Read our COVID-19 research and news.

War horse. A bronze horse head, with Mars, the god of war, depicted on the halter (oval) hints at Roman plans to settle in Germany.

German Archaeological Institute

Bronze Horse Head Hints at Roman Ambitions in Germany

Archaeologists in Germany have found a life-sized bronze Roman horse's head at the bottom of a well. It's the first such find in Germany, and it suggests that the Romans had a more settled presence in ancient Germany than historians had thought.

The sculpture, part of a statue believed to be of the Roman emperor Augustus, was found at a site called Waldgirmes, the remains of a Roman town. The cast-bronze head, which weighs 25 kilograms, is one of the best-preserved Roman bronzes in the world, says Friedrich Lüth, director of the German Archaeological Institute's Roman-Germanic Commission. Approximately 50 centimeters long, it's covered in delicate gold leaf. The rich trappings, including a depiction of Mars, the god of war, on the horse's halter make it the mount of an important figure. The heel of the rider was found nearby wearing a senator's sandal.

Announcing the find at a press conference in Frankfurt today, Lüth says the horse's head was found on 12 August during the excavation of an 11-meter-deep, wood-reinforced well shaft. The well supplied water to Waldgirmes, a civilian outpost that was perhaps intended as the capital of what the Romans called Germania Magna. Using dendrochronology to date the wooden shaft, the scientists say it was built about 9 B.C.E., during Augustus's reign.

The statue fragments show that the Romans had grand plans for Waldgirmes, whose Roman name is unknown, says Lüth. Bases for five statues have been found in front of what was a 2200-square-meter forum, and about 100 pieces have turned up, including a horse's hoof. Lüth says the sophisticated craftsmanship of the head indicates that it was made in Italy and shipped over the Alps to this remote spot. Stones that made up the statue's base were also imported from more than 300 kilometers away.

Since excavations at Waldgirmes started in 1993, archaeologists have begun to rethink how the Romans viewed the region. Historians have long thought they had little interest in Germany aside from the odd military raid, but Waldgirmes, which is located about 40 kilometers north of Frankfurt, lies deep in an area long considered off limits for the Romans. "The Romans must have felt so safe, they planted a new town in this wild Germanic forest," says Sebastian Sommer, chief archaeologist of Bavaria.

That safety was short-lived. In 9 C.E., three legions commanded by the general Quintilius Varus were defeated by German tribesmen in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, a shocking blow to Roman pride. Lüth believes that Waldgirmes, nearly 200 kilometers south of the battlefield, was abandoned about the same time. "It makes sense that the troops left in quite a hurry, or we must imagine they would have taken [the statue of] their emperor with them," he says.

Sommer argues that although the horse head is spectacular, it's the less-glamorous well that may hold the clues to Waldgirmes' end. Dating the waterlogged timbers of the shaft--7 meters of which were excavated this summer--and timbers that were dumped into it about the time of the town's destruction may help archaeologists pin down when the site was abandoned.