History of the Limes Congress

Dr Tatiana Ivleva, University of Newcastle, and Dr Rebecca Jones, Historic Environment Scotland, celebrate the 25th International Congress of Roman Frontiers Studies and highlight the important role women have played since the very beginning.

To celebrate the 25th International Congress of Roman Frontiers Studies (Limes Congress) to be held in Nijmegen in August 2022, the authors, together with Professor David Breeze and Dr Andreas Thiel, have put together a history of the Congress, from the early ideas of such a gathering in the interwar years through to the first Congress held in Newcastle in 1949 and on to the present day.

In many ways, the research for the book has been a labour of love by the authors – the Limes Congresses hold a particular affection by many of the attendees, as an opportunity for visiting the remains of Roman frontier sites around the empire, hearing about new research through lectures and posters, and networking with colleagues who may be doing similar research but in different countries.

Whilst it is unlikely that the organisers of the first congress of 1949 had a clue of the success to which their endeavours would ultimately lead (which now includes up to 400 participants from 25 countries from four continents; and three ‘Frontiers of the Roman Empire’ World Heritage properties); in many ways, the history of the 24 Congresses held thus far has held up a mirror to selected historical events of the last 73 years. Even the most recent three:

  • The 2022 Congress in Nijmegen was originally scheduled to take place in 2021 and has been delayed due to Covid. Very few scholars from the Ukraine and Russia are unable to attend following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the impossibilities for attendance at foreign conferences due to financial and travel restrictions.
  • The 2018 Congress in Serbia was a welcome return to that part of the Balkans following the cancellation of a proposed congress in the former Yugoslavia in 1992 due to the deteriorating situation there.
Participants in the 2018 Congress visiting the Roman fort of Diana in Serbia.
Copyright: Nemanja Mrđić
  • The 2015 Congress in Ingolstadt in southern Germany was at that point in time when there was a mass influx of Syrian refugees across Europe, resulting in the closure of land borders and delays in delegates reaching Bavaria.

One noticeable factor in the Congresses has been the increase in attendees and numbers of speakers. This includes a rise in the number of women speaking, although the gender disparity on the topics discussed is a notable aspect which we explore briefly in the book.

But perhaps one aspect of the research on the book that engaged us most was learning more about those scholars that we only knew as authors of esteemed volumes on the archaeology of Roman frontier regions, and then identifying them on group photographs from the Congresses. Following the description of each Congress in the book, we have a few short reminiscences by one or two participants for whom that Congress was their first immersion into the world of limes studies or otherwise noteworthy. Each Congress note is supplemented by a series of photographs, not of monuments visited during the Congress excursions (as these can be easily found online) but of people visiting particular sites, and social events such as receptions, dinners and informal lunches. We believe that this exercise not only gives an opportunity for the reader to put a face to a name, but also to learn more about limes past, present and future stalwarts’ characters, ambitions and interests.  

Specifically, it has been a particularly delightful quest to try to name every individual on a group photograph from the First Congress in 1949 in Newcastle.

That first Congress followed the centenary Pilgrimage of Hadrian’s Wall, and the publication of the Congress proceedings tells us that there were 11 speakers (10 males and one female). There was a reasonable spread of geography covered – in part due to international schools of archaeology and colonial occupations.

Copyright: Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery

Yet a photo of that Congress, featuring 38 people, tells perhaps a slightly different story than that told in the proceedings. And this led the authors onto a hunt to identify the participants on the photograph – particularly the nine women depicted. Two women known to have been at the Congress – Anne Robertson from Glasgow (the sole female speaker) and Brenda Swinbank (later Heyworth) – are not in the photograph. This thereby suggested that there were at least 11 women present at the Congress, potentially over 25% of the delegates. We didn’t feel that a simple dismissal of ‘wives and other family’ was sufficient and are pleased to say that our endeavours paid off.

In the front row of the photograph, seated on the ground, are two women: Elisabeth Ettlinger and Barbara Birley.

Elisabeth Ettlinger, then 34, was a German-born archaeologist, who had fled Germany for Switzerland in the 1930s. She joined the classical archaeology department at Basel University and received her PhD in 1942 on the subject of the pottery found in thermae of Augst (published in 1949). Her work Die römischen Fibeln in der Schweiz (1972) still acts as an essential reference book for the study of Roman brooches and she was one of the founders of the Fautores (the Rei cretariae Romanae fautores – Roman pottery studies: https://www.fautores.org/) which met for the first time after the Third Limes Congress in Switzerland in 1957. Elisabeth sits next to Dutch archaeologist Willem Glasbergen and, whom we think was the American-born Roman archaeologist and Latin philologist Howard Comfort. Both were life-long friends with Elisabeth, sharing their love for the Roman pottery, and it was with Howard that the idea for the Fautores was born (Howard is another co-founder).    

Barbara Birley, sister of Eric Birley, sat alongside her brother and was a teacher in South Africa. She and Eric remained close, and she was interested in Roman archaeology so would regularly return to visit family at the same time as a major Roman event such as the Pilgrimage.

