Roman villas in Limburg

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The rise and fall of a prosperous farming community

Around 20 Roman villas have been excavated in the Limburg region of the Netherlands. The heyday for this work came in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when a succession of sites was investigated with antiquarian zeal. Now fresh research in the field, archives, and find stores is shedding intriguing new light on these villa estates and their inhabitants, as Jasper de Bruin told Matthew Symonds.

Numerous Roman villas flourished in the Limburg region of the Netherlands. Here we see a reconstruction of the villa at Bocholtz-Vlengendaal. [Image: © Remy Kooi – Submedia]

In 1891, a set of stone foundations were discovered in a field near Ten Hove farm, Voerendaal. Jos Habets, record keeper at the state archives and enthusiastic antiquarian, was not surprised. He already suspected that the field harboured Roman ruins, and from the very beginning the discovery was flagged as a probable villa. Habets’ intuition was understandable, as the Limburg region in the southern Netherlands, where Voerendaal lies, had already proven to be rich in such relics of the imperial past. Indeed, Habets had first-hand experience of many of them. After being ordained as a priest in 1856, he had both the time and the inclination to dig a series of villa sites in Limburg from the 1860s through to the 1890s. Voerendaal, though, was destined to be his last project. Excavations commenced in 1892, with Habets securing a grant of 150 guilders from the Ministry of the Interior. It swiftly became apparent, though, that this largesse was not equal to the task. Even though the sum allowed some 125m of a building to be exposed, in what Habets called ‘the most extensive [excavation] ever in the Netherlands’, it was clear that there was plenty left to investigate. As Habets observed, with some understatement, ‘the size of this villa far exceeds our expectations’. In April 1893, he was chasing more funding, but passed away in June of that year, before work at the villa could be completed. There was no question, though, that the diggings at Voerendaal had revealed a stunning illustration of the wealth that the region generated under the Roman Empire.

J J Habets (1829-1893) was the pivotal figure in Limburg archaeology in the second half of the 19th century. He excavated, published, and was chairman of the Historical and Antiquarian Society of Limburg, as well as being the provincial director of the National Archives. [Image: © Limburg Historical Centre, photograph no. P-0508-001]

Habets’ methods for investigating the Limburg villas were very much of their time. Rather than attempting to unearth the entirety of most rooms, he was much more interested in establishing the plan of a building. One technique was to chase the walls through the earth by digging along them, or simply using a probing rod to verify the presence of masonry. Only especially interesting elements of a villa would be fully opened up, such as the subterranean cellars they featured, or a bath suite. It would be fair to observe that the results could be mixed, with one recent write-up of Voerendaal observing that the outcomes were ‘sometimes no more than a number of finds and an incomprehensible villa plan’ (see the ‘Further information’ box on p.22). Equally, though, Habets took a keen interest in his findings, questioning what wood was used to fire the villa hypocausts, and noting cut marks on some of the animal bones that were recovered. Interest in the villas long outlived Habets, with many sites, including Voerendaal, receiving investigation in the 20th and 21st centuries. The result is a wealth of evidence for the nature of these estates that was extracted in many different times and circumstances, and documented and studied to very different standards. Now the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, the Thermenmuseum, Limburgs Museum, and the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands has researched this material for a new exhibition: Roman villas in Limburg (again, see ‘Further information’).

An empty land

‘The province of Limburg is only a small part of the Netherlands’, explains Jasper de Bruin, exhibition curator at the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden. ‘It is squeezed in between Germany and Belgium, and the landscape is completely different from the dykes and tulips that people often imagine when they think of the country. We say that going to Limburg is like going abroad, because it is so hilly. This difference also applies to the Roman period. People often think about the frontier that was built along the Rhine. This was really a military zone with a lot of forts, while the region immediately to the south was very wet and characterised by a rural landscape with small, scattered timber settlements, where there is little sign of obvious influences from the Roman world. It is a very different story further to the south in what is now Limburg. There, you have this very fertile loess soil – I’m told loess is the best agricultural soil that you can get in the world – and it is on this prime farming land that the villa estates developed. You don’t find them in these kinds of quantities away from the loess soils. I should emphasise, though, that we have been studying the Dutch part of this region, but it is important to see it as part of a wider landscape that stretches to Tongeren in the west, and Cologne in the east.’

