The ancient Romans once breathed the Alpine air and enjoyed the same craggy panorama that makes Lake Zug in Switzerland famous today—so tells us a sprawling complex of Roman brickwork, jutting just above the ground at the foot of the Alps.
Recently, near the Swiss town of Cham-Oberwil in the canton of Zug, for the first time in nearly 100 years, researchers have unearthed masonry structures dating to Roman times.
Experts from the Office for the Preservation of Monuments and Archeology, at the start of the year, found the monumental remains of ancient walls at Äbnetwald, a massive mound of a hill where gravel is quarried today.
Here, a tent was raised to protect the main part of the find from heat and rain. Yet researchers say the impressive stone network sprawls over an area of at least 500 square meters, with multiple rooms.
“Roman buildings of similar dimensions were last excavated in Cham-Heiligkreuz almost 100 years ago," Gishan Schaeren, head of the department of prehistory and protohistoric archaeology, stated in a Kanton Zug press release. "We were also amazed that the top bricks were even visible above ground.”
Between 1944 and 1945, an enormous Roman warehouse was discovered at nearby Heiligkreuz. So was a Roman watermill with several waterwheels during that period, in the nearby village of Hagendorn, just a few miles southwest of Cham.
As for the newly-exposed stonework, what purpose it served is unclear; nor is its extent fully known yet. The structure is believed to date to 2,000 years ago. They mused, Could it have been a Roman villa or possibly a temple? Further study might answer these questions. Regardless, its view of the Alpine foothills would have been sublimely beautiful as today.
Contents found within the brickwork rooms do offer clues about what life was like in the Swiss pre-Alpine region in Roman times; experts pulled up several everyday objects, plus a few exceptional ones.
Tableware called terra sigillata found at the site is believed to have been imported. Artfully manufactured glass vessels were also found, along with fragments of amphorae that once stowed wine, olive oil, fish sauce, and other goods from the Mediterranean. There was apparently extensive trading in Äbnetwald in Roman times.
Numerous iron nails found suggested a wooden structure once overlaid the stone wall base, while the discovery of finer metal, a gold fragment, might once have been a piece of jewelry.
“Only a few structural relics of this kind from the Roman period are known in the pre-Alpine region—in contrast to other regions,” said Christa Ebnöther, professor of archeology of the Roman provinces at the University of Bern. “What is also astounding is the relatively good preservation of the remains.”
What isn’t surprising, though, is that the Romans chose this spot. Situated high on a mound, Äbnetwald offers more than just a gorgeous view; there was plenty of food and water that would have made the region attractive. The gravel hill near Cham, in fact, was inhabited well before and after the Romans.
Valuable archeological finds in recent decades show the remnants of Celtic tribes predating the Romans by millennia. Researchers uncovered settlements and graves dating from the Middle to Late Bronze Ages, and coins from the Celtic era.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, the area was later occupied by Germanic tribes of the Upper Rhine during the first millennium A.D.
Since the 1990s, the large-scale gravel quarrying at Äbnetwald has worked in parallel with cultural salvage teams to preserve the history underground. With about a one-year head start, experts from the Office for the Preservation of Monuments and Archeology took the lead, examining the top layers of the mound before extraction.
On September 2, 2023, the office invited the public to view the Roman ruins, offering guided tours of the ongoing dig and exciting new insights into the past. “These pieces of the puzzle make it possible to trace the life of our ancestors and to better understand our history,” said Karin Artho, head of the Office for Monument Preservation and Archaeology.