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.

Out of Isolation: the Scythians are Back!

St John Simpson and Svetlana Pankova whet our appetites for the forthcoming proceedings volume, ‘Masters of the Steppe: The Impact of the Scythians and Later Nomad Societies of Eurasia’

We are delighted and relieved in equal measure to now offer you this blog announcing the forthcoming publication of papers arising from the major international conference at the British Museum which was inspired by and connected to our blockbuster exhibition Scythians: warriors of ancient Siberia!

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Some of the gathered conference delegates.

The packed programme ranged from broad sweeping overviews to the latest excavation discoveries, scientific analyses of gold and anthropological analyses of cemetery populations. We also had many other papers accepted but, owing to an unfortunate combination of visa problems and personal health issues, some had to be delivered in absentia and others were not presented at all. However, we decided to include them, and expand our proceedings into an even larger volume which captures some of the richness of the archaeology of the Eurasian nomads of antiquity.

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This was a truly international gathering: here are some of the speakers from Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Britain.

Nomads have an image problem but only amongst non-nomads. Today, people without fixed homes are viewed disparagingly in many societies, even though a tent or even the temporary shade of a tree may be considered a suitable home by those on the move or the so-called ‘homeless’. Herodotus gives a more nuanced world view: as an exiled Greek from western Anatolia staying in one or more northern Black Sea ports, he almost sympathises with the Scythians he describes as he attempts the first ethnographic description of where they came from, how they lived, what they ate and drank, believed and valued most.

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The conference accompanied the exhibition Scythians: warriors of ancient Siberia.

The 45 papers by 51 contributors and co-authors in this volume capture some of the latest thinking and research on the early nomads of Eurasia, from present-day Romania, Ukraine and the northern Caucasus in the west to southern Siberia, Kazakhstan and China in the east. From them, we get a much richer, more varied and, occasionally darker, picture of life on the steppe. This was a hard but dynamic environment and these people understood how to exploit it. They took care of their appearance: women used scent and makeup, manicuring was surely not limited to the dead, and leather and fur preserved in the ‘frozen tombs’ of the Altai provide exceptional evidence for local and imported forms of dress. We also have papers on their horses, how they were cared for, saddled and dressed up for ceremonies. We have new scientific analyses looking at the sources and working of leather, including human skin, textile dyeing and weaving technology, bead production, the making of a ‘Scythian bow’, swords, and the various techniques used in working gold. There are papers on famous sites of different cultures, such as the Scythian kurgans of Alexandropol, Arzhan-2, Issyk, Kelermes and Taksai-1, the massive settlement at Bel’sk, an intriguing hoard from the fortress at Stâncești, and much later cemeteries at Noin Ula and Oglakhty. Surveys and GIS-based studies show how some of these were situated within their physical and socio-political landscape. Other papers discuss the development and possible reasons behind the development of ‘Animal Style’ art, as well as its many forms and applied media from metal and carved horn to rock art. And, of course, we have papers on kurgans: how and why they were built as monuments to the dead, and what forms of funerary feasting and even more macabre activities took place around them. Some papers re-examine the relationship of the Scythians with colonial Greek and forest-steppe communities around the Black Sea, another details changing directions of influence in the northern Caucasus, and yet others examine new evidence for interaction and mediation of motifs between nomads, Achaemenids and Greeks, and the penetration of new ideas into northern China. Close connections between peoples occupying the Minusinsk and Tarim Basins at a later date are the subject of one paper, and the dramatic effect the Huns had on the fortunes of the Sasanian and Gupta empires is the topic of another; yet others focus on the collections in the State Hermitage Museum and Royal Collection in London to retrace the original context of pieces which passed through private hands, the impact early discoveries had on ‘Scythian Revival’ decorative arts and Western scholarship.

