Buried Roman Canal and Road Unearthed in the Netherlands

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Buried Roman Canal and Road Unearthed in the Netherlands

Archaeologists from the Dutch consultancy firm RAAP have unearthed a 2,000-year-old Roman highway and canal not far from the city of Nijmegen in the 

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Archaeologists from the Dutch consultancy firm RAAP have unearthed a 2,000-year-old Roman highway and canal not far from the city of Nijmegen in the  Netherlands. The buried highway and Roman canal were found near the location of several ancient Roman military camps, which just a few days ago were officially designated as  UNESCOWorld Heritage sites. 

The Romans typically constructed many such roads in the territories they occupied. They were needed to allow for the efficient movement of troops and material goods between Roman military posts or settlements. But they constructed  canals much more rarely, which makes the discovery of the 33-foot-wide (10 meter) canal quite rare and remarkable.

The Roman canal is visible as a light yellow lane within the brown natural background. ( RAAP)

The Roman Empire in the Netherlands

“The canal is large enough for ships from Roman times,” the archaeologists explained in  a RAAP press release announcing their discoveries. “These were probably mainly army ships that transported soldiers, but also food, building material and other things.”

They archaeologists believe the  canal was dug to connect the city of Nijmegen (founded by the Romans in the first century AD) with the Rhine River. The Rhine would ultimately function as  the northern border of the Roman Empire during the height of its power, and it was first secured when Roman Republic forces under  Julius Caesar  conquered what is now the southern Netherlands in 55 BC.

Caesar was sent to Europe to subdue Celtic tribes that occupied Gaul (modern-day France and Belgium). During these  Gallic Wars , he marched eastward into the area immediately to the south of the Rhine, incorporating that vital waterway into what would soon become the Roman Empire. 

Of course, like any other border, the Rhine would have needed protection. “Many Roman soldiers were therefore stationed along the Rhine,” the Dutch researchers explained in the  RAAP press release . “The soldiers had to be able to move easily and needed a lot of stuff. The canal thus played an important role.” The Roman canal and highway were built next to each other, so that Roman forces moving across the land would have quick and direct access to supply ships sailing alongside them up the canal. 

RAAP archaeologist and excavation leader Eric Noord was thrilled to discover the buried road. He told the news service  France 24  that it will provide valuable data about Roman infrastructure initiatives in the  Netherlands, where Roman Empire forces remained for almost five centuries (from 55 BC to 410 AD). While the Roman canal is now a dry bed, the two-lane Roman highway was so well preserved it is still covered with its original gravel paving.

Excavations at the Roman canal site in the Netherlands also unearthed artifacts including an ancient oil lamp. ( RAAP)

Another Amazing Discovery: A Skeleton from the Era of Charlemagne 

Once they had uncovered the road, the archaeologists began digging around looking for items that could be dated to Roman times. So far, they’ve unearthed a handful of Roman artifacts from that era, including the remains of an  ancient oil lamp , an iron spearhead, a bronze coat hook, and a small silver pin. 

But the most surprising artifact they uncovered during their excavations was an intact skeleton, which was buried in a grave in the same general area. This skeleton was actually discovered in March, before the  Roman road , and tests have revealed it to be approximately 1,200 years old. This means the person buried there lived around  Nijmegenmore than 300 years after the Romans had departed.

During the archaeological test trench research, a skeleton from the early Middle Ages was found near  Nijmegen. ( De Betuwse Waard )

This individual would have resided in the Netherlands right around the time it was absorbed into the eighth century Frankish Empire created by the legendary  Charlemagne. The  Franks were one of several Germanic peoples that invaded the territory around Nijmegen in the 5th century, and it was these actions that motivated the Romans to abandon their Rhine River frontier. 

It was Charlemagne who ultimately united much of central and western Europe into one state in the Early Middle Ages, expanding his Frankish Empire into the more powerful Carolingian Empire. Charlemagne was the first European ruler to achieve the title of emperor following the fall of the Roman Empire, and being included under the umbrella of his expanded kingdom did offer a certain amount to stability and security for smaller states and kingdoms. If there´d been something of a vacuum of power in Europe following the fall of the Roman Empire, it was  Charlemagne who finally filled it

It is known that Charlemagne was highly enamored of the city of Nijmegen. In fact, he built a palace there that was said to be his favorite residence, and he spent quite a bit of his time staying in the area. This doesn´t mean the skeleton found buried during the excavations belonged to someone who knew him, or served him in some way, but that is a possibility that can´t be ruled out. 

Connecting Infrastructure Projects from the Past and Present 

The RAAP researchers made these historically significant discoveries in the  Netherlands while performing excavations along the route of the soon-to-be modified Wolferen-Sprok dyke, which is in need of upgrading. Such excavations are standard in European countries and are usually ordered in advance of construction projects that could potentially damage valuable archaeological finds.

While the archaeologists were excited to find evidence of ancient  Roman infrastructure , they were just as delighted to find a skeleton in the area dating to the Frankish-Carolingian era. Further excavations around the dyke may produce artifacts from multiple civilizations, deepening historical knowledge about the societies and cultures that lived in the southern Netherlands in much earlier times. 

It isn´t known for sure how long the Roman road and canal were in use, or under which society they were finally abandoned. That information could emerge once archaeologists have had more time to explore the area, perform tests, and analyze any new items or ruins they discover.

Top image: Archaeologists in the Netherlands have discovered a rare Roman canal and Roman road near Nijmegen. Source:  RAAP

By Nathan Falde

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