In the very back row, between Antonio Frova (from Italy, who spoke about Bulgaria) and Mortimer Wheeler (from Britain and spoke on Mesopotamia) is the tall blonde figure of Dutch anthropologist Guda van Giffen-Duyvis. Although her husband Albert Egges van Giffen spoke at the Congress, Guda attended the Hadrian’s Wall Pilgrimage and was a scholar of Aztecs and pre-Columbian art of Mexico and Peru.

In front of Guda is a line of six women, of whom we have been able to identify three. The lady in the hat on the left is unknown but to the right of her in the spotted dress is Margerie Venables Taylor, who was the Secretary of the Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies for a great many years and editor of the Journal of Roman Studies. She would have graduated from Oxford University, but they didn’t award degrees to women when she studied there! She was later Vice President and President of the Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies and later became the first woman to hold office as Vice President of the Society of Antiquaries of London.

We don’t know the name of the woman to the right of M V Taylor, nor the lady with the dark hair in the dark suit to the right again. Although Dorothy Evelyn ‘Eve’ Dray (later Simpson) has been suggested for the latter, this lady wears what appears to be a wedding ring and Eve didn’t marry until 1952. But we have been able to identify the two ladies on the right hand side of this line up. In the cardigan with spectacles is Jocelyn Toynbee, the leading British scholar in Roman artistic studies and a lecturer at Cambridge University. Two years later, in 1951, she became the first (and, so far, only) female Lawrence Professor of Classical Archaeology at Cambridge. To the right of Jocelyn is (Mary) Grace Simpson, who trained as an archaeologist after the war (graduating from the UCL Institute of Archaeology in 1948) and subsequently became a research assistant to Eric Birley at Durham. Her father was the archaeologist F G Simpson who played a key role in Hadrian’s Wall studies, particularly as director of excavations at Birdoswald in 1929. Grace developed significant expertise in Roman pottery, co-authoring an essential reference volume on Samian ware (Central Gaulish Potters) in 1958, and was Honorary curator of the Clayton collection at Chesters on Hadrian’s Wall. Like Elisabeth Ettlinger, she later played a key role in the Fautores Congresses.

It is notable that many of the women we have been able to identify were already, or became, significant figures in their various fields of research on Roman provinces and frontiers. It is possible that several already knew each other due to their work on Roman Britain and we can assume that they were potentially personally invited, with the younger generation there by the invitation of their supervisors. For example, we know that 26 year old Dutchman Willem Glasbergen, seated second from left, went at the invitation of his supervisor, Albert van Giffen (not pictured, and known to have had his leg in plaster at the time).

When we started our quest, we had an assumption that people featured were prominent figures in Roman provincial and frontier studies and we were correct there as well. Other people that we have been able to identify in the photograph are familiar names in Roman and Classical archaeology and material culture studies:

Front row, seated: Howard Comfort (?), Willem Glasbergen, Elisabeth Ettlinger, Barbara Birley, Eric Birley, Ian Richmond, Andreas Alföldi, unknown, Franz Oelmann.

Standing in the middle row: third from the left, not looking into the camera is Rudolf Laur-Belert, Georg “Gyuri” Kunwald (?); centre behind the seated Eric Birley is Canon Thomas Romans; three to the right of him, Margerie V Taylor, three again, Jocelyn Toynbee and then Grace Simpson.

Standing in the back row: centre back behind the lady with the hat is Jean Baradez, to his right is Hans Norling-Christensen; to his left is Antonio Frova, then Guda van Giffen-Duyvis, Mortimer Wheeler and Victor Erle Nash-Williams.

Many Congress participants are wearing the round 1949 Hadrian’s Wall Pilgrimage badge showing how many had been on the Pilgrimage prior to the Congress. We believe that Shimon Applebaum and Ulrich Kahrstadt should be in the photo but have been unable to identify them.

We would welcome any assistance in identifying the people on this photograph!

This book about the Congress history is more than a trip down memory lane: we believe it shows how a discipline of Roman frontier studies was born and developed facing various challenges along the way. If it were not for the existence of the Limes Congresses, the iconic Roman frontiers sites might not have received the visibility they deserve nor would they have enjoyed their inscription on World Heritage list. The discipline is thriving, despite the alarming disappearance of faculty positions at Universities across Europe with a focus on Roman provinces and frontiers. We hope that our readers will appreciate the significance of the Roman frontier studies and our discipline’s contribution to the understanding of life in Roman world outside the Mediterranean core.

Dr Tatiana Ivleva, University of Newcastle, and Dr Rebecca Jones, Historic Environment Scotland


Sincerest thanks to Dr Ivleva and Dr Jones for contributing this article to the Archaeopress Blog.

A complimentary copy of the A History of the Congress of Roman Frontier Studies 1949-2022 will be presented to all those attending the 25th International Congress of Roman Frontiers Studies (Limes Congress), Nijmegen later this month. For those not attending the conference, the book will be available to purchase in paperback (priced £38), or downloaded free of charge in Open Access from 25th August 2022. Pre-order the book on the Archaeopress website here.

Save 25% on our whole collection of books and eBooks at www.archaeopress.com by applying the following voucher code to your basket before checkout: LIMESXXV

Browse our website or download our dedicated flier for the LIMES congress, highlighting the specialist series and titles within our Roman collection.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: