Caesar in Holland: hype and scepticism

On 10 December, a blog post based on an article by Dutch journalist Theo Toebosch was published on this website about the recent news that archaeologists of the VU University in Amsterdam had discovered the site where Julius Caesar slaughtered the Usipetes and Tencteri. The event is known from Caesar’s Gallic Wars, but the battlefield hadn’t been located yet. Until now. Perhaps.

Perhaps, I would say, as archaeological news tends to be sensationalist, driven by hype. You often get the impression other factors are at work that are only tangentially related, at best, to the supposed discovery. In the past year, we’ve had more of our share of hyped-up ‘news’ to make even the most ardent supporter of the discipline sceptical of just about every press release that is published by an archaeological outfit.

In fact, the editorial for the upcoming issue of Ancient Warfare, IX.6, is about the hype-driven news machine that seems to fuel archaeological endeavours these days. As a more sober archaeologist, fully aware that all the really great discoveries have already been made, I have grown to view all archaeological news, often wrapped in hyperbole and laced with bold claims, with more and more scepticism. Modern archaeology, I think, shouldn’t be about chasing the next Big Thing – but that’s a subject for another blog post.

Scepticism about Maren-Kessel

Fortunately, I’m not alone in being suspicious of the news. For the Dutch website Erfgoedstem, archaeologist Evert van Ginkel wrote a lengthy article explaining just why the site at Maren-Kessel (or simply Kessel for short), in the southern Netherlands, perhaps shouldn’t be interpreted as a battlefield.

Van Ginkel immediately noticed the use of the word ‘genocide’ in the press release, perhaps added to make this discovery more relatable to modern audiences. The ‘genocide’ mentioned in the press release must have been massive: Caesar claims to have encountered 430,000 people, but the VU University has said that 150,000 to 200,000 seems more likely, of which 60 or 70% would have been slaughtered. Van Ginkel points out that such a mass of people would have doubled or tripled the estimated total number of inhabitants in the Netherlands back then, and slaughtering such vast quantities of people in just a few days was something that didn’t even happen between 1941 and 1945!

The earliest finds from Kessel date back to the 1970s. The material from Kessel includes swords, spearheads, a Gallic helmet, remains of cauldrons, coins, pottery, and so on. The finds also include vast quantities of bone. The recent news emphasized the human bones, numbering 650 pieces in total, several of which show signs of trauma (see this article by Muuk ter Schegget from 1999). Radiocarbon dates of 32 of these are now available: 17 date from the Late Iron Age (the period containing the fateful year 55 BC), but another 15 are from earlier prehistoric periods, the Roman period, and the Early Medieval Period, with one bone dated to the twelfth century AD.

Human bones with traces of (sometimes fatal) trauma date mostly from the Late Iron Age, but also from later periods. Now, the Late Iron Age covers two centuries, and radiocarbon dating allows for quite a large margin of error. Some of these bones may very well date from 55 BC, but there is no way to be certain, and they may be just as well ascribed to first or second century martial events we know nothing about. Times were not exactly peaceful back then, even without Roman intervention.

Importantly, the vast majority of bones – more than 100,000 of them! – are from animals. Cattle mostly, but they also include 10,000 horse bones and even a thousand dog bones. But the press release and accompanying news articles don’t mention the animal bones. The current news also avoids mentioning that the site has, until recently, been interpreted as a ritual site. The largest number of weapons and other objects date to La Tène D (especially D2), and date to between 80 and 30 BC – that includes 55 BC, but original reports indicated that it couldn’t be dated more exactly. Other finds are earlier and later, and an exact date based on typological grounds is difficult. Interestingly, the finds do include some Roman swords, but they date to the first century AD and therefore couldn’t be related to the battle. They are also not mentioned in recent press releases. Neither does any recent news article about the discovery discuss other sites that are comparable with Kessel, where the finds also include bones, weapons, and other objects.

Finally, the archaeologists of the VU University point out that isotope analysis of some of the bone material shows that these people were not local. This seems to support the idea that they were Usipetes or Tencteri, but this need not be the case. They might as well come from other areas of the Netherlands, or from further afield (Van Ginkel jokes that they might equally have come from Milan). Without comparative data the analysis is essentially meaningless.

In short, a lot is being omitted in recent discussions of Kessel to force one simple conclusion: the site should be identified with the location described by Caesar as the place where his troops slaughtered a number of Germanic peoples. The material from the site raises too many questions to make this identification solid (although not impossible). What is worse is that there is, in actual fact, no real ‘news’; as Van Ginkel rightly points out, the site and its finds have been known for years. The only really new thing is the isotope analysis, which in the end isn’t as important as some would have us believe.

My thanks to Evert van Ginkel for reading an earlier draft of this blog post and providing valuable feedback. This will be my last blog post for this year, as I am taking a bit of a break from blogging here to focus on some other duties (and possibly relax a bit). I’ll be back to writing blog posts for both Ancient Warfare and Ancient History Magazine early in the New Year. See you then!

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