Has Teutoburg AD 9 No Correlate In Archaeological Chronology?

An archaeological period or phase is defined by a list of artefact types that usually occur together in e.g. graves and sacrificial depositions. Archaeology finds it fairly easy to identify such periods and order them in a correct relative sequence. It is harder to put correct absolute dates to the start and end of a period. Over the decades though, most of the absolute dates we accept make smaller and smaller jumps. For instance, the start of the Vendel Period was first placed at AD 600, then 550, and now for a very long time 536-540. It is extremely unlikely that the students of my students will decide that the typical objects of the Early Vendel Period where first made in 620.

Period shifts can be big and small. A small change in jewellery fashions can be seen just as spontaneous drift over the generations. But a big period shift where many radically new designs show up must be interpreted as a sign of a larger social change. In parts of the world with good written sources, such a change can often be understood with reference to a single political or economic event. Returning to the start of the Vendel Period, it is extremely unlikely that it had nothing to do with the catastrophic climate event of AD 536.

There was a big period shift in agricultural Scandinavia somewhere around AD 1, plus-minus a couple of decades. (It had nothing to do with any birth in a Levantine stable.) In the currently accepted chronology, it is set to AD 1. But eight years later there is an event of enormous political and economic import in northern Europe: the Battle of Teutoburg Forest in AD 9, where Roman northward expansion was permanently checked. As the chronology currently stands, this event had no visible correlate in material culture, which had instead undergone an unrelated major shift a few years before.

Here’s my challenge to colleagues who work with the chronology of this period in Denmark and Scania. Rounded to the closest decade as we usually do, can you really demonstrate that phase B1 started closer to AD 1 than to AD 10? I’m aware of only one scholar who has set this period shift to AD 10, and that was Jerzy Wielowiejski (1922-2006) in a 1970 work.


Author: Martin R

Dr. Martin Rundkvist is a Swedish archaeologist, journal editor, skeptic, atheist, lefty liberal, bookworm, boardgamer, geocacher and father of two.

9 thoughts on “Has Teutoburg AD 9 No Correlate In Archaeological Chronology?”

  1. Is this the transition from the Pre-Roman Iron Age to the Roman Iron Age? I thought that divide was partially for convenience, because once a prehistoric society starts importing goods from a society with written records you can use them to fix dates for the things they are found with? (“This sealed grave contained a solidus from the 3rd year of emperor Claudius, so it can’t be earlier than …”)


  2. Indeed, I’m talking about the start of a typological entity labelled the “Early Roman Iron Age”, or “B” or “IV”. Archaeology has no divides for convenience. This period shift is no different than the start of the Bronze Age or the Vendel Period. We see a major change in material culture and we’re refining our ideas about its absolute date.

    Graves with Roman coins are a minuscule minority, and the coins are not always new when buried.


    1. Back in 1960 as an ignorant undergraduate, I studied one year of Ancient History at the University of Melbourne. I remember the slide of a distribution map of the find-spots of Roman gold coins in northern Germany (yes, from Mortimer Wheeler). We were invited to nominate a relevant historical event – some well-informed person said “Oh.. Varus!”

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    2. But the correlations with precisely datable objects from literate societies are still foundational. When I looked at how the chronology of European prehistory was reconstructed, its full of “this phase contains an object from the Aegean, which we can correlate with objects from Syria or Egypt, which we can correlate with Manetho’s list of pharaohs or the Neo-Assyrian King List, which we can place in absolute time.” Most areas don’t have a continuous dendrochronological sequence which extends far enough back, and there is the infamous problem with C-14 dating in the first millennium BCE (and the error bars on C-14 tend to be bigger than archaeologists want anyways).


  3. No, the absolute chronology of prehistoric Scandinavia does not mainly rest on imports. For the Roman Period though it actually does. Roman bronze vessels, mainly.


    1. Trading assertions is not helpful. What overview of the basis of the prehistoric chronology of the Baltic region published in the last 30 years can you recommend? (German or English preferred).

      For parts of Europe I know more about, see Angelika Kellner’s rececent Doktorarbeit on the chronology of Sicily before 500 BCE or the Aegean Dendrochronology Project’s so-far unsuccessful attempts to back the text-based chronology of the LBA/IA transition with a continuous sequence of tree rings.


  4. Although you can try and link the start of the Vendel period to a catastrophic climate event of AD 536, what about the impact of the Justinianic Plague in the 540s? While I don’t think there is any textual evidence that the plague reached Scandinavia, there is also no textual evidence that it reached Britain. But we now know from aDNA that it did reach Britain, so why not Scandinavia as well?. I can’t think of any way archaeology can reliably distinguish between two such close dates. The plague wouldn’t even need to reach Scandinavia, just impact it by striking other linked regions. In reality a combination of the 536 ‘Fimbulwinter’ followed fairly closely by plague in the 540s may well have contributed to significant change. Even if an archaeological period shift is causally linked to a documented date or dates there is no need that it should happen immediately and there could be a bit of a time lag. All in all I think I prefer to stick with obviously round figures for the start of archaeological periods and I would probably go with c. 550 AD for the start of the Vendel period, as the most archaeologically defensible. That doesn’t mean we can’t speculate about causes, but I think we should keep period definitions separate from that. Shame we can’t use c. 0 AD.

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    1. Yes, the Plague of Justinian is often mentioned too. If seen as the time from when the new types come into production until the old types cease to be in wide use, then we must assume an overlap of about ten years. I don’t think the first phase B1 objects were produced until closer to AD 10 than AD 1.

      Scandinavian archaeological consensus settled on 540 decades ago, so you’re kind of alone there now. 540 is also a round figure.

      AD 0 only exists for astronomers. When Dionysius Exiguus laid down AD reckoning, he placed AD 1 immediately after 1 BC.


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