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The horse harnesses from Thorsberg Moor (completed)

Dr. Nina Lau

Studies of Germanic bridles and saddle harnesses as evidence of the military cavalry in the Central and North European Barbaricum during the Late Roman Iron Age


A dissertation completed in January 2009 presented an investigation of harnesses found at Thorsberg bog , a Roman Iron Age war booty site in Schleswig-Flensburg district. The dissertation will now be subjected to editorial revision and then published as a monograph in the series on Thorsberg Moor (volume 2).

Thorsberg Moor, a kettlehole bog on the northern edge of Süderbrarup, was investigated archaeologically between 1858 and 1861 by Conrad Engelhardt. The excavation records, by permitting identification of the location for some of the finds recovered in 1860, make possible an identification of the surviving finds and thereby allow their assignation to a section of the excavation at that time. As a result, conclusions can be reached concerning the concentrations of finds and the particular structure and composition of the deposit.

Prior to this study, the status of research into Roman Iron Age harnesses was inadequate relative to an analysis of these finds from Thorsberg. Therefore, as an excursus, a combined analysis of the individual components relating to the headstall, bit and reins was carried out, resulting in the definition of four bridle types (Kirpehnen, Vimose, Illerup and Thorsberg types). Together with a total of nine sub-types, these extended the existing picture of Roman Iron Age bridles. As a consequence, improvements have been made to our knowledge of the origin and development of Roman Iron Age harnesses in the Barbaricum, extending and modifying the existing state of research considerably. In the finds from Thorsberg Moor, at least 18 bridles, associated with nine sets of saddle harnesses, can be identified from the deposition in C1b.

The deposition in phase C2/C3 includes nine bridles. They provide evidence of influences from various cultural areas. In addition to a few original Roman harness elements, several other objects reveal that they were produced by being modelled on Roman pieces, although according to Germanic design and manufacturing styles.

Further influences seen on the Germanic harnesses indicate contacts between, on the one hand, Sarmatian and Germanic elites and, on the other, the elite of the Pannonia who were interred in richly furnished burial mounds. Furthermore, there appear to be clear connections between components occurring at Thorsberg and the harnesses of the Northern Danube area at the time of the Marcomannic wars. These connections were presumably founded via Elbe-Germanic and Marcomannic or Quadish links. Particular costume elements, as well as probably also a few of the bridles of the usual type seen in the area of the Przeworsk and Dollkeim-Kovrovo cultures, seem to have been modified and further developed here and also passed on to western parts of the Barbaricum, particularly in the Elbe-Germanic settlement area. The harnesses at Thorsberg, in particular, are characterised by numerous indications of ritual destruction prior to actual deposition in water and, as a consequence, these enable specific processes within the offerings to be reconstructed. Although there are no written and pictorial sources relating to the Germanic military horsemen, some information on the harness components can be obtained from images on Early Migration period bracteates as well as on Roman equestrian gravestones, in terms of the riding style and battle tactics of mounted warriors. The bridles from the war booty sites document differing constructions, which suggest the existence of varying riding styles and battle tactics, and also different functions, among horsemenwithin the Germanic army.

The rich harnesses with rein chains indicate that members of the military command in particular, but also the social elite, were mounted and participated directly in battle events. Analysis of the harnesses within the scope of the dissertation took place from second half of 2005 until the first half of 2009. Between 2005 and 2008, the dissertation came under the auspices of the research project ‘Zwischen Thorsberg und Bornstein. Historische Archäologie im Landesteil Schleswig als Instrument für Weiterbildung, Forschung und Präsentation’ (Between Thorsberg and Bornstein. Historical archaeology in the Schleswig province as a tool for further education, research and presentation) and was integrated within funding from the European Social Fund.

Other participants in the Thorsberg project, which also included the analysis and presentation of other material groups through the medium of dissertations and editorial work, are Dr Ruth Blankenfeldt, Suzana Matešić MA and Dipl. Geogr. Karin Göbel from the ZBSA, as well as Dr Angelika Abegg-Wigg from the Archaeological State Museum. The Thorsberg project collaborated with the international project ‘Jernalderen i Nordeuropa – 400 f.Kr. til 600 e.Kr.’ (Iron Age in Northern Europe – 400 BC until AD 400). Funding was provided by the ZBSA, the Archaeological State Museum, as well as via the international project ‘Jernalderen i Nordeuropa – 400 f.Kr. til 600 e.Kr.’ (The Carlsberg Foundation) and the European Social Fund.

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