The Quest for the Lost Roman Legions

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Interview with Major Tony Clunn

A Major Discovery by a Major in the Background

Major Tony ClunnIn 9 A.D., three Roman legions under Varus, together with their auxiliary troops and women and children, were slaughtered almost to a man in a well-planned ambush led by Arminius’ German troops. Author Tony Clunn relates the story of his search for and discovery of one of the western world’s most important battlefields in The Quest for the Lost Roman Legions: Discovering the Varus Battlefield. Major Clunn recently described his archaeological adventures to Sarah Stephan of Savas Beatie LLC.

Q: You have been identified as the discoverer of the Varus battlefield. How is it that an English officer came to make such a discovery in Germany?

A: To make a long story short, I have always had an avid interest in Roman history. In the 1980s I took up the hobby of treasure hunting using a metal detector. I focused my pursuits at every opportunity I could while traveling for my military duties with the British army.

Q: And you were stationed in Germany long enough to pursue your interests in the Varus defeat?

A: Luckily, yes. I spent much of my career stationed in Germany with the Third Royal Tank Regiment. I was then posted to Osnabruck as an officer in the Royal Army Medical Corps. It was my habit to meet with the resident archaeologist after moving to a new location. I met with and asked Dr. Schluter about the amount of Roman activity I had heard existed in the Osnabruck and northern areas of Germany. I also asked him if I could search these areas and see if I could make any new discoveries. He was very helpful, but also quick to point out that in his 13 years as resident archaeologist, he had never found a single Roman artifact.

Q: That must have been discouraging to hear! What made you determined, after hearing that, to search for a battlefield that had been lost for two millennia?

A: I told Dr. Schluter my hobby was Roman history, and I wanted to give it a shot. Frankly, he was surprised I asked official permission before going out to the local areas. It convinced him that I was worth consideration, and at the least considerate, so he decided to test me, you could say. Dr. Schluter’s comments and direction were very helpful.

Q: What direction did he give you before you began your search?

A: I would often start my previous investigations in the UK by locating old military Roman roads. I asked him if there were any such routes in the Osnabruck area. There was a military road running north of Osnabruck, which he believed was an old route across Northern Germany, but it had not been verified as Roman in origin. This road ran through a farming area called Kalkriese, where for the last two or three hundred years farmers had been reporting finding Roman coins. Dr. Schluter also told me much of this historical information came from Theodore Mommsen, a prominent German historian from the 1800s. Mommsen surmised the Varus battle may well have been waged at that site—Kalkriese—based on the quantity and age of the coins that had been found there. Most of them were from the period of Augustus Caesar, who was in power when Varus was defeated. Military artifacts to support his theory of a major military engagement, however, were not found, so his theory was not accepted. As the years passed, Mommsen’s idea lapsed into the shadows.

Q: That’s fascinating. And so you took Dr. Schluter’s information about the potential Roman road, coupled that with Mommsen’s theory, and began your search?

A: Yes, at least as far as time allowed. During some free time from military duties I began my first of many forays into the Kalkriese area, armed with maps and a small booklet that outlined the farms, roads, and fields where Mommsen believed many of the coins were found. It took a lot of time to get a general feel for the area and to plot older coin find sites onto modern maps. I was convinced the military road was important, but unsure there was actually a military engagement there. After some time, the militarist in me led me to believe there was a distinct relationship between the hills to the south of the area, known as the Kalkrieseberg, and the moor and military road falling away to the north. Even at that early stage, I drew a pencil line to link the two, and marked the small hill at the very nape of the Berg and two small rises on either side of the road as of definite relevance to my overview of the area.

Q: How did you pinpoint a specific place to excavate in such a vast area?

A: I had been investigating for four months. Metal detection work is very time consuming, and can be a total waste if you don’t have a preconceived idea of where to check. A good appreciation of the ground and visualizing the routes people may have used in older times are very important. After ground work, I set up a survey grid of the fields around the crossroads where some coins had been found. From a tactical point of view, this area of rising ground in a flat moorland environment would have been used at least as an observation point by military personnel or tribesmen passing through the area.

Q: And it was there you made your first real discovery?

A: Yes, I found my first Roman silver coins (Denarius) in the field immediately in the area of the military road. The following weekend I recovered a concentration of Roman coins, 103 total. That was the beginning of my success that eventually led to the location of the Varus battlefield. It was not until my finds began to paint a picture of activity leading back to the Kalkrieseberg and the small hill and narrow pass that I realized we may (and I emphasize may) have found a point of battle.

Q: And these are the types of details you describe in The Quest for the Lost Roman Legions?

A: Yes, but those first findings are just the beginning of what I documented in the book. I kept meticulous diaries, and so reconstructing the story was quite easy. In no way did finding those coins signify that the Varus battlefield had been discovered, or any battlefield for that matter. At that point it was still possible the coins were just military or civilian traffic losses from the Roman period.

Q: What was it that convinced you and the resident archaeologist that you had found a battlefield, and perhaps the Varus battle?

A: Basically it was the discovery of three Roman lead sling shot pieces [used by lightly armed troops called Slingers] in three separate fields around the area of the crossroads in late 1988. Having spent so much time investigating many Roman sites in Northern Germany, it was obviously a revelation to finally find military-related artifacts that supported the theory that this area was indeed the site of a historic Roman battle. Based on my thoughts and observations of the small hill and narrow pass on the edge of the Kalkrieseberg, we moved the archaeological excavations to that key area and continued our detective work.

Q: And by studying this area you were able to determine conclusively it was where Varus was defeated?

