Archaeologists Unearth German Stonehenge
The 3,600-year-old bronze Nebra disc is considered the oldest-known image of the cosmos.
German experts on Thursday hailed Europe’s oldest astronomical observatory, discovered in Saxony-Anhalt last year, a “milestone in archaeological research” after the details of the sensational find were made public.
The sleepy town of Goseck, nestled in the district of Weissenfels in the eastern German state of Saxony-Anhalt shimmers under the brutal summer heat, as residents seek respite in the shade.
Nothing in this slumbering locale indicates that one of the most significant archaeological discoveries of all times was made here. But this is indeed exactly where archaeologists digging in the region last September stumbled upon what they believe is Europe’s oldest astronomical observatory ever unearthed.
On Thursday, German experts toasted the discovery as a "milestone in archaeological research" as details of the find were made public. State archaeologist Harald Meller said the site, which is believed to be a monument of ancient cult worship, provided the first insights into the spiritual and religious world of Europe’s earliest farmers. Francois Bertemes of the university of Halle-Wittenberg estimated the site to be around 7,000 years old. He described its significance as "one of the oldest holy sites" discovered in Central Europe.
Through carbon dating of two arrow heads and animal bones found within the site’s circular compounds, archaeologists have been able to determine the date of the site’s origins. They say that with all likelihood it can be traced back to the period between 5000 and 4800 B.C. If that is the case, it would make the Goseck site the oldest-dated astronomical observatory in Europe.
Observatory had scientific and religious value
But it’s not just its age that makes the Goseck location so unusual.
Compared to the approximately 200 other similar prehistoric mound sites strewn throughout Europe, the Goseck site has striking deviations. Instead of the usual four gates leading into the circular compounds, the Goseck monument has just three. The walled-compound also consists of an unusual formation of concentric rings of man-high wooden palisades. The rings and the gates into the inner circles become narrower as one progresses to the center, indicating perhaps that only a few people could enter the inner-most ring.
Wolfhard Schlosser of the Ruhr University Bochum believes the site's unique construction indicates that it is indeed one of the earliest examples of an astrological observatory.
Schlosser, a specialist in astro-archeology, says the southern gates marked the sunrise and sunset of the winter and summer solstice and enabled the early Europeans to determine with accuracy the course of the sun as it moved across the heavens. Schlosser is convinced the site was constructed for the observation of astronomical phenomena such as the movements of the sun, moon and stars, and for keeping track of time. These celestial cycles would have been important for the sowing and harvesting of crops in the early civilization.
But, Goseck isn’t merely a "calendar construction," Schlosser explains, "but rather is clearly a sacred building." Archeologists have found plenty of evidence to prove that Goseck was a place of prehistoric cult worship. The arrangement of human bones, for instance, is atypical of burial sites, and telltale cut marks on them indicate that human sacrifice was practiced at the site.
Bertemes says it is not uncommon for such astronomical observatories to function as places of worship and centers of religious and social life.
The Goseck site, erected by the earliest farming communities between the Stone and Bronze Age, came 3,000 years before the last construction phase of the megaliths of Stonehenge in Great Britain.
Experts are also drawing parallels between the Goseck mounds and another equally spectacular discovery made in the region. "The formation of the site, its orientation and the marking of the winter and summer solstice shows similarities to the world-famous ‘Nebra disc’ – though the disc was created 2,400 years later," Schlosser says.
The 3,600-year-old bronze Nebra disc was discovered just 25 kilometers away from Goseck in the wooded region of Nebra and is considered to be the oldest concrete representation of the cosmos. The 32-centimeter disc is decorated with gold leaf symbols that clearly represent the sun, moon and starts. A cluster of seven dots has been interpreted as the Pleiades constellation as it appeared 3,600 years ago. Schlosser believes the formations on the disc were based on previous astrological observations, which could possibly have been made at Goseck.
Archeologists are certain the observatory with its function of tracking time played a crucial role in a society dominated by the changing seasons. They theorize that both the Goseck observatory and the Nebra disc indicate that astronomical knowledge was tied to a mythological-cosmological world view right from the beginning.
Archaeologists first took note of the location of the Goseck site after aerial images taken in 1991 showed geometrically arranged earth mounds. But it wasn’t until last year that excavation actually got underway. Because the site is being used as learning material for students at the University of Halle-Wittenberg, it is only open for excavation for a limited number of weeks in the year. Next year a group of students from the University of California at Berkley will have a chance to dig in the site.
Rüdiger Erben, district administrator of Weissenfels, believes the discovery of the Goseck observatory will probably result in some rather unscientific possibilities. He says he could imagine the site turning into a "Mecca for hobby archaeologists and astronomers."
