Metal Detectorist Finds 2,000-Year-Old Roman Dagger From Ancient ‘Lost’ Battle in Switzerland

TIMEDecember 13, 2021

Amateur archaeologist Lucas Schmid toted his metal detector onto a small hill beside a river gorge near the mountain village of Tiefencastel, Switzerland, and began probing the turf where an ancient battle had taken place. He would soon discover a Roman dagger from under the earth, which would lead to a remarkable excavation.

Rumor had it that a “lost” battle between the Romans and the Rhaetians had occurred here some 2,000 years ago—for archeological excavations in 2003 had yielded traces of an ancient Roman army nearby, most of which it was assumed had been collected.

Schmidt had a hunch, though, that the area had not yet been meticulously picked clean of ancient artifacts. He began surveying the area in 2018; and one year later, in the spring of 2019, his metal detector picked up a faint signal on the hill that day.

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Amateur archaeologist Lucas Schmid scours the landscape for artifacts near the mountain village of Tiefencastel, Switzerland. (Courtesy of Peter-Andrew Schwarz, University of Basel)

Assuming it was a small metal object at first, Schmid soon realized it was something much larger that was buried deeper beneath the earth. From under 12 inches of soil, he dug up an ornate Roman dagger with a cross-shaped handle and exquisite brass and silver inlay and adornments.

Schmid’s discovery of the Roman dagger led a team of archaeologists in September this year to begin exploring that region in southeastern Graubünden canton—where they discovered hundreds more artifacts, the aftermath of an ancient battle, scattered across 370,000 square feet. The excavation, which concluded by the month’s end, unearthed Roman coins, lead slingshot “bullets,” arrowheads, spearheads, pieces of shields and other defensive implements, and hobnails from heavy-soled Roman sandals, called “caligae,” according to Live Science.

As for the impressive Roman dagger found by Schmid, researchers believe it may have been buried by Roman legionaries as an offering of thanks for a victory. The artifact is now in possession of the Archäologischen Dienst Graubünden (ADG), as per Swiss law, and is currently being preserved and scientifically evaluated.

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(Courtesy of Archaeological Service Graubünden via Peter-Andrew Schwarz)

“It is not only the outstanding individual objects such as the dagger (a pugio) that are interesting, but also the large number and composition of the found objects,” study team member and archaeologist at the University of Basel Peter-Andrew Schwarz told Live Science via email.

He noted that the slingshot bullets were marked with letters indicating the Roman legion that made them, and that hobnails and other weapons found appeared to be of Roman make. Certain fragments of swords, shields, and spearheads, however, we’re determined to be implements of the opposing Rhaetians.

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(Courtesy of Archaeological Service Graubünden via Peter-Andrew Schwarz)

The Rhaetians were a confederation of Alpine tribes related to the Etruscans—who inhabited Italy prior to the founding of Rome. Some of the Rhaetians resisted the Roman expansion into their mountainous home territory, and records indicate armed clashes occurred between 50 and 30 B.C., said archaeologist Thomas Reitmaier, director of the ADG, Live Science reported.

It’s believed that the finds near Tiefencastel could hark from this time but there is another possibility; the clashes might have occurred later—in 15 B.C. when Roman Emperor Augustus commenced a military campaign in the Alps which ultimately subjugated the Rhaetians. “The fieldwork will continue next year, and we assume that more coins or other finds will come to light that allow an even more precise dating,” Schwarz said.

As for Schmid—who worked as an archaeologist on a voluntary basis, and contributed over 70 days with the ADG excavation—he will be transitioning into a field of a different sort; as the former dental student recently qualified as a dentist, his future plans won’t involve wielding his metal detector on a fulltime basis.

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Michael Wing
Editor and Writer
Michael Wing is a writer and editor based in Calgary, Canada, where he was born and educated in the arts. He writes mainly on culture, human interest, and trending news.