A Roman Dagger Found On A Swiss Hillside Just Helped Archaeologists Map An Ancient Battlefield

Published December 18, 2023

The battle was likely fought around 15 B.C.E. between Roman troops and local Suanetes fighters, who lost the bout.

Roman Battlefield In Switzerland

Archaeological Service GraubündenArchaeologists at work uncovering evidence of a battle that was fought in the Julier Valley around 15 B.C.E.

Today, the Julier Valley in Switzerland is an idyllic place with majestic mountains and wide, green fields. But some 2,000 years ago, archaeologists now believe that it was the site of a fierce battle between Roman soldiers and local warriors, one which changed the course of history and helped lead to the Roman occupation of modern-day Switzerland.

During the examination of the site, which is located in the Crap-Ses gorge between the towns of Tiefencastel and Cunter, archaeologists have found thousands of objects that allude to the valley’s violent past. These include swords, slingshot bullets, brooches, coins, fragments of shields, and thousands upon thousands of Roman hobnails, which were hammered into the soles of leather boots and shoes.

There is so much at the site, in fact, that archaeologists uncovered an average of 250 to 300 objects per day during a three-week period in the autumn.

Ancient Slingshot Bullet

Simon Bradley/SWI swissinfo.chA slingshot bullet discovered at the site. In capable hands, it could be as powerful as a modern-day handgun.

“At many digs you have to work for ages until you find something… but here you find slingshot bullets and other things from a real battlefield,” Anouck Duttweiler, a second-year archaeology student, told Swiss Info.

The site is all the more extraordinary because it’s the first Roman battlefield ever identified and excavated in Switzerland. So, what exactly happened in the Julier Valley thousands of years ago?

Archaeologists suspect that the battle took place around 15 B.C.E., around the same time that the Roman Emperor Augustus oversaw the conquest of present-day Switzerland. Some of the objects they’ve found are stamped with Roman numerals or designs which specify military units, and researchers thus believe that 2,000 Roman soldiers from the third, 10th, and 12th Roman legions participated in the battle.

Their foe? Between 500 and 1,000 local warriors known as the Suanetes. Though no written record of the battle exists, researchers suspect that the Suanetes were overwhelmed by the Romans during the bout.

“We do not have any sources but given the distribution of the finds and the fact that we have many broken pieces of equipment, we believe the Suanetes lost,” Hannes Flück explained to Swiss Info.

While the battle may not have been a major one, it was certainly one small step toward the eventual Roman occupation of Switzerland. As the historic record shows, the Romans soon after moved through the territory, leaving their mark in the form of villas, columns, and amphitheaters.

Battle Between Romans And Suanetes

Leona DetigA computer-generated image showing what the battle between the Romans and Suanetes may have looked like.

The discovery of the battlefield is thanks to an amateur metal detectorist named Lukas Schmid. In 2018, Schmid, who works as a dentist, started to discover a wealth of Roman artifacts in valley, including an impressive 2,000-year-old dagger.

“I did not expect to find such an important item at this rather unlikely place,” Schmid, who dug up more than 200 objects, told Live Science at the time.

Given the importance of the site as the first known Roman battlefield discovered in Switzerland, archaeologists suspect that it will draw significant interest. Swiss Info reports that there will be a documentary on the research project as well as a museum exhibit about what was found in the Julier Valley.

The valley looks peaceful now, but the wealth of finds at the site certainly prove that it was once witness to a bloody conflict. Some 2,000 years ago, soldiers stormed toward each other in a hail of slingshot bullets — and slowly but surely changed the course of human history.

And the site might have remained hidden if it weren’t for a dentist with a metal detector.

“Without detectorists like Lukas, we would have had no knowledge of this site,” Peter-Andrew Schwarz, an archaeology professor at the University of Basel, noted. “He was the one to make the first important finds.”

After reading about the Roman battlefield uncovered in Switzerland, discover some of the most fascinating facts about ancient Rome. Then, learn about the disturbing Roman military punishment known as decimation.

Kaleena Fraga
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
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Fraga, Kaleena. "A Roman Dagger Found On A Swiss Hillside Just Helped Archaeologists Map An Ancient Battlefield." AllThatsInteresting.com, December 18, 2023, https://allthatsinteresting.com/roman-battlefield-switzerland. Accessed June 23, 2024.