Archaeologists Discover Sixty-Six Roman Military Camps in Spain

Using different remote sensing techniques and open access datasets (mainly aerial photography, satellite imagery, and airborne LiDAR), an international team of archaeologists has discovered 66 Roman military sites of different sizes — used for training and shelter — in the northern fringe of the River Duero basin in León, Palencia, Burgos and Cantabria provinces of Spain.

The Roman military camp of Tortolondro in Spain. Image credit: Blanco et al., doi: 10.3390/geosciences10120485.

The newly-discovered Roman military camps date to the Late Republic or Early Imperial eras.

They are located at the foothills of the Cantabrian Mountains, where the conflict between Romans and natives was focused at the end of the 1st century BCE.

This suggests Roman soldiers crossed between lowlands and uplands, using ridges in the mountains to stay out of site and give themselves more protection.

The fact there were so many army camps in the region shows the immense logistical support which allowed soldiers to conquer the area.

Sites were used to aid movement to remote locations and to help soldiers stay in the area over the cold winter months. Some of the camps may have housed soldiers for weeks or months.

“We have identified so many sites because we used different types of remote sensing,” said co-author Dr. João Fonte, a researcher in the Department of Archaeology at the University of Exeter.

“Airborne laser scanning gave good results for some sites in more remote places because it showed earthworks really well.”

“Aerial photography worked better in lowland areas for the detection of cropmarks.”

The scientists analyzed aerial photography and satellite images, created 3D models of the terrain from LiDAR data and used drones to create detailed maps of the sites.

This included resources from the Spanish National Geographic Institute and geoportals such as Google Earth or Bing Maps.

These temporary occupations usually left fragile and subtle traces on the surface.

The ditches or the earth and stone ramparts protecting these fortifications have been filled in and flattened.

Combining different remote sensing images and fieldwork shows the perimeter shape of the temporary Roman military camps, often a rectangle like a playing card.

Roman military sites in northwestern Iberia. Image credit: Blanco et al., doi: 10.3390/geosciences10120485.

“The remains are of the temporary camps that the Roman army set up when moving through hostile territory or when carrying out maneuvers around their permanent bases,” Dr. Fonte said.

“They reveal the intense Roman activity at the entrance to the Cantabrian Mountains during the last phase of the Roman conquest of Hispania.”

“There is an important concentration of 25 sites along the valleys of northern Palencia and Burgos, as well as southern Cantabria.”

“In the province of León, as many as 41 sites have been documented in different valleys.”

“These range from small forts of a few hundred square meters to large fortified enclosures of 15 hectares.”

“Most of these Roman military sites were located in close proximity of later important Roman towns.”

“Sasamón, a village in Burgos that was probably where nearby the Emperor Augusto established his camp during his presence in the front.”

The team’s results are published in the journal Geosciences.

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