Interaction of Divergent Societies: The Lower Germanic limes in Roman Times (PhD)

→Kala Drewniak

During the first centuries AD, a large part of the European continent was transformed by the influence of the Roman Empire. The Roman Provinces on the one hand, and the Barbarian world on the other were separated by the Limes which ran alongside the Rhine and the Danube. However, there were intensive contacts -differing in time and region- across the Limes, as documented by the large quantity of roman objects found on “barbarian” sites.


Research questions

This research looks at the economic structure and the distribution of goods in the Barbaricum along the Westphalien Salt Road (“Westfälischer Hellweg”), between the Rhine and Weser rivers. The so-called “Hellweg” primarily refers to a medieval network of pathways that ran from Duisburg to the Weser-crossing near Corvey. Although the Westphalien Salt Road is mainly known as a medieval road, it will be used in this case study to determine the geographical context. This area has been intensively populated in Roman times, also the sites are affected by a large quantity of Roman goods. The distinctiveness of this area results from its close proximity to the Lower Germanic Limes.

Roman imports in barbarian territory have been frequently discussed, in terms of both, chronological questions and socio-cultural structures (Eggers 1951; Steuer 1982). Until now however, research has focussed on the origin of Roman Imports (pillaging, trade or gifts to local chiefs), and not on their significance as indicators of economic processes.

Hence, the central question of this study is the following: “How did Roman-barbarian exchange function within the border region of the Westphalian Salt Road and how were the barbarian settlements interconnected with regards to the dissemination of (Roman) goods and services?”

Within my thesis, I will focus on three core points:

  • Which archaeologically traceable goods are prevalent in my study area, which have not been exchanged? Which roman production sites can they be attributed to and how are these goods distributed within the barbarian settlements, cemeteries and hoards?
  • Which associated exchange mechanisms can be linked to the dissemination of roman goods in the barbarian world (see reciprocity, redistribution and barter/trade; Polanyi 1957, Rössler 2008) and (how) can the market be defined for the Westphalien Salt Road-area? Do central places play a role within the regional economy? How were goods distributed to inner barbarian regions?
  • What is the function of the Lower Germanic Limes in relation to the socio-culturally divergent territories on both sides of the Rhine? If not as a demarcation line, what definition should be applied (Bridger 2012, Kyritz 2014, Mirschenz 2013)? What are the characteristics of this independent border region?


Data and methodology

My case study will focus in particular on the recently discovered site of Duisburg-Serm. Being situated on the eastern bank of the Rhine, just outside the Limes, the site may have served as a central hub in the trade of (Roman) goods into the study area. The nearest Roman military fortress is Krefeld-Gellep, which can be seen from the site of Duisburg-Serm. Serm is not only directly situated in a transition area between the North-Western-provinces and the barbarian territory, but it was also used during the entire first millennium AD. This long continuity might be due to a strong stream curvature formation, that ensured a safe crossing over the Rhine at this particular location (Drewniak/Frank/Gerlach/Zerl 2016). Furthermore, due to this formation, the recent stream course has just been slightly dislocated from the ancient river. Also, a large quantity of artefacts found at Duisburg-Serm shows that it formed a link between the western and the eastern bank of the Rhine since the Neolithic age.

In order to understand the function of the site of Duisburg-Serm within the context of the study area, a GIS-supported database will be constructed, incorporating all known barbarian sites within the Westphalien Salt Road area. The economic structures will be visualized by GIS-based distribution maps based on the above-mentioned database. Thanks to these maps, the economic network within the operation area, which also played a fundamental role in social exchange between the barbarian territory, can be better understood.


Contribution to economic archaeology

My thesis contributes to our understanding of ancient economies studying economic exchange networks, which structured the allocation and consumption of goods within the border region of the Lower Germanic Limes during the first centuries AD. These structures are identified on the basis of dispersal patterns of archaeological artefacts. The processes of distribution and consumption occur within the border region of two territories, which are essentially economically and socially divergent: The barbarian world, not regulated by an overarching state, and the province of Germania Inferior, regulated by the Roman Empire. The crucial point when discussing this case study is whether the exchange of goods within these two regions can be explained by models based on economic theories.


Supervisors: Prof. Jan Bemmann (Bonn), Prof. Eckhard Deschler-Erb (Cologne), Dr. Andrew Gardner (London UCL, UK)



  • C. Bridger, New Roman Finds from the east bank of the Lower Rhine in Germany – or Where did they put the border? In: Limes XXII. Proceedings of the 22nd International Congress of Roman Frontier Studies. Ruse, Bulgaria (September 2012), 735-749.
  • K. Drewniak/K. Frank/R. Gerlach/T. Zerl, Duisburg-Serm in der römischen Kaiserzeit: Kopfstation des Hellwegs an der Schnittstelle zweier Wirtschafts- und Distributionssysteme. In: J. Bemmann/M. Mirschenz (Hrsg.). Der Rhein als europäische Verkehrsachse 2. Bonner Beiträge zur Vor- und Frühgeschichtlichen Archäologie 19 (Bonn 2016) 285-334.
  • H.-J. Eggers, Der römische Import im freien Germanien. Atlas der Urgeschichte 1 (Hamburg 1951).
  • Ch. P. Garraty, B. L. Stark, Archaeological approaches to market exchange in ancient societies (University Press of Colorado 2010).
  • D. Kyritz, Haffen-Mehr. Die Kontaktzone am niederrheinischen Limesgebiet. Dissertation Universität Bonn 2014.
  • M. Mirschenz, Fließende Grenzen. Studien zur römischen Kaiserzeit im Ruhrgebiet. Bochumer Forschungen zur Ur- und frühgeschichtlichen Archäologie 6 (Bochum 2013).
  • K. Polanyi, The Economy as Instituted Process. In: K. Polanyi/C. M. Arensberg/H. W. Pearson (Hrsg.), Trade and Market in the Early Empires. Economy in History and Theory (Chicago 1957), 3-32.
  • M. Rössler, Wirtschaftsethnologie. Eine Einführung (Berlin 2008).
  • H. Steuer, Frühgeschichtliche Sozialstrukturen in Mitteleuropa. Eine Analyse der Auswertungsmethoden des archäologischen Quellenmaterials. Abhandlungen der Akademie der Wissenschaften in Göttingen, Phil.-Hist. Kl., 3. Folge Nr. 128 (Göttingen 1982).