A: Yes. The results of those first excavations in 1989 are now a huge marker in German history. The deluge of artifacts recovered from those early forays into the hill and out onto the eastern side of the feature quickly confirmed that we were indeed on the site of the Varusschlacht [Varus Battle]. We found so many artifacts, so many coins with Varus’ personal mint-mark, and nothing that dated beyond 9 A.D. It was the positive dating of these artifacts, coupled with the terrain, the discovery of an earthen ambush wall at a choke point, and so on which, when read with the ancient records, validated that this was indeed the long-lost site of one of history’s most important battles.

Q: Why was this battle so important to Western history?

A: Because at the time of the defeat, Rome was attempting to essentially do in Germany (or in the region we recognize today as Germany) what it had done in Gaul (or modern-day France). And that is to colonize and pacify it—make it a province. The Rhine frontier and river area was a major boundary line, and Varus was operating during the summer east of the river, meeting with tribal leaders, collecting taxes, and showing the banner, so to speak. During his return to winter quarters west of the Rhine, he was led to believe a minor insurrection was taking place, and was convinced to change his line of march and put it down. Unfortunately for the Romans, he led his men into the forests and bogs of Northern Germany, stumbled into a carefully set trap, and lost some 20,000 to 25,000 men, women, and children.

Q: And that disaster shocked the Roman emperor . . .

A: It did indeed, for it was one of the worst defeats ever suffered by the Roman army. Caesar Augustus was devastated when he received the news, and the empire never made another serious attempt to annex territory east of the Rhine. If Rome had been successful there, the course of European and Western history would have been dramatically different.

Q: Did you originally set out to write a book based on this exciting discovery?

A: No, not really. After many years passed, I decided I should set the record straight, so to speak. I was writing pieces for magazines, and it dawned on me that my diaries were really an interesting series of articles that, brought together, could form the basis of a book. I wrote it and self-published the first edition in England, but it has never been widely available in the book trade.

Q: Your book is not a straight narrative of your search, though, is it?

A: No. I am well aware that history and archaeology must be written in an interesting manner, or few will want to read it! I also knew that writing a book about the Varus defeat would require a discussion about what he and his men experienced. So I decided to use a format that I had read and enjoyed a few times over the years—dropping in and out of different scenarios and time periods but maintaining a common thread throughout.

Q: What themes or threads do you run through your book?

A: Three or four threads run through the book. Real time events are linked to discoveries and excavations on the battlefield. I also include investigations and additional detecting events regarding the Roman occupation of Germany. These were based on historical records, mainly from the Greek historian Cassius Dio and Roman historian Tacitus. Finally, I examined the intrigue and plotting (including the Varus battle proper) between the factions led by Hermann (Arminius) on the German side and Varus on the other. In order to do this, I had to create a plausible scenario of what took place, and I wanted to personalize the people involved, and did so with reasonable dialogue and actions, most of which takes place between people we know existed. For example, we found a cloak clasp with the name “Marcus Aius” carved into it. That personal artifact belonged to a real person who was slaughtered in the battle. So I created a character around Marcus to help readers visualize these men as real people rather than just dry historical statistics.

Q: So you linked real historical personalities we know lived and participated in this event to archaeological discoveries, terrain, weather, historical writings, and so on, and tell the story of how you believe Varus and his legions lived, campaigned, and eventually marched to and died around Kalkriese?

A: Precisely. I am quite conversant on the make-up and organization of the Roman legions of the early empire, and everything I present has a basis in fact.

Q: That is quite a different approach and it seems to have worked well.

A: Yes, I think so, judging from the reviews and comments I have heard.

Q: What’s new in this edition of your book?

A: First, the book has been completely re-edited and re-designed inside and out, so it looks and reads a bit differently. We added additional pictures and maps, which will certainly please readers of history. Derek Williams, one of the world’s authorities on Roman history, wrote a very nice Foreword for this edition, and Christian Jaletzke, the Director of the Museum and Park Battlefield, has provided a first class piece about the museum and its role in interpreting this battle. And of course, Professor Doctor Schluter’s original Foreword remains. All of these contributions, together with a new Aftermath chapter I have written, bring together all the exciting events and discoveries that have been made since my first edition appeared about five years ago.

Q: And now, so many years after the initial discovery, do you stay involved at the site?

A: Oh yes! After discovering the battlefield, I have kept close links with the project. Currently I am a non-directly employed consultant. My interest with regard to Kalkriese is to widen the publicity of the site and increase the area’s appeal to people in other countries. For example, many Americans do not know that 35 percent of their population is of German origin and descent. I keep very busy promoting the book, working with the Museum and Park at Kalkriese, and doing field work for projects related to the Varus period of occupation in Germany. I also do lots of presentations and slideshows around Germany, and am often at the site to meet and greet the public and sign copies of the book.

Q: Will your ongoing research lead to another book on the Varus battlefield?

A: Yes, it very well might. The modern day research is still going on though, so there isn’t an end to that part of the story yet. The manuscript for the second book details the life and times of Arminius (Hermann), linked to my own pursuits and investigations. It is written in the same style as The Quest for the Lost Roman Legions, with real time, Roman times, and the annals of Tacitus and Cassius Dio. The first chapter is actually a continuation of the last chapter in Roman Legions.

Q: I am sure those who read The Quest for the Lost Roman Legions will be anxious to read your next book. The entire story is fascinating. Thank you for sharing some of the highlights of your quest with us.

A: And thank you. My pleasure.

Copies with bookplates signed by Tony Clunn are available. Please e-mail

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Irene's travelogue: Kalkriese/Varusschlacht

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