The 3,600-year-old bronze Nebra disc was discovered just 25 kilometers away from Goseck in the wooded region of Nebra and is considered to be the oldest concrete representation of the cosmos.
DW-TV: Germany Today
390 Million Years of History
An exhibition of the most spectacular finds from a quarter of a century of archeological excavation in Germany is on show in Bonn. (May 11, 2003)
Iron Age Burial Site Unearthed
Rossella Lorenzi, Discovery News
Aug. 8, 2003
Workers fixing the sewers of a small Tuscan village have discovered a mysterious statue which may lead to a large Iron Age warrior cemetery.
A little over 2 feet tall, the prehistoric statue was found in Filattiera, a village in the magical stone land of Lunigiana, the wild and remote northwestern corner of Tuscany that borders Liguria.
"The sculpted slab has been re-used to create a 'cassetta' tomb, a typical burial of the ancient Ligurian people in which stone slabs were used to make a sort of coffin. So far we have identified three tombs, containing fragments of pottery. We are very excited as further excavation will begin shortly," archaeologist Rita Lanza told Discovery News.
Broken, neckless, with arms carved in bas-relief, the stelae has been dated to 2,000 B.C. by the shape of the dagger it holds in one hand.
Similar to Menhirs — mysterious, ancient single standing stones found throughout Europe — the statue stelae dotted the Lunigiana landscape until Christianity took over and destroyed them. Thought to be symbols of pagan idols, today their meaning is still debated. Some experts believe they were funerary monuments; others think they represented the chiefs of a tribe.
Consisting of sandstone slabs with an inscribed or sculpted human body, the stelae from Lunigiana are unlike any other found in Alto Adige, Corsica, Southern France and Spain — they are inscribed on the front side and serve as sort of thin, two-dimensional monuments.
Faceless, another unusual feature according to Lanza, the newly discovered statue was found less than 700 feet from the Pieve of Sorano, an ancient church where Lunigiana's most important stelae — an intact stone warrior — was discovered.
"It's an important discovery as it indicates the presence of a new Iron Age necropolis, probably the burial place of warriors. But most of all, this stelae shows that these statues were re-used in making tombs some 2,500 years after they were first created. This was totally unknown and opens up a new scenario," archaeologist Emanuela Parbeni, an expert of Iron Age findings in Lunigiana, told Discovery News.
Roman dig backs ancient writers' portrait of megalomaniac Caligula
Ruins reveal ruler extended palace into Forum temple
John Hooper in Rome
Friday August 8, 2003
British and American archaeologists digging in the Roman Forum said yesterday they had uncovered evidence to suggest that the emperor Caligula really was a self-deifying megalomaniac, and not the misunderstood, if eccentric, ruler that modern scholars have striven to create.
For several decades historians have been lifting their eyebrows at the Latin authors' portrait of Caligula as a madman who came to believe he was a god.
But Darius Arya of the American Institute for Roman Culture said a 35-day dig by young archaeologists from Oxford and Stanford universities had reinstated a key element in the traditional account.
"We have the proof that the guy really was nuts," said Dr Arya as he sat in the shade of a clump of trees a few metres from the excavation.
Suspicious of the very unanimity of the ancient sources, modern scholars have suggested they could have been politically biased.
They have argued, for example, that Caligula's renowned plan to make his horse a consul was really a joke that his subjects failed to comprehend. And, for many years, they have taken a sceptical view of a claim, by Suetonius, that he incorporated one of Rome's most important temples into his own palace.
Writing about 70 years after Caligula's assassination, Suetonius recorded that the emperor "built out a part of the palace as far as the Forum, and making the temple of Castor and Pollux its vestibule, he often took his place between the divine brethren, and exhibited himself there to be worshipped."
"This was so outrageous - an act of such impiety, such hubris - that a lot of historians have had great difficulty in believing it," said archaeologist Andrew Wilson, the leader of the Oxford University team.
Earlier digs in the area showed that a street had run between the two buildings in both the 1st and 3rd centuries AD, before Caligula's reign.
This gave rise to a theory that the emperor had merely built a bridge between them, even though another ancient source provided an explanation for the apparent contradiction: that the original street was re-established when Caligula's successor, Claudius, destroyed his blasphemous extension.
Standing in the broiling sun of a Rome August afternoon, Dr Wilson said yesterday that the latest excavations had uncovered no trace of a bridge, but they had found more and more evidence of structures within the site of Caligula's palace that ran at an identical angles to others abutting the site of the temple of Castor and Pollux.
The dig had also revealed sewerage lines running at the same angle. "The Caligulan foundations imply walls that seem to be projected across the line of the street as far as the temple," Dr Wilson said.
