Carnuntum | Romans, Archaeology and the Coronavirus

It was the stronghold that secured the north-eastern corner of the Roman Empire, thereby also securing trade-routes and access to the Danube for defense from foreign invaders.

It’s 6:00 in the morning. Having caught the 5:06 train from Vienna to Petronell-Carnuntum, I arrive on-site to start my working day at the Carnuntum archaeological park. After collecting all of the tools, trays and find-bags, my six colleagues and I enter the enclosure to pick up where we left off the day before: We are excavating the Roman ruins found at this ancient city. Expanding a section of the bathhouse complex, which although having been partially reconstructed for tourists, its excavation has yet to be completed. We are uncovering pottery, animal bones, old fire-pits, hair-pins, nails, the odd Roman coin, all of which helps us to date the material we’re working with. We find hypocaust flooring (ancient heated floor systems), walls and foundations of the ancient baths.

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The hard work and the thrill

A few hours pass and its eleven in the morning now, the sun is high in the sky, its hot, humid, I’m dirty and I have grit between my teeth – but there’s nowhere I’d rather be.  Here I am surrounded by history: I love the time outdoors, the hard work, the thrill every time we find an artefact from a people long since gone. I love my job.

I have been interning at Carnuntum every summer for the past three years, while spending winters back home in Canada studying for a joint degree in ancient Greek and Roman studies and archaeology. After finishing in early-December, I made plans to move to Austria permanently to join the staff at the Carnuntum site. I arrived, found a flat, got settled in, and was ready for my first day on-site on the 16th of March…

This was the first day of coronavirus lockdown in Austria. The archaeological park now closed for the foreseeable future, I am stuck in limbo (I’m sure many of you can relate), waiting for that all important e-mail, or phone call, letting me know when we will be digging again, and that I can finally get to work for real.

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50,000 residents

Carnuntum was first established as a fringe camp on the eastern-edge of the Roman Empire in the first century C.E., and was active until well into the fifth-century. At its height, the city grew to roughly 50,000 residents – (relatively large for this time). As a comparison, the combined populations of Pompeii and Herculaneum roughly 20,000 at their time of destruction in 79 C.E with the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. So – Carnuntum was a big deal. Garrisoned by legionary forces in a fort on the outskirts, it had become the capital of the Roman province known as Pannonia Superior (modern-day Burgenland and western Hungary). It was the stronghold that secured the north-eastern corner of the Roman Empire, thereby also securing trade-routes and access to the Danube for defense from foreign invaders. 

A site like Carnuntum is important both archaeologically and historically, as it sheds light on the economic status of the Empire through the trade-goods passing through the city, and the troop movements that secured the stability of the area. The site of Carnuntum is thus a window into the world of this north-eastern portion of the Roman Empire, in what is now modern-day Austria. 

Most exciting for me is that only a small-fraction of the city has been excavated. Who knows what artefacts could still be unearthed at a historically rich site – like Carnuntum?

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From bathouse to arena

With this jewel of an attraction in Vienna’s backyard, tourists flock to the site every summer to walk in the footsteps of Romans. Since the first archaeological excavations in the 1960’s, were funded by the Austrian government and universities, the Roman City of Carnuntum (Römerstadt Carnuntum) has been unearthed and developed to the point where there are now historically-accurate reconstructions of buildings that stood there over 2,000 years ago. Tourists can walk through a large bathhouse complex, a number of villas, a gladiatorial arena, and finish off the day at the museum with room after room of the many artefacts discovered in the area.

Once a year, the archaeological park is also host to the Römerfestival (Roman festival), with vendors, exhibits, food and drink (everyone in historically-accurate attire of course!), and a re-enactment of legionnaires in battle. – So it is a major draw for travelers, and for locals enjoying a weekend away from home, where you can learn about the history of those who came before, and who laid the foundation of the world we live in today.

Back to life

While Carnuntum is a popular tourist-site, it is also used as a training-ground for archaeological students from near, and far.  Students principally from Austria, Romania, north-America and the United Kingdom arrive on-site to gain the field-experience necessary for them to be effective after they graduate. Now that the coronavirus has put everything on hold, no one knows if these field-schools will take place at all this year. In addition to the international trainees, museum and archival research that has also been put on hold, facilities are operating at minimal capacity, and thus reducing our ability to develop an understanding of some of the artefacts discovered during previous excavations.

Now in early May, Austria is beginning to come back to life, with museums re-opening as early as May 15th, and I am eager to get back to work. This year we will likely be expanding our excavations of the bathhouse from last year, moving into a different room of the complex. Before I had arrived at the dig-site, past excavations had revealed color-patterned mosaic flooring – it has been a dream of mine to uncover something like that.

There is so much to discover, so much more to understand, and the enduring thrill that comes with the revelation of what was left behind by the ancient Romans, who lived just east of us in Carnuntum nearly 2,000 years ago. Once this is all over, I’ll be looking forward to that first cold beer after a hot day of digging in the sun.

But I can promise you that I won’t be ordering a Corona.

Scan of the ancient town of Carnuntum:

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