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Visitors had an exceptional chance to see many objects from the State Hermitage Museum collection which were shown abroad for the first time (photograph: Benedict Johnson)

The adaptation of the horse from a herd and pack animal to a means of rapid transport revolutionised society. Greater mobility accelerated the pace of introduction of ideas, fashions and technologies: whereas before it might have taken a cart two years to travel the 4,500 km from the Black Sea to Tuva, a horseman could now theoretically go and return within a few months. It also created a new predatory approach to acquiring and controlling vast new resources which is reflected in the new weaponry and dynamic early phases of ‘Animal Style’ art. These people understood their animals and the available natural resources, and were highly skilled horse breeders as well as excellent riders.

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Incorporating new research into displays are an important way of disseminating what we do to a much wider public (photograph: Benedict Johnson)

The nomads moved camps seasonally and varied their activities accordingly. After shearing their sheep in the early summer there was plenty of wool for making felt items. This was also the ideal period to weave textiles although spinning must have been an all-year-round activity, and the same probably applies to whittling bone or carving small wooden objects. It was in the summer that many tribes sowed and harvested millet. Trapping and hunting were year-round activities. Some tribes also knew how to extract metal: some must have established base camps near the rivers where they knew placer deposits were present and spent part of their time patiently panning as well as probably fishing, whereas others returned year after year to camp near ore veins and extend their mine shafts deeper into the rock. The working of metals did not require large or complicated tool-kits and the variety of regional styles and quantity of metal in circulation prove they had ample access to metal, knew how to work it and supply it to the nearest settlements. The interaction between these different groups was much more complex than simply avoidance or conflict; there may have been regular tensions but each community relied to some extent on the other and carefully negotiated relationships must have been developed locally. Access to the different areas and types of resource on the steppe and in the valleys must have been jealously guarded by different tribes and sub-tribes. However, the weaponisation of Scythian society and level of inter-personal violence exhibited in the archaeological record illustrate how competition could easily lead to conflict with resolution through violence rather than tribal discourse. These were people with skills, traditions, beliefs and complex social structures. They developed a sustainable lifestyle which lasted for almost three millennia and one which continues to resonate strongly in the region today.

Sincerest thanks to Dr Simpson and Dr Pankova for providing this blog post.

The volume, Masters of the Steppe: The Impact of the Scythians and Later Nomad Societies of Eurasia edited by Svetlana Pankova and St John Simpson is available to pre-order now. Pre-order and save 20% using this special offer form.

Print ISBN 9781789696479. RRP £80.00.

PDF eBook ISBN 9781789696486. RRP £16.00+VAT (for personal use); £80.00+VAT (library/institutional use)

East meets West at the British Museum

A conference on the Rise of Parthia taking place in April 2020

The Parthian empire is by far the least understood of the great empires of antiquity. Until recently our knowledge has been both hazy and Euro-centric. In recent decades, however, new approaches have been adopted and these, together with new archaeological discoveries, are changing our preconceptions. Recognising this, in April 2020 the British Musuem will host leading international scholars presenting their most recent research on the history, culture and archaeology of the early Parthian Empire. Set against the complex political scenario of Iran, Mesopotamia and Asia Minor in the 2nd-1st centuries BC, speakers will address a wide range of issues on the rise of the empire and the relationship of the early Arsacids with their neighbours. Contributions will include re-evaluations of historical sources, analyses of material datasets, numismatics and reports on new work in the field. Specific themes addressed will include diplomacy, religion, sculpture, painting, chronology, ideological motifs, warfare and trade. This will lead to the promulgation of new models and a new understanding of the social, economic and political systems leading to the emergence of the Empire.

The conference will run in conjunction with two British Museum exhibitions – Rivalling Rome: Parthian coins and culture (April – September 2020) in the Museum itself; and the touring exhibition Ancient Iraq: New Discoveries, travelling to Nottingham and Newcastle (March-November 2020).

For details about the conference, including how to register, please visit the page on the British Museum website:

https://www.britishmuseum.org/events/east-meets-west

For any queries, contact the Organising Committee on parthia@britishmuseum.org