belongings once the coast was clear, but in the end, they were retrieved by archaeologists. These objects range from coin hoards to a bronze tripod with pot, dated to AD 200–300, found in the basement of the villa of Heer-Backerbosch along with several other metal objects. 

After AD 300, nature took its course and many villas became overgrown or were used as a quarry, only to be rediscovered and excavated, particularly in the first half of the 20th century. Only time will tell what other surprises lie in store in the fertile soil of Limburg.

A bronze tripod with a pot that was left at a villa in Limburg in the third century (© Lauren van Zoonen)

About the exhibition

The exhibition ‘Roman Villas in Limburg’ is based on new research conducted in 2022 and 2023 by the RMO,  The Roman Museum in Heerlen  (formerly the Thermenmuseum),  The Limburgs Museum in Venlo , and the National Cultural Heritage Agency. The exhibition was established through a partnership of the above mentioned museums and will be on display at the RMO until 25 August 2024, after which it will feature in The Limburgs Museum (15 October 2024 – 11 May 2025) and The Roman Museum (Summer 2025 – 5 January 2026). 

1 comment

New information to me, and, as a Dutch resident, very interesting. The sort of exhibition I would enjoy visiting.

Andrew Fuller

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