Our project

Work package 2 focuses on the Roman-period archaeology of the wider borderscape of the Lower Germanic limes. The aim is to understand how the limes functioned, and what its impact was on communities on either side of it. Was the limes closed and did it function as a barrier between people in the Roman province and Germanic communities north of it? Or was it in some periods not closed at all? At the same time, the limes may have functioned as a highway from west to east, facilitating road and river transport along the Rhine. These themes will be clarified by studied by, firstly, including data of excavated settlements and burial sites on either side of the Rhine, extending over an area from Northern France & Belgium to Northwestern Germany. Secondly, the phenomenon of temporary camps will be studied: how do the temporary camps relate to more permanent military fortifications? Thirdly, distribution maps of material culture of various periods and varying nature will be compiled, and it is mainly the differences between these maps that yield valuable insights into the way goods (and people?) move. The data on these object distributions will be gathered in close collaboration with volunteers, using the existing PAN-database, while the various actions in this work package also contributes to the addition of more finds documentation. For assessing the nature of the limes and its impact on rural communities through time, various phases ranging from the period before the imposition of the limes to the afterlife of Roman structures in the Early Middle Ages will be studied.

These issues will be studied through a number of sub-projects, in which many partners will participate. The workpackage connects and combines various ongoing efforts and will also start new research.

Work package 3 will determine the spatial and temporal effects the limes had on human mobility patterns, diet, and health during the Roman period. Research makes use of revolutions in isotopic analysis and genome sequencing to determine differences in the origins of individuals and communities and to identify the presence of diseases and new cultivars.

Researchers Lisette Kootker, Gareth Davies and PhD Maura De Coster will implement novel Sr-C-N-O isotope approaches to characterise the regional isotopic landscape and reconstruct diet and region of origin of mostly cremated skeletal (c)remains and associated fauna across the Dutch-German-Belgian limes borderscape. aDNA analysis on the inhumed individuals will be conducted with partners at Copenhagen to gain insight into kinship and variance in genetic profile.

Ancient environmental (e)DNA has potential to identify the presence of pathogen and botanical DNA from archaeological sediments in the limes’ fore- and hinterland. In collaboration with the world leading group at Copenhagen, we will establish a dedicated archaeological eDNA lab at WENR. PhD Kadir Toykan Özdoğan and Gertjan Plets (UU), will work with the WENR team, led by Arjen de Groot, to develop protocols for isolation of DNA from archaeological soils, including the capturing and  bioinformatic identification of specific crop cultivar taxa and pathogens. The approach aims to produce a first insight into the general health of the Roman military and rural populations, the geographical spread of diseases and the biogeography of new cultivars in the border areas of the Empire.

A key goal of the entire project is to model human mobility in the Roman borderscape over time by integrating material culture with human, faunal and botanical data to deliver a spatial and temporal understanding of variation in migration and transport-trading routes.

Work package 4 examines the rediscovery of the limes since the early modern period (15th century-today). This work package focuses first of all on the development of scientific research into the archaeological remains of the Roman Empire border, as these finds were brought into dialogue with the written sources from Antiquity. What questions did researchers ask, with which collections and sites did they work? What were their concepts and interpretative frameworks?

Next, we investigate how this knowledge about the limes was discovered by a wider public and disseminated as shared – and sometimes contested – cultural heritage. National interpretations often played a role, especially in the long nineteenth century, as the imagined oppositions between Germans and Romans could be used to anchor national identities. The European-wide Roman border was nationalized. For example, some embraced the Romans as the precursors of theircivilization, while others over time preferred to present themselves as heirs of Germanic – or Celtic or Batavian – traditions and bloodlines. We examine how terms such as race, civilization and modernity were introduced into these representations, as well as how comparisons can be made with colonial and imperialist attempts to spread civilization.

Finally, we examine how has this heritage been used in discussions about European integration, and conceptualized as a World Heritage site with universal value by organizations such as UNESCO.

  •  Art historian Koen Ottenheym (UU) focuses on the early period from the late Middle Ages to the eighteenth century. He examines how humanist scholars, antiquarians and learned artists interpreted the ancient written sources and sought to find material evidence locally in the regions along the Danube and Rhine rivers.
  • Cultural historians Gertjan Plets, David van Oeveren and Jaap Verheul (UU) focus on the long nineteenth century. They investigate the development of a scientific infrastructure (eg the founding of a National Museum of Antiquities under the direction of the first archeology professor Caspar Reuvens in 1818) and Roman sites (eg Voorburg (Forum Hadriani), Nijmegen (Noviomagus), and Utrecht (Traiectum)). At the same time, they map out how this knowledge was shared among a wide audience, for example through school education, newspapers, and popularizing books. Digital humanities techniques can provide insight into the shifting patterns and sentiments in references to the Roman limes.
  • Political geographers Paschalina Garidou, Henk van Houtum and Luuk Winkelmolen at the Nijmegen Center for Border Research, Radboud University, focus on the representation and articulation of bordered identities in contemporary debate. They mobilize the concepts of bordering, ordering and othering to analyze overt but often also subtle and coded images of identities and differences.

In this work package we will analyze the meaning of the Roman Limes for today’s geopolitics.

The legacy of the Roman lexicon
Many of the core concepts related to the idea of the Roman limes (limits, liminality, campus, fortress, territory, empire, civilization, (bio)politics, immunity, citizenship, and barbarians) have had an important impact on how we think and philosophize about borders, territorial identity politics, and migration today. We will analyze how these classic concepts related to bordering of a territory traveled through time and how these intersect with and inspire today’s academic debates in fields like geopolitics, political geography and border studies. 

The populist myths of Roman B/ordering and Othering
In this vein, it is striking to see that, especially among populist and conservative politicians, it seems to be en vogue to refer to the fall of the Roman empire in a fearmongering manner for domestic electoral purposes, notably with regard to the ongoing, often heated debates on migration. In this context, some, like Donald Trump, Geert Wilders, and Boris Johnson, do even not shy away from using propagandistic comparisons like ‘’end of civilization’’, ‘’protection of our borders’’, ‘’invasion of barbarians’’, ‘’dark ages’’ to stress the need for strong, nationalistic borders and walls. We will critically analyze typically why, how and also with what anachronistic, historically fallacious, and selective narrative elements a reference is made in today’s political and public debates to the supposed border philosophy of the Romans. 

In short, in this work package we aim to come to a better epistemological understanding as well as a deconstruction of the populist myths of the Roman legacy for the territorial border politics of today. 

The work in this work package will be mainly done by political geographers from the Nijmegen Centre for Border Research of Radboud University Nijmegen, to wit, Prof dr Henk van Houtum(coordinator), Paschalina Garidou Msc, and Luuk Winkelmolen Msc

For more info, contact Prof dr Henk van Houtum.