First Roman Temples from 2,000 Years Ago Found in the Netherlands
Dutch archaeologists from the private archaeological consulting firm RAAP recently uncovered the remains of a 2,000-year-old Roman temple complex in the Netherlands. While religious sanctuaries dating to the Netherlands’ Roman era have been found before, this is the first time the ruins of actual Roman temples have been unearthed anywhere in the country, part of which comprised the northernmost territory of the legendary Roman Empire at the height of its power.
This unprecedented discovery was announced on June 20 in a press release from the Netherlands Cultural Heritage Agency. It resulted from excavations that took place in the village of Herwin-Hemeling in the east-central province of Gelderland near the Netherlands-German border. This area is located close to what remains of the Roman Limes (Limes Germanicus), a series of frontier outposts and fortifications that were installed along the Roman Empire’s extreme northern border to protect against invasion by untamed Germanic tribes from further north.
The Limes Germanicus is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The discovery of the long-lost Roman temple complex in the same area has revealed new and valuable information about the Roman culture that built the Limes fortifications and occupied Roman lands in the far north between the first and fifth centuries AD.
Unearthing the well next to the remains of two Roman temples that were recently discovered near the village of Herwin-Hemeling in the Netherlands. (©RAAP)
The Dutch Roman Temples: A Spectacular Sacred Site!
The discovery of the Roman temple complex on Dutch land was quite a surprise to the archaeologists responsible for its excavation. They knew there was a Roman settlement or outpost of some type at the site before they started digging, because they’d been alerted to its presence by amateur archaeologists who’d unearthed a few ancient Roman artifacts there in 2021.
The professional excavations were launched soon after these amateurs reported what they’d found to local authorities. While hopes of finding further ruins and artifacts ran high, none of the RAAP archaeologists expected to unearth something so rare and spectacular.
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During their excavations, the archaeologists found the ruins of at least two Roman temples that were apparently used between the first and fourth centuries AD. One of these was a large Gallo-Roman temple that had been constructed on a hill, which featured a tiled roof and brightly painted walls. The second temple was smaller and located just a few meters away from the first. The archaeologists believe other Roman temples may eventually be uncovered at the site, which appears to have been an important religious gathering place for Roman soldiers stationed in the area.
While the temples were a noteworthy find all by themselves, many fascinating artifacts have also been unearthed.
“The remains of statues of deities, reliefs and painted plasterwork have all been discovered at the site,” the Cultural Heritage Agency announced in its press release. “One particularly remarkable feature is the discovery of several complete votive stones, dedicated to various gods and goddesses. This is a highly unusual find in the Netherlands, but also in international terms.”
Votive stones are small altars, and those found at the Herwin-Hemeling site were erected by Roman soldiers.
One of the votive blocks or small altars dedicated to the gods found at one of the two Roman temples, the first ever found on Dutch soil. (©RAAP)
"High-ranking Roman officers erected dozens of votive stones to give thanks to a god or goddess for fulfilling their wishes,” the Cultural Heritage Agency statement explained. “These did not always relate to winning battles. Simply surviving a stay in these northern regions, sometimes far from home, was often reason enough to give thanks."
Some of these votive stones honored Hercules Magusanus, a hybrid figure who represented a melding of the Greek-Roman Hercules and a mythic hero named Magusanus who was worshipped among the Germanic tribes that occupied the area before and during Roman times. Others were dedicated to Jupiter-Serapis, a syncretic deity that merged the king of the Roman gods Jupiter with an Egyptian god known as Serapis. Still more were put up to honor Mercury, a Roman god who acted as a messenger between the realm of the living and the land of the dead.
In addition to the votive stones and associated statues of the gods, the archaeologists also found the remains of deep pits where Roman soldiers serving on the frontier had lit large sacrificial fires. They also discovered inscribed roof tiles, plasterwork decorated with painted images, and many broken remnants of limestone sculptures.
Left: Roman roof tile with inscription; Right: Fragment of a Roman altar stone. (©RAAP)
The inscriptions on the tiles show the temple complex was used primarily by Roman soldiers, the archaeologists say. Further evidence of a military presence was uncovered at the site, including battle armor, horse harnesses, and the tips of spears and lances.
The Roman Empire in the Netherlands, Then and Now
It was the first century military campaign of Julius Caesar against Gaul (modern-day France and Belgium, plus parts of Germany and the United Kingdom) that brought the Romans to the Netherlands region.
As a result of his success in the Gallic Wars, Caesar acquired much land around the Rhine River, which was occupied by several different Belgic tribes in what is now the southern Netherlands. These smaller groups were no match for the Romans, and in approximately 55 BC the people of the ancient southern Netherlands were subdued, and their lands incorporated into the expanding Roman Republic.
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Under the later authority of the Roman Empire, the southern half of the modern Netherlands were incorporated into a Roman province known as Germania Inferior. Roman occupation of Germania Inferior lasted until the early years of the fifth century AD, when the Franks became the dominant people in the region.
The fierce Franks had begun to intrude on Roman territory in the Netherlands as early as the third century, and as the Romans declined in power they gradually lost their capacity to preserve their authority in their northern territories.
Evidence suggests the Roman temple complex at Herwin-Hemeling was abandoned sometime in the fourth century AD. As time passed most Roman buildings in the Netherlands were either rebuilt, repurposed, or torn down completely, which is one reason why the archaeologists working at Herwin-Hemeling were so delighted to uncover the ruins of the temple complex still preserved in its original form.
Many of the artifacts discovered during the recent excavations will be put on display at a museum in Nijmegen, which is Gelderland’s largest city. This is certainly an appropriate choice, since the city of Nijmegen is actually a Roman-founded settlement that celebrated its 2,000-year anniversary in 2005.
Top image: An inscribed section of an altar stone in situ at one of the two Roman temples discovered in Herwin-Hemeling in the Netherlands near the German border. Source: ©RAAP
By Nathan Falde