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.

A Note on Sex and Sexism in Archaeology

Over-simplified black-and-white classifications can sometimes be detrimental to the understanding of past populations; Jessica Ryan-Despraz considers the roles sexism and preconceived notions of sex and gender play in archaeological research and data interpretation.

Throughout my PhD work in biological anthropology and prehistoric archaeology, I began to see the ubiquity of sexism, subtle though it may sometimes seem, in theoretical research. Sexism in archaeology, in particular field archaeology, has been at the forefront of many recent conversations, with several institutions attempting to make strides at improving inclusivity and mutual respect. However, sexism and preconceived notions of sex and gender in research and data interpretation requires continued discussion.

My particular research examined archery during the Bell Beaker period and the application of osteological analyses to identify specialized activity. This therefore involved investigating the possible links between an individiual’s physical biomechanical developement and his or her burial context. One primary object of interest was stone wristguards, which are interpreted as the protective equipement worn by archers, and first appear in the archaeological record during the Bell Beaker period. The appearance of these items in a funerary context immediately raised questions of their links to social prestige and a possible “archery” culture as well as drove parallel interpretations examining the appearance of copper daggers, which sometimes appeared in the same graves. My research problematic therefore revolved around using osteological analyses in order to determine whether or not the individuals in these burials were specialized archers and then using that data to better understand the possible link between archery and Bell Beaker social organization. One of my results was that not all “archer” burials contained likely specialized archers. However, a common theme to such analyses of course looks at sex and gender differentiation, especially in terms of labor practices, meaning this work also needed to address one large theoretical hurdle driven by a history of sexist interpretations in archaeology; mainly, the tendency in some past research to classify an individual’s sex based on interpretations of burial goods.

The problem went like this. Archery-related items are linked to warfare and hunting, and warriors and hunters are men; therefore “archer” burials are masculine and prestigious. However, osteological analyses determinging probable biological sex found that some “archer” burials contained females! These burials were immediately assumed to be either great exceptions of “Amazon” warrior women, or as a sign of familial links because a woman couldn’t possibly have been an archer, therefore it must have been the wristguard of a male family member, making the burial symbolic on a familial or societal level. From my perspective as a new researcher, one problem seemed to be a penchant in archaeology and anthropology to over-generalize and attempt to classify people (and cultures) into black-and-white categories that make academic definitions simpler, but perhaps at the expense of the individual.

One of the reasons why identifying specialized archery in Bell Beaker burials is so significant to Neolithic archaeology is because archaeological interpretations often require additional analyses from outside fields. Many areas of research, archaeology and anthropology included, often like to create classifications for each culture and society that can sometimes leave little room for exceptions and outside interpretations. In terms of my study, that was a problem when considering questions of warfare, occupation, and sex. Bell Beaker sites are classified according to pottery – if a site does not have this pottery, then it is not Bell Beaker. Likewise, warriors must have a particular grave context, otherwise he or she was not a warrior. Much work from archaeology, anthropology, and ethnology has argued that 1) women would not have been warriors, and 2) “archer” burials were warriors; but then this all becomes problematic when excavations uncover female “archer” burials. So which is it? Are females not warriors or are “archer” burials something else? And why does it have to be one or the other, with no room for nuance? This is problematic because trends are not rules, and each site and individual needs to be analyzed according to its own attributes in order to avoid sweeping generalizations, particularly those that fail to distinguish between sex and gender. One of my study’s findings was that an archery context does not always imply “archer”, just as “masculine” objects do not always imply male. In fact, in her PhD dissertation, Belard (2014) concluded that people were more often interred based on their social standing  rather than on their sex or gender.

For these reasons, collaboration between fields, specifically anthropology and archaeology, remains vital to interpreting these contexts. Just as differentiating between sex and gender has entered modern conversation, it should also be at the forefront of modern research interpretations of past populations. For research archaeology projects dealing with human remains, osteological analyses are necessary for determining biological sex, rather than relying solely on archaeological context and preconceived notions of male and female burial identity. As anthropological research continues to develop, it can also help provide assessments of occupation and specialization, and such analyses can contribute to archaeological interpretations of social position and community identity. The essence of this argument is that the research needs to continue moving beyond the paradigms — dagger presence does not equal man just like archery equipment does not equal archer. This also acts as another example for the value of individual analyses in addition to population analyses because they allow for specific identifications rather than sexist generalizations based on what women “would likely” have been doing. Some ethnoarchaeological findings, comparisons with societies throughout history and the modern era, and even several examples cited in “Practice and Prestige” suggest that a majority of warriors and leaders are men. However, just like everything else, this is not a black-and-white rule and treating it as such does a disservice to the women, past and present, who have helped shape the modern world. Here are a few examples from this work alone proving that the situation is not so simple:

