The ruins of Augusta Raurica have been searched, excavated and investigated for centuries. Time and time again, new research results call into question the traditional schools of thought and change our perception of the ancient town.
Ruins – From quarry to place of research
The deserted town of Augusta Raurica and its impressive ruins, which remained visible for a long time, have always been a centre of attraction for people.
Starting as early as the 3rd century AD, tons of stones were taken away and reused as valuable building materials or turned into quicklime by burning them in limekilns on site. There were also rumours of valuable treasures concealed below ground and guarded by terrible monsters.
The Renaissance period revived the ideals of the ancient world and an interest in antiquities began to emerge. At that time, the ruins of Augusta Raurica were almost completely covered in earth and vegetation. The earliest research excavations were carried out in Augusta Raurica by Basilius Amerbach (1533–1591). He examined the theatre and had it mapped meticulously.
During economically and politically hard times in the Thirty Years War, fraught with famine and disease, the interest in the past ceased.
Antiquities craze and searching for the origins of our ancestors
The period of Enlightenment brought a new interest in research. In his work “Attempt at describing the historical and natural rarities in the Basle landscape” Daniel Bruckner (1707–1781) wrote extensively about Augusta Raurica. It was only a few decades later during the period of Romanticism that ancient architectural components were excavated and taken away to adorn private parks in Basle.
Aiming to establish a national consciousness, the Helvetic Republic in the early 19th century promoted the quest for a common origin of the Swiss population. However, the Celtic Helvetii were chosen as the glorious ancestors to be celebrated, not the Romans. It was not until the late 19th and early 20th centuries, based on research results obtained by scholars of ancient history, that the image of the Romans as pre-eminent bearers of culture was consolidated. Theophil Burckhardt-Biedermann (1840–1914) was charged with studying Augusta Raurica by the ’Historical and Antiquarian Society in Basle’, founded in 1836.
As part of a ’back-to-nature’ movement in the early 20th century, the so-called pile dwellers became popular; Romans were then seen as a rather decadent occupying force. Despite this fact, Augusta Raurica was placed under heritage protection by governmental edicts. At that time private individuals including the Basle solicitor Karl Stehlin (1859–1934) were studying the town at their own expense.
Saving from destruction – Augusta Raurica today
Since the 1940s, the conservation, study and conveyance of Augusta Raurica has been funded to an increasing extent by public finances.
The building boom of the 1960s and the construction of a motorway made it necessary to carry out large-scale rescue excavations in the area of the Roman town. Entire districts of the town were excavated and documented, sometimes under considerable time constraints, and the plots subsequently cleared for development.
Today, an archaeological by-law ensures that the preserved parts of the upper town of Augusta Raurica are not threatened and destroyed by further development. Wherever possible, the ruins remain well protected below ground.
Approximately 1.9 mill. finds from excavations are housed in storage facilities at Augusta Raurica. The artefacts belong to the Cantons Basle Landschaft (finds from Augst) and Aargau (finds from Kaiseraugst). The collection of excavated finds is available to researchers from all over the world: the finds are studied and the results published in scientific publications. These studies are the basis for our knowledge about the past.