Hesselbach fort and watchtowers

In retrospect, I have come to regard the high point of my wanderings along the Limes as, quite literally, the Hesselbach sector. Hesselbach is a small village set amongst the forests of the high Odenwald and lies behind the spur formed by the first (Domitianic) Limes. Here, in this particular sector of the frontier zone, the combination of dramatic and rugged hill country, important archaeological finds and a surprising tribal memory offer strong resonances of the past.22

Traveling slowly along the narrow roads that shadow the Limes in this particular region, one soon becomes aware that the Roman surveyors chose to follow crest lines, occasionally angling the straight runs of palisades, and taking advantage of east-facing slopes that plunge at 45° into the valleys. In archaeological terms, the forested Hesselbach ridge is noteworthy for the presence of a pair of reconstructed watchtower bases, each representing a different phase of military occupation (Fig. 14). Their site is 2 km north of Hesselbach. The earlier tower base, originally built around AD 100 and ringed by a ditch, is a low, five-metre square plinth of timber beams, earth and stones. Nearby is a second tower base of later design, several metres high, made of fitted stone blocks. Traces of white plaster and red-painted joints were found on this stonework. At one corner, four courses of original sandstone blocks laid in AD 145-6 are visible: the rest of the structure is a modern reconstruction (1979), the gift of the local Rotary Club. The two structures are said to be the best indicators of watchtower construction on the entire Limes. The line of the continuous palisade, about 30 m away, is today indicated by a token run of sharpened timber stakes, each 25-30 cm diameter.

Fig.14 – Two watchtower bases (Sector 10/site 30, Domitianic Limes).

At the edge of Hesselbach village, on Römerstrasse, is the discernible outline of a Roman numerus fortlet (Fig. 15). The term numerus signifies a small unit of auxiliaries, 100-150 men strong. The small field marking the site of the fort is set on a high but relatively flat stretch of land. The four sides of the fort are now just visible as low earthen banks, each roughly fifty Roman paces (75 metres) long. The main gate (porta praetoria) faced the original Odenwald – Limes, 200 metres away. The excavations of 1964-6 by a team led by Dr. Dietwulf Baatz of the Saalburg Museum revealed that this site was quite unique as it gave the first insight into the organization of a small tactical, independently-operating unit of the Roman army. Within the the fort, which had been enclosed by walls 3-5 metres high, it was possible to identify barracks, stables, stores and a central command building (Fig. 16). During its life, which dated from about AD 100 until AD 155, wooden structures were replaced with very substantial stonework.

Fig. 15 – Site of numerus fort, Hesselbach village, Odenwald.

Fig. 16 – Reconstruction of the numerus fort at Hesselbach. (© Römerkastell Saalburg)

  1. H. Göldner and F-R Herrmann, Archäologische Denkmaler in Hessen 154 (Wiesbaden: Landesamt für Denkmalpflege Hessen und der Archäologischen Gessellschaft in Hessen e.V, 2001) []