Information about the Limburg villas has come from many different campaigns undertaken at different times. Here we see the baths suite at the villa at Lemier under excavation in 1928-1930. [Image: © RMO]

The region is one, too, that witnessed dramatic change over time, particularly as it came into the orbit of the Roman Empire. When Caesar campaigned there in the 1st century BC, he found it home to a group known as the Eburones. Their bold resistance to Roman rule included a surprise attack on a force preparing to spend the winter on their territory in 54 BC. With a lethal combination of inspired trickery – or low treachery, depending on your point of view – and brutally effective fighting, they managed to wipe out the occupants of one winter camp and came within an ace of destroying a second. Caesar was not amused. The very next year his forces retaliated: settlements were torched, cattle rustled, and crops either consumed or spoilt. In 51 BC, Caesar returned to the Eburones’ territory, with The Gallic War recording that he ‘wrought general devastation by slaughter, fire and pillage, killed or captured a large number of persons.’ The harsh measures described in the literature also appear to be visible in the archaeological record.

Details of the inhabitants of Limburg comes from numerous sources. Here we see the tombstone for Ammaca Gamaleda, whose name references her local origins (ABOVE). It dates to AD 100-300 and was found in Maastricht. Veterans also lived in the region, as indicated by this fragment of a bronze diploma (BELOW) that was awarded to a retired soldier and found in Rimburg. Not shown to scale. [Images: © Limburgs Museum]

‘We can see that the Limburg area became empty at around the time of Caesar,’ says Jasper. ‘Apparently the people living there either fled or suffered from Roman retributions in other ways. It was only repopulated at around the beginning of our Common Era, when a large number of people seem to have been migrated to the region, presumably under some kind of Roman control. This is reflected in the number of settlements that suddenly pop up. They seem to have been planned to some degree, with wooden houses set within rectangular yards and enclosures. Initially, these sites look very similar to the contemporary ones that were being established on the wetter ground to the north. Very slowly, though, the Limburg sites became more prosperous. One thing that our research has been able to confirm is that almost all of the villas developed from earlier buildings. In most cases, these timber houses survive into the 2nd century, with them only being transformed into a more recognisable villa style with stone walls, hypocausts, and tile roofs in the late 2nd or early 3rd century. So people were living in this region for two centuries of the Roman period before these monumental buildings and great colonnades started to be built.’

‘There can be a tendency to think that we have this fertile, hilly area, and then the Romans came and started building these grand houses on it, but the archaeology shows a much more organic development. It is clear from inscriptions found in the area that many of the villa owners were the descendants of owners of some of these earlier wooden houses. They were people with Germanic or Gallic names, so even in the 3rd century we can find these traditional forms of expression existing alongside more “Roman” styles of architecture. That said, there was definitely some mixing of people, because we have also found a Roman military diploma that was issued to an auxiliary soldier when he retired, so we should imagine veterans living in the region as well. But I think most of these people were farmers who knew how to get the most out of the local soil and could then sell the grain at a profit. Of course, the army offered one obvious and lucrative market that – thanks to the Rhine frontier – was right next door. Some estate owners may not even have sent their produce that far, though, as Limburg itself was home to a number of small Roman towns. Most of them started off as fairly modest roadside settlements, but some – like Maastricht and Heerlen – developed into much bigger centres. Heerlen, for example, grew to be larger than the town at Nijmegen in the Roman period. Presumably the wealth of these small towns was also linked to them providing agricultural markets.’

The exhibition Roman villas in Limburg is a joint production by the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden (Leiden; curator Dr Jasper de Bruin) and the curators of the Thermenmuseum (Dr Karen Jeneson) and of Limburgs Museum (Bibi Beekman).
It will be on display in the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden until 25 August, and will then travel to the partner museums in Limburg.
The associated research and public project ‘A Roman idyll’ (2020-2024) saw the three museums join forces with the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands (RCE). The results from the research project will be published in 2025 in the publication series of the National Museum of Antiquities.
The publication of work at Voerendaal can be found (in English) on the RCE’s website at:
CWA is grateful to Jasper de Bruin and Selkit Verberk.

This is an extract of an article that appeared in CWA 125. Read on in the magazine (Click here to subscribe) or on our website, The Past, which offers all of the magazine’s content digitally. At The Past you will be able to read each article in full as well as the content of our other magazines, Current ArchaeologyAncient Egypt, and Military History Matters.

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