Lost Roman Battlefield in Switzerland Discovered Through Thousands of Artifacts

In 2019, a spectacular Roman dagger was metal detected in a remote region of the Swiss Alps. Now, a team of scientists and students have mapped a 2,000-year-old Roman battlefield representing the last stand of the Suanetes tribe, and the collapse of the region to the Roman Empire.

Dating back to around 15 BC, the Roman dagger was found amidst a series of archaeological sites that were identified around twenty years ago, in Oberhalbstein (Graubünden, Switzerland), near Crap-Ses Gorge and the Septimer Pass. At that time, researchers discovered molded lead sling bullets with stamps from the 3rd, 10th, and 12th Roman Legions, suggesting a major battle had occurred somewhere in the surrounding alpine landscapes.

Lost Roman Battlefield in Switzerland Discovered Through Thousands of Artifacts

A dagger found from 15 BC in Oberhalbstein (Graubünden, Switzerland), before and after restorations. (Archaeological Service Graubünden)

Excavations in 2007 and 2008 uncovered a 1.3-hectare tented Roman camp that was occupied during 16/15 BC, and continually into the mid-second decade AD. This discovery cemented suspicions that Roman forces had clashed with a local tribal militia, somewhere in the Crap Ses Gorge.

Over the past two years, teams of researchers and students from the universities of Basel and Zurich, assisted by metal detectorists, have unearthed thousands of Roman military artifacts from a wildflower strewn hillside, representing the first hard evidence of a Roman battle site ever discovered in Switzerland.

A large metal detecting sweep was launched to search the site. (Office for Culture / Archaeological Service Graubünden)

A large metal detecting sweep was launched to search the site. (Office for Culture / Archaeological Service Graubünden)

Where Steal Slashed Leather, For Land

The tranquil alpine meadow in southeast Switzerland, near the Crap-Ses Gorge, was once a blood-soaked battle site where just over 2,000 years ago, thousands of highly-armored and skilled Roman soldiers slashed their way through the leather clothing and wooden shields of local tribes.

Located on the flank of the Julier Valley, south of Chur, the battle site is situated in the Julier Pass, a mountain pass in the Albula Alps. This ancient trade route connected the Engadin valley with the rest of Graubünden, and the greater Roman Empire. Around 15 BC, Roman troops penetrated this region of the Alps, forcing local Suanetes tribes to unite and stand their ground in a final stand-off, resisting Roman occupation of their ancestral territory.

A stamped sling bullet found at the Crap-ses Gorge site. (Office for Culture / Archaeological Service Graubünden)

A stamped sling bullet found at the Crap-ses Gorge site. (Office for Culture / Archaeological Service Graubünden)

Academics and Treasure Hunters United

Over the past two years, 40 scientists from the universities of Basel and Zurich have teamed up with volunteer metal detectorists. Together, they have unearthed swords, slingshot bullets, silver brooches and coins, the remains of shields, and several thousand Roman “hobnails.”

The research project was led by Professor Peter-Andrew Schwarz, an archaeologist at the University of Basel. In a SwissInfo article Schwarz said that the recount excavations represent “the first and only time” that Swiss students have been able to work on a real Roman battlefield.

Putting The Battle Into Context

With the discovery of the Julier Valley battlefield, it is now known the southerly Roman camp at the Septimer mountain pass had served as the Roman soldiers’ final stopover, where they rested, restored their march-worn feet, and sharpened their swords for their impending affair against the Suanetes. Dr. Hannes Flück, a project coordinator, said the archaeological evidence suggests a 2,000-strong Roman force, comprising three military units, faced between 500-1,000 local fighters, who strategically held the top of the hill in the Crap-Ses gorge.

Based on their finds, the researchers have published a 3D recreation of the 15 BC battle between the Roman troops and local Suanetes. The computer model was greatly based on the locations of individual crossbow bolts, and the heaps of lozenge-shaped lead slingshot bullets, which comprise a data set revealing where specific mallees and skirmishes occurred.

Roman Warfare In High Resolution

Dr. Schwarz said that among the thousands of recovered artifacts, “the most important finds” are the 2,500 hobnails, that were used to fasten Roman soldiers boots. The team will now plot each hobnail to ascertain exactly where “the fighters stood or fell, and the course of the battle.”

Roman hobnail boot replica. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Roman hobnail boot replica. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

In conclusion, Dr. Flück said the distribution of the finds, and the amount of broken pieces of equipment, makes it quite clear “that the Suanetes lost.” After their defeat of the Suanetes, the Romans marched up the Swiss Plateau, along the Rhine, and ultimately swooped Switzerland to the fold of the swelling Roman empire.

Top image: A computer-generated image of the battle that is thought to have taken place on a remote mountainside south of Chur around 15 BC between Roman troops advancing northwards through the Alps and local Suanetes. Source: Courtesy of Leona Detig

By Ashley Cowie