Germany, the land of medieval castles and beerhalls, has quite a long and complex history. People generally think about the fierce German’s who battled with the Romans, the medieval Holy Roman Empire or more recent history. But prior to these events, and I mean way prior, the land of modern Germany was occupied by various archaeological cultures that spread across Europe.
What I mean by “archaeological cultures” are people who are linked together by the similarity of their material culture (such as pottery) rather than being a single socio-political entity that was ruled by a single chief or king.
The period of interest here is the Neolithic period. This period was largely a transition from the “hunter-gatherer” lifestyle of the Paleolithic to one of settlements, farming, and animal domestication.
The Solar Observatory Goseck
7,000 years ago, in the modern municipality of Goseck in Saxony-Anhalt, people of the Stichbandkeramik culture (or Stroke-Ornamented Ware Culture in English) constructed a circular ditch monument (71 m in diameter). Wooden palisades were constructed around this circular monument and gaps and gates were placed aligned with important dates on the rural calendar. This Goseck Enclosure or Geseck Circle is the oldest evidence for deliberate observation of the sky, even predating Stonehenge. This is quite a claim considering how very few people know about it!
People of the Neolithic period constructed this monument to observe the path of the sun and determine dates which are relevant for farmers. For example, on December 21, winter solstice, the sun rises from the south-east gate and sets in the southwest opening. Additionally, summer solstice, on June 21st, and spring festival, on May 1st, are marked with gaps in the palisade.
An example of two of the gaps in the palisade that correspond to the Summer Solstice and Spring Festival.
Over 100 other Neolithic circular enclosures (called Kreisgrabenanlage in German) have been found across central Europe as well, however the Geseck Circle is believed to be the oldest. Archaeologists also found remains of bovine skulls and parts of human skeletons during excavations around the out-turned ditch terminals at the Goseck Circle. This suggests that rituals were enacted on this site, possibly even human sacrifice (Hill, 2020). Therefore it may have been a place for astronomical observations, assembly and religious ceremonies (Boser, 2006). The construction of the monument is believed to have occurred around 4900 B.C. and is believed to have remained in use until 4700 B.C.
As wood deteriorates overtime, the palisades have been reconstructed in modern times. This site can be found along the Himmelswege (Sky Ways) path in Saxony-Anhalt. This is a tourist route which includes important archaeological discoveries in the region, with an emphasis on important astronomical findings. This includes the megalithic tomb of Langeneichstädt, a ring sanctuary called Pömmelte, the state Museum of Prehistory in Halle (Saale) and the Ark of Nebra (Arche Nebra) where the Nebra Sky Disc (Himmelsscheibe von Nebra) was discovered (more on that below).
The view between two palisades.
The Stroke-Ornamented Ware Culture
The Stichbandkeramik culture or, in English, the Stroke-Ornamented Ware Culture, were an archaeological cultural group that lived in parts of Germany, Austria, Bohemia and Poland. They are believed to have been around between 4900 - 4400 BC and were preceded by the Linear Pottery culture. Not much is known about their language or customs, but as you can probably guess, one of their most prominent cultural characteristic is in regard to the style of pottery they left behind.
Bonus Information: Nebra Sky Disc
Only 25 km away from this site the Nebra Sky Disc was discovered. This large 32 cm in diameter disc contains a crescent moon and circle separated by a curve, and small dots across the disc. Despite this artifact being sold wildly on the black market, originally it was found with a pair of swords, axes, a spiral arm-rings and a chisel. Dating these associated items provided a date of roughly 1600 B.C. for the disc (Halle State Museum of Prehistory, N.A.).
The Nebra Sky Disc. As much as I'm trying to avoid Wikipedia for this site, I took this image from it as a placeholder image until I see the disc in person at a museum (Wikipedia, 2023)!
An interpretation of the disc is that it represents the night sky. The dots may represent stars, possibly the cluster Seven sisters or Pleiades, which is visible in the European night sky in October to March. The crescent may be a moon, the circle a full moon or sun. The golden horizon arcs were added, tracing the course of the sun between spring and autumn during the daytime. The boat/curve travels between the two horizons, possibly carrying the moon or sun (Halle State Museum of Prehistory, N.A.; The Past, 2022). It is possible that the disc was used to keep track of the lunar year (which differs from the solar year). While there is no definitive proof that this is what the disc was used for, a 7th- or 6th-century B.C. tablet from Babylon does record how one would do this by making observations of the moon and the Pleiades (The Past, 2022).
I mention this disc here as it is quite an interesting demonstration of the importance of astronomical events in these early central European cultures. Especially considering how close it was found to Goseck Circle. Not only that, but if you ever taken an archaeology class, you definitely discussed this disc at some point. So it generally isn't something to overlook!
I also only just scratched the surface about the disc (because this article isn't about it) so go do some reading elsewhere if you want to learn more!
Visiting Goseck Circle
Well, unfortunately this site is out in the countryside, therefore you need a car or bicycle to get to it. Travel to Pflaumenweg, 06667 Goseck where you can then find parking. It is less than a minutes walk from there.
Boser, Ulrich, 2006, Solar Circle, Archaeology Magazine Archive. Accessed August 15, 2023. http://archive.archaeology.org/0607/abstracts/henge.html
Halle State Museum of Prehistory, N.A., Nebra Sky Disc, Accessed August 25 2023 https://www.landesmuseum-vorgeschichte.de/en/nebra-sky-disc.html
Hill, Bryan, 2020, Goseck Circle: The Oldest Known Solar Observatory, Ancient Origins. Accessed August 15, 2023. https://www.ancient-origins.net/ancient-places-europe/goseck-circle-003325
The Past, 2022, The Nebra Sky Disc: decoding a prehistoric vision of the cosmos. Accessed August 15, 2023. https://the-past.com/feature/the-nebra-sky-disc-decoding-a-prehistoric-vision-of-the-cosmos/
Wikipedia, 2023, Nebra Sky Disc page. In: Wikipedia – The free encyclopedia. Edit status: July 25, 2023. Accessed August 15, 2023. https://de.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Himmelsscheibe_von_Nebra&oldid=235788714
(Additional information not cited here was taken from information signs at Goseck Circle).