Unique Roman dagger found in Germany


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In spring 2019, archaeologists from the Landschaftsverband Westfalen-Lippe (LWL) made two unusual finds in the Roman burial ground at Haltern am See: the elaborately decorated dagger of a legionnaire and the accompanying weapon belt. This discovery has a rarity value: there is no other such well-preserved combination of this weapon with scabbard and the matching belt in Europe. After their discovery, the elaborately decorated dagger and belt were restored in an exacting process in the LWL restoration workshop in Munster.

Unique Roman dagger found in Germany
Reconstruction of how the dagger might have originally appeared
[Credit: Elif Siebenpfeiffer]

“The discovery of Roman light weapons during archaeological excavations is always something very special. It was therefore immediately clear that the dagger and its belt needed to be examined and restored as best as possible. Because behind every archaeologist who digs for finds there is a restorer who restores the finds in such a way that the museum people can show them off,” explains LWL Cultural Affairs Director Dr. Barbara Ruschoff-Parzinger. Thanks to the comprehensive restoration, the dagger and belt have almost completely regained their original appearance.

At first glance, the numerous decorations on the handle and scabbard, especially on the front, are striking. These include many silver outlines and surfaces which are worked into the iron sheets. They produce patterns of diamonds, crescents and leaves. These are referred to as inversions. In this technique, depressions were first cut or beaten into the sheets. These depressions were then covered with fine wires and thin sheets of silver and brass. The scientists were able to prove that some silver threads were made from strips of sheet metal that were only 0.15 to 0.2 millimetres thick and twisted in themselves.

Unique Roman dagger found in Germany
Hardly recognizable: At the time of its discovery, the Dagger was surrounded 
by a thick layer of corrosion [Credit: LWL/Josef Muhlenbrock]
Unique Roman dagger found in Germany
Even before the restoration, the X-ray showed the rich decoration 
of the dagger [Credit: LWL/Eugen Musch]

In addition, the dagger has inlays of red enamel and also red, pure glass. Enamel is a mixture of various minerals that are melted into the indentations at high temperatures to produce a material similar to glass. “Of course, we cannot make an object that is 2,000 years old look like new,” says LWL restorer Eugen Musch. “However, the many colours of black, silver, red and gold largely correspond to the former appearance.”

For all the beauty of the weapon, Musch emphasizes: “It is not primarily a question of obtaining objects with antiquarian value, but rather of gaining information.” In order to obtain important clues about the manufacture and condition of the finds, the dagger and the belt were x-rayed and computer-tomographically examined before restoration.

Dagger in CT

While conventional X-ray images only produce two-dimensional images, computer tomography images show the objects in many layers that can be viewed individually. “On the basis of the CT images, for example, we were able to see that the handle is composed of numerous individual components made of different materials, which are connected with eight riveting pins. The images also provide information about the preservation of the exchange work and the condition of the numerous enamel inlays. This information is of great importance for the subsequent restoration,” says Musch. In addition, the CT scan revealed that the blade of the dagger is made of different steels that were welded together in the forge.

Unique Roman dagger found in Germany
Fortunately, LWL restorer Eugen Musch succeeded in removing 
the dagger from its sheath [Credit: LWL/Eugen Musch]
Unique Roman dagger found in Germany
Shines in its old glory: After restoration, the dagger can hardly be seen 
to be 2,000 years old [Credit: LWL/Eugen Musch]

The belt also consists of numerous elements. The leather was densely covered with bronze or brass plates. To give the impression of expensive silver, the metal plates were covered with tin. The belt has two hooks into which the dagger was hung by means of leather loops. There are still parts of the belt leather left, which even show seams. Flax was used as thread.

“Nowadays, scientific analysis and interdisciplinary work are necessary prerequisites for any research,” explains Prof. Michael Rind, Director of LWL Archaeology for Westphalia. For example, the dagger’s sheath consists of a wooden core, which was determined as lime wood at the University of Cologne. The exact chemical composition of the metals and the glass inlays was also analyzed.

Excavation in Haltern

The dagger and belt were found by the 19-year-old intern Nico Calmund in April 2019 during an excavation in the Roman cemetery of Haltern am See in cooperation with the University of Trier. The inhabitants of the military camp 2,000 years ago buried their dead here mainly in urn graves covered by a mound. To the great surprise of the excavators, however, the two finds did not lie in the burial mound itself, but in the backfilling of a trench which served as an enclosure for the mound.

Unique Roman dagger found in Germany
Block excavation: The many individual parts of the belt were taken along with the 
surrounding soil for laboratory analysis [Credit: LWL/Jens Schubert]
Unique Roman dagger found in Germany
The belt recovered in the block was x-rayed to get a first impression 
of its condition [Credit: LWL/Eugen Musch]

“For a classical burial place, this find site is very unusual”, says LWL Rome expert Dr. Bettina Tremmel. How the two objects got into the trench cannot be determined archaeologically. “An accidental loss of the precious weapon and belt at this location seems unlikely. It is conceivable, for example, that the dagger was put down after the burial in memory of the comrade buried here – but this is pure speculation.”

There is no doubt, however, that the dagger from Haltern is one of the most important finds of its kind in Europe. “The combination of a completely preserved blade, scabbard and defence belt, including the important information about the exact location of the find, is unprecedented to this day”, confirms LWL chief archaeologist Rind.

Laborious restoration

The restoration of the dagger and belt took three quarters of a year. Especially the restoration of iron in combination with other materials is costly because the material forms thick layers of corrosion. Through a combination of grinding techniques and sandblasting, the restorer removed these corrosion layers piece by piece. This was the only way to get back to the so-called original surface, which in the case of the dagger was also affected by iron corrosion.

Unique Roman dagger found in Germany
The dagger was attached to the hooks of the belt by leather straps 
[Credit:  LWL/Eugen Musch]

The challenge for Musch was that these layers only showed minimal differences in hardness and appearance. At the same time, corrosion bubbles caused spatial distortions, which he corrected as far as possible. “One can imagine that the original surface is on different levels – simple grinding is not possible. When you consider that the silver decorations are only 0.15 to 0.3 millimetres in places, it becomes clear how carefully you have to work”, Musch explains.

Musch succeeded in removing the dagger from its sheath without damage during the restoration. This intervention not only allowed insights into the scabbard design, but also provided the opportunity to take a closer look at the characteristically curved blade with the incised blood channels.

As laborious as the restoration of such finds is, it does reveal many details: clear signs of use on the dagger, for example. Already during its use some silver inlays were lost. On the pommel front, missing parts were only replaced with brass instead of silver. Especially the abrasion on the rings and suspension loops speaks for a longer service life.

The dagger and its weapon belt are to be exhibited from March 2022 in the LWL-Romermuseum in Haltern as part of the North Rhine-Westphalia State Archaeological Exhibition. Under the overall theme “Rome’s flowing borders”, five museums highlight the Lower Germanic Limes and the surrounding region.

Background and scientific classification

The weapon found is a Roman military dagger, Latin “Pugio”. The Pugio was used by foot soldiers in close combat. Based on the narrow blade shape and the construction, the Halterner find can be clearly assigned to the earliest Roman military daggers of the “Vindonissa” type. A comparable dagger had already been found in Haltern in 1967 – but without sheath and belt. Weapons of this type were in use mainly in the first half of the 1st century AD. They occur in an area whose centre extends from northern Italy to the mouth of the Rhine and also includes the southern part of the British Isles.

Source: Landschaftsverband Westfalen-Lippe (LWL) [Trsl. TANN, February 15, 2020]



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