Archaeologists excavating an ancient Roman site near the German city of Krefeld, just a few miles west of the Rhine, uncovered a rare Batavian mask, face-fitted for the elite Batavian cavalrymen, which dates to the first century AD, according to Arkeonews.
While digging on the site where an epic battle took place between besieged Roman legions and the attacking forces of Germanic Batavi rebels in 69 AD, the excavators found a corroded piece of metal that they could tell had once been part of a larger crafted metal object.
Four years after this initial discovery, the artifact has been positively identified as having come from a protective Batavian mask, of the type that would have been worn by one of the Batavi cavalrymen (warriors on horseback) who participated in the siege on the Roman camp.
The rare 1,953-year-old Batavian mask. (City of Krefeld, Press, and Communications)
Batavian Masks Are Rare and Only 16 Have Been Found!
Krenfeld’s city archaeologist, Dr. Hans Peter Schletter, organized the excavation at the site of the Revolt of the Batavi in 2018. Over the past few years, he and his fellow researchers have unearthed a treasure trove of items from ancient times, mainly left behind by the Romans in this area of central Germany on the Rhine River. The Roman occupiers of this area built an army encampment near modern-day Krefeld, to help maintain possession of territory in a part of the world they referred to as Germania Inferior.
Overall thousands of fascinating artifacts have been excavated, documented, and brought to the Archaeological Museum of Krefeld (a section of the larger Museum Burg Linn) for further examination. Among this impressive collection is one section of metal plate that could not be identified at the time it was unearthed.
“In the beginning there was just this lump of rust,” Dr. Schletter told the non-profit Dutch publication Archaeologie Online in a recent interview.
The metal object was subjected to intense scrutiny, which included X-ray imaging that allowed researchers to get a better look at the structure of the plate underneath the heavy coating of rust. After finding a few mask-like characteristics under the iron chunk’s corroded surface, the scientists were able to match it with a type of armored facemask that was produced only in the first century AD, in a region of the Netherlands known as the Nijmegen-Kops Plateau. Only 15 other comparable masks have ever been recovered, most in Batavi-occupied lands between the Meuse and Rhine rivers.
“That’s why it’s a clear reference to the Batavi cavalry,” explained Museum Burg Linn director Dr. Boris Burandt. It seems these customized masks were worn exclusively by Batavian cavalrymen and not by foot soldiers.
The German researchers know that the metal plate was once part of a protective covering attached to an iron helmet, which would have been hidden under a mop of horsehair shaped to look like a head of human hair. The Batavian mask itself would have had an almost lifelike appearance, as it was form-fitted to it wearer and included a full range of replicated facial features. There were only narrow slits corresponding to where the mouth, nostrils, and eyes were located, which presumably have made it difficult for the wearer to breath freely or see well in battlefield situations. Nevertheless, the mask would have helped prevent facial injury, making the loss of vision worth it.
The Conspiracy of Gaius Julius Civilis of the Batavian side against the Romans painted by Rembrandt in 1661. (Rembrandt / Public domain)
The True Story of the Revolt of the Batavi
Thousands of Roman soldiers and Batavian cavalrymen died during the Revolt of the Batavi. This immense and unexpected siege was organized and led by the Batavian rebel leader and hereditary prince Gaius Julius Civilis, a highly skilled and highly respected individual who had once been a commander of foreign auxiliary troops for the Roman Empire. He eventually turned against his Roman benefactors, after being arrested twice and falsely charged with treason by Roman governors in the Germania Inferior region where the Batavi people lived.
The Batavi had been serving the Romans as a part of foreign auxiliaries for decades, specifically since the time of the reign of Augustus as the first Roman emperor (27 BC to 14 AD). Up to 5,500 Batavi warriors joined the Roman Army during the first century AD, as infantry and as cavalrymen, and this number represented about half the military-eligible men who belonged to the small Batavi tribe (there were only about 35,000 Batavians in total living in Germania Inferior in the first century AD).
Civilis’s efforts to foment a rebellion against the Romans found a receptive audience, as the once willing servants of the Roman Empire had grown increasingly tired of the Romans’ harsh and self-serving methods of rule.
Things reached a boiling point after the overthrow of Nero as Roman Emperor in 68 AD. As Roman descended into civil war in the aftermath of this act, the various generals who were fighting for control of the Empire sought to exploit Batavian warfare prowess in some instances, and to encourage hostility between Roman soldiers and their Batavian auxiliaries in other cases.
Not willing to be used as pawns by ambitious politicians, the Batavi participated in a widespread rebellion against the Romans under Civilis’s leadership. Their goal was to drive the Romans out of their territory and establish an independent Batavian state.
A scene from the end of the Revolt of the Batavi battle, painted by Otto van Veen, in which the elite German barbarians overwhelmed the Roman forces in central Germany on the Rhine River. (Otto van Veen/ Rijksmuseum)
The Batavians enjoyed a surprising amount of success in their warfare against the Romans. Civilis was able to organize an impressive collection of several thousand soldiers and cavalrymen, which included new recruits and battle-tested Batavians who had previously served the Romans before defecting to the rebel’s side.
One of the fiercest battles is this struggle took place at Krefeld, in 69 AD. Approximately 12,000 Roman soldiers were stationed at what was then known as Gelduba, and they suffered heavy losses when they were attacked by Civilis’s highly organized force of more than 5,000 Batavian soldiers and horsemen.
According to the first-century Roman historian Tacitus, “the result was not a battle, but a slaughter.” The Batavians caught the Romans unprepared and inflicted significant damage. Eventually reinforcements came and the Romans were able to fight off the Batavians and hold onto their territorial possessions at Gelduba. By that time, however, they’d lost a lot of men and valuable equipment.
In the end, the Romans increased their manpower in Germania Inferior enough to suppress the rebellion and force the Batavians to accept a negotiated peace. But the success that the smaller Batavian forces were able to enjoy against the mighty Roman legions was never forgotten.
In the region even today, in the Netherlands in particular, the feats of the fierce and proud Batavians are still celebrated, as the Dutch have come to view those ancient Germanic warriors as some of their most important and influential ancestors.
Restoring History One Small Piece at a Time
Restoration work on the mask is ongoing. The metal plate is currently soaking in a caustic solution of lye, and it will be left in this condition for six months. This will remove the salt that is corroding the metal surface and would ultimately destroy the piece if it were not dissolved.
The rusty object was subjected to an initial sandblasting before that soaking began, and that combined with X-ray imaging revealed the outline of an eye slit, an ear, and a hole for a rivet that would have been used to attach the mask to a helmet.
Once all the cleaning and polishing is finished, the restored mask piece will be put on permanent display at the Archaeological Museum/Museum Burg Linn in Krefeld.
Top image: The rare 69-AD Batavian mask find. Source: City of Krefeld, Press, and Communications
By Nathan Falde