He pointed to a stretch of floor, also uncovered by the dig, which showed that Caligula's palace had at one time projected into the line of the street: the angles of the room put one corner within the carriageway.
"You don't have any room for a street any longer," he said.
This and other anomalies forced him and his colleagues to start rethinking their assumptions and conclude that the ancient sources seemed to be right: that an extension was indeed built which obliterated the street between the palace and the temple, but that Claudius had pulled it down and restored the street a few years later.
He said the hypothesis had begun to take shape only about a week ago.
"From the Forum, what you would have seen was the palace rearing up behind the temple, which would have looked just like his lobby," Dr Wilson said.
"There would have been no longer any distinction between the house of god and the house of the emperor."
• Caligula - Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus - was Rome's third emperor, ruling AD37 to 41
• As a baby he was taken by his parents on military campaigns and shown to troops wearing miniature soldier's outfit, including hob-nailed sandal - caliga.
• His later excesses have been ascribed to a troubled upbringing: his mother and two brothers all died violently
• To become emperor, Caligula ordered the murder of his cousin. He was greeted by wave of popular approval which evaporated as he became ever more arrogant, erratic and cruel. He was said to have had incestuous relationships with his sisters and to have planned to make his horse a consul. He once ordered hundreds of ships tied together so that he could ride across the bay of Naples.
• He was assassinated at 28 by Praetorian Guards
Second mosaic unearthed
A five week excavation at St Laurence School, Bradford on Avon has revealed a second mosaic which archaeologists believe dates back to 4AD.
On Saturday, 1,800 visitors visited the site to see what has been unveiled this summer.
Dr Mark Corney, a professor at Bristol University, has been leading the dig, which has included 20 students from the university, and many local people keen to learn more about the history of the town.
Dr Corney said: "This summer we've found the second major room in one of the two villas here and the other half of the mosaic we found last year.
"It all fits with the history, as there is a slight depression in the middle of the room, and we have found the big grand threshold to the villa.
"It would have been wonderful in Roman times lined at one end with huge sofas."
Investigations began on the sports field behind Wiltshire Music Centre in the school grounds, in 1999, when archaeologists first discovered what are believed to be the remains of two villas.
It is thought the site was a huge late Roman estate, taking advantage of the dramatic views and its proximity to the roman market town of Bath.
The dig also revealed a new building constructed on top of one of the mosaics, which could be even more significant than the mosaic itself.
Dr Corney said: "We have looked at other examples in France and we think this would be early post-Roman.
"We believe it's evidence of an early Christian baptistery which I think is our most exiting discovery."
The students have also been working on a separate set of remains, which they believe were the `workhouse' for the main villa.
They have now established the other building was built at the same time as the main villa, with the same grand front so guests would have thought it equally lavish inside.
But inside the floors were plain and Dr Corney and his team suspect this would have been where staff worked and food was stored.
The mosaic will now be covered over for another year and the field will become a school sports pitch again until the team return next summer.
The find has attracted lots of interest and BBC Points West will show a series of five documentaries about the site in their evening news programme starting on Monday.
The BBC2 archaeology series, Time Flyers, will also feature the find in its new series starting in the autumn.
Sophie Hawke, archaeology liaison officer at St Laurence School, said she was sad the dig was over, but it would be nice to get back to normal.
She said: "The whole thing has been great for St Laurence and for Bradford on Avon, and we have had so much support."
Dr Corney will be coming back to Bradford on Avon, to give a series of lectures about the find, in the autumn.
Quick work needed at ancient site
Archaeologists have less than a week to complete their work on the site of a mediaeval monastery it took 20 years to locate.
The foundation stones of St Guthlac's Priory, which dates back to the 12th Century, were recently discovered underneath land at Hereford County Hospital.
About 20 skeletons, believed to be of mediaeval monks, were also uncovered.
But archaeologists must complete their research at the site before a new access road through the hospital is built next week.
Civil engineer Nigel Jones told the BBC's Midlands Today programme how the remains of the former monastery were uncovered.
"At first we thought it might have been a boundary wall but they got in their with their trowels and, after a bit of scratching, they found out it was a stone grave."
Kath Crooks, an archaeologist working on the project, said: "It has been very exciting. Finding it after all this time is really quite good.
"And we're pretty sure that it must be a fairly high status building because of the high quality of the architectural fragments that we found."
Seven of the skeletons that would have been destroyed by the construction of a new drain will be removed from the site.
The remains will be examined and then reburied in consecrated ground.
St Guthlac's Priory was abandoned in the 16th Century during the dissolution of the monasteries.