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Roman ship sheds light on defenses

Dutch archaeologists say the remains of a 1st-century barge hint at how imperial Rome defended itself on its northern frontiers.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Dutch archaeologists have discovered a Roman cargo ship equipped with oars, a unique find that they say explains how imperial Rome defended itself on its northern frontiers.

InsertArt(2047437)THE BARGE, dating from around A.D. 100, was excavated in the Dutch town of Woerden, which was once the location of the Roman military settlement Castellum Laurium on the banks of the Rhine.

The flat-bottomed boat was manned by at least 12 rowers. The oars would have allowed the Romans to navigate strong currents back to the German Eiffel region from where it had brought rocks to strengthen the forts along the frontier.


Until now, archaeologists and historians had thought the Romans could sail only downstream with their cargo vessels, which resemble today’s bulky barges.

The excavated ship appears to have been exactly 100 Roman feet long — which is slightly less than 100 modern feet, or about 30 meters. Archaeologists had thought such ships were dismantled, with the wood as well as its cargo used as building material.

“This is the first time we have evidence that these barges could sail back upstream,” archaeologist Wouter Vos said.

The cargo vessels, 30 of which have been discovered in northwest Europe, date back to an era when the Romans were improving their fortifications along the northern borders of their empire.

The marshy estuary of the Rhine contained no rocks to replace the limestone walls and towers, so these had to be imported from Germany by boat. Each of the 15 to 20 Roman forts along the Dutch Rhine were run by 500 mercenary troops from elsewhere in the empire, overseen by a 5,000-strong Roman legion in Nijmegen.

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