  • Ethnoarchaeological findings from the Americas showing that women were not only warriors, but also sometimes war chiefs (Holliman, 2001; Koehler, 1997; Thorpe, 2003)
  • 18% of female Bell Beaker burials had a copper dagger and 10% had a stone wristguard (Müller, 2001)
  • The LBK site from Halberstadt (Germany) with the likely burial of a small band of warriors, one of whom was female (Meyer et al., 2018)
  • Sites of likely massacres, such as at Schöneck-Kilianstädten (Germany) and El Trocs (Spain), have young children and adults over the age of 30 but no teens or younger adults. This includes males and females. One theory[1] for this is because they were warriors away from the settlement
  • A cave painting of El Cingle de la Mola Remigia, which clearly depicts a battle scene, and possibly a female warrior[2]
  • With regard to conceptions of leadership, the presence of prestigious female burials (e.g. Hulín 1 grave 86 and Tišice 77/99) demonstrates that even this was not exclusive to men
  • A female burial from Durankulak, the Bulgarian Copper Age, contained a flint “super-blade” (sword?) likely measuring more than 30 cm, which was also the largest in the cemetery (Gurova, 2013; Stratton, 2016)

The point of all of this is not to say that women were just as likely as men to be warriors, because that is obviously not true. Much more evidence exists for mostly male warriors as well as for a patriarchy. The point is to say that modern research would do well to make habitual distinctions between sex and gender a regular part of each interpretation. Specifically, over-simplified black-and-white classifications can sometimes be detrimental to the understanding of past populations. While there is a need to define societies and cultures at the population level, thus necessitating some level of generalization, this should not be done at the expense of the individual. Individuals as well as cultures deserve thorough examinations based on their own unique attributes, and this is perhaps one of the most consequential takeaways from my own research – that analyses at the individual level are just as crucial as those at the population level.


Our sincerest thanks to Dr Ryan-Despraz for providing this article for the Archaeopress Blog, extrapolated from her new book Practice and Prestige: An Exploration of Neolithic Warfare, Bell Beaker Archery, and Social Stratification from an Anthropological Perspective, available in paperback (£34) and free to download in Open Access.

Print ISBN 9781803270524
Online ISBN 9781803270531
Available here.


Bibliography

Belard, C., 2014. Les femmes en Champagne pendant l’Age du fer et la notion de genre en archéologie funéraire : (derniers tiers du Vie – IIIe siècle av. J.-C.) (PhD thesis). Paris, EPHE.

Gurova, M., 2013. Towards the Meaning of Flint Grave Goods: A Case Study from Bulgaria, in: Comşa, A., Bonsall, C., Nikolova, L. (Eds.), Facets of the Past: The Challenge of the Balkan Neo-Eneolithic. Presented at the International Symposium Celebrating the 85th Birth Anniversary of Eugen Comşa 6-12 October 2008, Bucharest, Romania, The Publishing House of the Romanian Academy, Bucharest, pp. 375–393.

Holliman, S., 2001. Warfare and gender in the northern plains: osteological evidence of trauma reconsidered, in: Arnold, B., Wicker, N. (Eds.), Gender and the Archaeology of Death. Altamira Press, Walnut Creek, CA, pp. 179–193.

Koehler, L., 1997. Earth mothers, warriors, horticulturalists, artists, and chiefs: women among the Mississippian and Mississippian-Oneota peoples, A.D. 1000 to 1750, in: Claasen, C., Joyce, R.A. (Eds.), Women in Prehistory: North America and Mesoamerica. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, pp. 211–226.

Meyer, C., Knipper, C., Nicklisch, N., Münster, A., Kürbis, O., Dresely, V., Meller, H., Alt, K.W., 2018. Early Neolithic executions indicated by clustered cranial trauma in the mass grave of Halberstadt. Nature Communications 9, 2472.

Müller, A., 2001. Gender Differentiation in burial rites and grave-goods in the Eastern or Bohemian-Moravian Group of the Bell Beaker Culture, in: Nicolis, F. (Ed.), Bell Beakers Today: Pottery, People, Culture, Symbols in Prehistoric Europe, Proceedings of the International Colloquium Riva Del Garda 11-16 May 1998. Provincia Autonoma di Trento Servizio Beni Culturali Ufficio Beni Archeologici, Trento, pp. 589–599.

Stratton, S., 2016. “Seek and you Shall Find.” How the Analysis of Gendered Patterns in Archaeology can Create False Binaries: a Case Study from Durankulak. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 23, 854–869.

Thorpe, I.J.N., 2003. Anthropology, Archaeology, and the Origin of Warfare. World Archaeology 35, 145–165.


[1]     Part 1 of “Practice and Prestige” discusses other theories.

[2]     The vast majority of cave paintings appear to depict men only, however this does not make it permissible to dismiss those of women.