I have been fortunate enough to spend the last four days in Detmold and Kalkriese filming a documentary about the Battle of Teutoburg Forest, the defeat in AD9 of the Roman general Varus by the Germanic leader Arminius and the annihilation of three legions – XVII, XVIII and XIX – around 10% of the Roman army. It was arguably Rome’s greatest defeat.
More about the documentary when it comes out – it is slated for early next year – but a couple of days at the Museum und Park Kalkriese confirmed the thoughts I had had when researching Rome’s Greatest Defeat. That it is a deeply flawed museum. It makes little use of the space it has, is badly laid out and doesn’t remotely show the exhibits it has in their best light. In fact it makes little sense unless you know both the battle and the history of its discovery well.
Just a few initial comments. The sling shots that British amateur archaeologist Tony Clunn found, that alerted him to the fact that part of the battle between Arminius and Varus might have taken place here, are shown in the second room, indeed they have their own case. But there is little explanation why they are so significant. To most people they look like three pebbles in a glass case.
The Roman cavalry mask which has been adopted as a logo by the museum – a picture is at the top of this blog post – and is certainly the most accessible visual find, is stuck in a glass display in the third room off to the side. While the bell which hung round the neck of the donkey, which for my money is one of the most exciting discoveries from the site, needed some finding. It is stuck in the corner of a case along with several other objects.
The bell is significant for several reasons. It was the analysis of the grasses stuffed in the bell that has allowed the site, and the battle, to be dated to the autumn. But more to the point, it is a vivid snapshot of what must have been going through the mind of the Romans at the time. The donkey’s handler was so scared of making noise that he stuffed the bell with grasses. An incredible moment.
A casual visitor would struggle to have any idea who either Varus or Arminius were. One display is, quite frankly, weird. In a dramatised conversation between Varus and Arminius on two spherical television screens the two appear to be naked. That puts a spin on the relationship between the two that is not entirely helpful.
There is also little engagement with what the battle has meant over the years. The Hermannsdenkmal for example, has a small rotunda near the entrance with a fantastic display of posters, toys, beer glasses and other bits and pieces from the early 20th century that show how important a part of popular culture Arminius was. At Kalkriese there are blown up articles from academic journals like Klio from the 1920s that discuss where the battle might have taken place. And there is no mention anywhere, of how he became the figure that German nationalists could get behind. Most heinously of all, there is no mention anywhere of Hitler and his use of Arminius mythology.
The above may just be a question of taste. Museum design is an incredibly difficult craft and I am writing this immediately afterwards. But what is completely unforgivable is that the display boards in English appear to have been written by an overly enthusiastic teenager with only a passing knowledge of the language. Just two examples:
“Several thousand finds were discovered up until today. Admittedly, the majority of them are in a very bad condition. 2,000 years later, an ancient battlefield is the contrary of a treasure trove!”
“The plunderers came shortly after the noise had faded away and the smoke had disappeared. This is what happens on battlefields in more recent times. The archaeological finds show that this was not any different 2,000 years ago.”
Given that almost every German I have ever met speaks and writes elegant and virtually flawless idiomatic English, indeed that almost every display in every museum in Germany is in beautiful English, this is embarrassing.