A Germanic harbor town found at the mouth of the Elbe River

and there were Romans there, too...

archaeological site of Germanic harbor town Nordkehdingen
The site of the harbor town, in the intensively cultivated Elbe marshes.

If we are to believe the opinion of historians up until now, the Romans would not have trusted themselves all the way to the River Elbe, in Northern Germany. According to the Roman scholar Pliny, they found the area around the mouth of the river to be too wet, so much so, he wrote, that „there is doubt whether it should be counted with the land or with the sea.“ In order to remain relatively dry, Pliny goes on, the tribes of the Chauci who lived there erected earthen dykes, „which they build with their hands, up to the height of the highest waters.“

Their main source of nourishment were the fish which remained stranded behind these dykes, after the waters retired. As for heating, they used peat. "While collecting with their hands the mud which they put to dry more with the help of the wind than that of the sun, they use this earth to warm up their food and their limbs, which are numbed by the North wind.“ In short: it was not a desirable spot for Romans.

Nobody ever thought of looking in the Lower Elbe for larger settlements, or for traces of a Roman presence. But then, three years ago, archaeologists from the district of Stade, discovered in a field, to the South of the mouth of the Elbe, in the Elbe marshes of Nordkehdingen, a settlement together with a harbor. 

„It was a place where at least a few Romans, if they were not residents, were certainly, at least at times, welcome guests,“ according to archaeologist Daniel Nösler.

To the naked eye, there is hardly anything that remains visible today of the settlement. The land looks just the way Pliny desribed it, 2000 years ago: wet, flat and treeless. Nösler points with his arm  to the North: „There it is!“ When one looks closely, one may indeed make up, at a short distance, a slight rise in the fields: the former settlement area lies all of 1m20 above the surrounding fields.The first traces were noticed by excavation technician Dietrich Alsdorf on an aerial photograph. It was possible to distinguish clearly the lines of several arms of water  losing themselves in the land. The harbor is conjectured to have been situated between those.

In the mean time, archaeologists discovered numbers of coins, beads, sherds of Roman pottery and even a fragment of a Roman bronze sculpture. The finds leave no doubt: these was not a sleepy fishing village. It was a metropolis with far-reaching trade relations – not only to the Roman empire. Two coins from the early Middle-Ages were brought here from Venice. A buckle ornated with horse heads points to an origin in the British Isles.

Most remarkable, though, are the traces of Roman luxury: a silver spoon, jewels, also a piece of a Roman cuirass. Nösler turns a gold coin between his fingers:

 „This particularly precious piece shows us that there existed here – in the Middle of Germania – an elite which was in close contact with the Roman Empire. "

coins discovered on nordkehdingen germanic harbor site
Coins discovered on the Nordkehdingen Germanic harbor site

In the second halt of the first century AD, at the time when Pliny as describing the wet earthmounds of the Chauci, the first Roman ships had already anchored in the harbor here. 

„Originally, the Elbe River was planned by the Roman emperors to become the Northeast border of the Roman empire,“ Nösler explains. „There were at least two miliary expeditions in the direction of the Elbe, one in the year 9 BC, the other in the year 5 AD. But then the devastating defeat of the Roman in the Varian disaster (Battle of Teutoburg) frustrated these plans durably. "

The newly discovered harbor at the mouth of the Elbe tells us what happened instead: trade relations were established. Additionally, a great number of Germans lent themselves out as mercenaries to the Roman army. If they survived their time in service, and returned as veterans to their Northern Germanic home country, they would bring with them gold coins, silver spoons and pretty implements.

gold coin roman emperor magnentius with loop after 350 AD found in Nordkehdingen marshes of Elbe river

To one of these veterans belonged probably the gold coin with the head of the Roman ruler  Magnentius who, on January 18, 350 became the first German to be proclaimed Roman emperor. The coin was fitted with a loop so that it could be worn around the neck with a leather tie. 

„The owner was probably a Germanic soldier who was so proud of his ‚very own‘ emperor that he worked the coin with ist likeness into a piece of jewelery,“ Nösler conjectures.

Archaeologoical finds of the harbor reach into the eleventh century. The settlement extends over a surface of almost 20 hectars, which made it as big as Hamburg in the early Middle-Ages. But in the end, the Elbe left the harbor. Alluvial slime and sediments turned the drainage channels to land, and the river moved farther north. 

Around the year 1000, ships could be moored there no longer. Greedily, the upriver towns of Stade and Hamburg took on the additional trade. The wooden houses of the formerly stately harbor city rotted away. Peasants plowed under what was left, and sowed wheat onto the flat mound. The name of t he harbor was forgotten.

It is already clear that Pliny, in his description of the Elbe Marshes, withheld a few things from his readers. But how big and grand the harbor really was can until now only be guessed. 

„All the finds we have made come only from the surface,“ concludes Nösler. "Everything here is tightly packed. At the first excavation probe, the archaeologists of the Institute of Coastal Sciences of Wilhelmshaven immediately hit on the ruins of houses.“ Nösler’s gaze runs over the barely visible elevation in the field. „But in truth, we haven’t even begun working yet.“


Angelika Franz

Translated from the German by Anne-Marie de Grazia