Ancient Romans failed to fully exploit rich silver deposit in Germany

Wooden spikes built into the damp soil of the “Blöskopf” hill were meant to deter potential attacks on the silver mining camp. (Image by Frederic Auth, Goethe University).

New archaeological research shows that ancient Romans failed to uncover a rich silver deposit in Bad Ems, western Germany.

Work carried out by Goethe University’s Provincial Roman Archaeology department, which uncovered a military camp in the area, matches what historian Tacitus wrote almost 2,000 years ago. He described how, under Roman governor Curtius Rufus, soldiers attempted to mine silver ore in the area, but failed in 47 AD.

The yield had simply been too low. In fact, the team of Frankfurt archaeologists was able to identify a shaft-tunnel system suggesting Roman origins. The tunnel is located a few meters above the Bad Ems passageway, which would have enabled the Romans to mine silver for up to 200 years – that is, if only they had known about it. In the end, the silver was mined later centuries only.

The Romans’ hope for a lucrative precious metal mining operation is a good explanation for the presence of the military camp that extends on both sides of the Emsbach valley. They wanted to be able to defend themselves against sudden raids – not an unlikely scenario, given the value of the raw material.

“To verify this assumption, however, further research is necessary,” researcher Markus Scholz said in a media statement. “It would be interesting to know, for example, whether the large camp was also surrounded by obstacles meant to hinder an enemy approach. So far, no wooden spikes have been found there, but traces could perhaps end up being discovered in the much drier soil.”

According to Scholz, the fact that the Romans abruptly abandoned an extensive undertaking is not without precedent. Had they known that centuries later, in modern times, 200 tons of silver would be extracted from the ground near Bad Ems, they might not have given up so quickly.

The soldiers who were ordered to dig the tunnels evidently had not been too enthusiastic about the hard work: Tacitus reports that they wrote to Emperor Claudius in Rome, asking him to award the triumphal insignia to the commanders in advance so they would not have to make their soldiers slave away unnecessarily.