Nestled in the hills of northeast Bavaria in Germany is Heunischenburg, the Late Bronze Age stone fortification that may be the oldest stone fortification north of the Alps.
Other than the fact that the walls look cool, why should you care? Well, to begin, lets break down what the "Bronze Age" is. The Bronze Age is a period that generally does not get the full attention of the public but it’s one of my personal favorites.
This was a time when bronze was produced by a number of cultures through the combination of copper and tin (or other substances). Most know this period in regard to the more famous cultures from the Middle East, North Africa and Mediterranean such as the Egyptians, Sumerians, Babylonians, Hittites and Mycenaeans. In these regions the Bronze Age lasted from approximately 3300 BC to 1200 BC. This was a time when societies became more complex, with writing, social stratification, economic and civil administration, written laws, year-round agriculture and full city-states, nations and empires. Much of this came crashing down around 1200 BC when the Sea People began raiding the shores of the Eastern Mediterranean. This combined with internal societal and geologic factors led to decline and soon many of the Bronze Age cultures vanished.
However, the Bronze Age, or at least the use of bronze, was not restricted to the Middle East and North Africa. Bronze artifacts have been identified globally, and distinct Bronze Ages have been identified for different regions of the world, including Germany, between 2000 to 800 BC.
During the late Bronze Age (between 1200-- 800) the " Urnenfelderkultur " (or Urnfield Culture in English) spread in southern Germany. The name originally comes from urn graves, which is pretty much what it sounds like. Other cultures were also found to do this, so other criteria were late used to distinguish between cultures. This is the culture that is believed to have built Heunischenburg.
View from the top of the wall.
As it was stated before, this is a Late Bronze Age fortified hilltop settlement. The rampart from the settlement still exists today, however the gate and sections of the stone enclosure have been reconstructed. This is a very well-fortified complex and is theorized to have served as a control station for monitoring ore trade routes (and presumably other things). This is further supported by the fact that it can be found in such a hilly area that isn't particularly favorable for agriculture.
Evidence of fire and various weapons do however indicate a battle or conflict here (more about this below). There is evidence that the fortification burned down around 900 BC, was rebuilt, but abandoned by 800 BC (at the beginning of the “Iron Age”).
Other Late Bronze Age hilltop settlements can also be found in the region (e.g., Muppberg (Neustadt bei Coburg), the Festungsberg (Veste Coburg), the Staffelberg (Bad Staffelstein) and the Kahlberg (Weismain-Neudorf). It’s believe that they sites were connected. The large hilltop settlements of Gleichberge (Römhild, Thuringia) and Ehrenbürg (Forchheim) are also of regional importance, therefore, Heunischenburg may have also been under their sphere of influence.
What's behind and around those walls today?
Well, unfortunately, not much!
Why? Well, homes and other buildings were built from wood, which decays over time. Although round discolorations in the ground have been identified, which may be the remains of post pits (i.e. structures). So today is it just a nice scenic forest.
What did they find in Heunischenburg?
A bunch of weapons for one thing. 70% of the bronze finds were weapons or armor. Lance points, projectile points, swords and parts of armor: For example, round fittings - called phalerae - or rivets and nails to hold individual parts together. Most of the finds were recovered near the gate. Many of the weapons are damaged, which suggests they were used. Outside of bronze objects, they found sherds of ceramic vessels, spindle whorls, knives, awls and a sickle.
Image taken from an information board at the site, showing bronze swords and projectile points (Schwerter und Schwertfragmente © Bayerisches Landesamt für Denkmalpflege, Schloss Seehof; Pfeilspitzen © Björn-Uwe Abels).
This is the believed site evolution:
Phase I-II, 10th century B.C. – simple wooden-earthen-wall, that was overbuilt at a later date. Scorched sandstone suggested that this burned down.
Phase III, 9th century B.C. – New strong fortifications, which are reconstructed today, were built on the old walls. This is two-shelled stone walls that are filled with earth and crosswise wood. A later shell was added to the wall. An embankment (berm), now seen in the front, provided stability. Access to the fort was through a 40 meter long gateway. A tower-like sally port protected the gateway. The walls are designed in a way that defenders can fire arrows from different sides at intruders.
At the end of the Bronze Age Heunischenburg is believed to have perished in battle, due to evidence from burn marks and numerous weapons. The site was likely abandoned as trade of copper and tin lost its importance.
Where is it?
Well, I won't go into great detail about how to get there, since we all have Google Maps these days, but it's located in northeastern Bavaria, near the town in Kronach in Germany. Kronach just so happens to have a large modern fortress called Rosenberg Fortress, so clearly this region is popular for building defensive structures.
To enter the site you access a small path near a farm, that appears abruptly on the road. This road brings you past someone's home. Although I was alone at the site, I guess they get enough visitors that the owner of the property didn't approach me. I saw a hiking trail cutting right past the site, so it can also easily be added to a hiking trip!
In conclusion: why should you visit this exactly?
For one thing, it may be the oldest stone fortification north of the Alps, which is quite significant. While not much remains today, it's importance based on archaeological findings makes it quite an important place in the distance past. Plus, Bronze Age sites always get overshadowed by Roman and Medieval sites, mostly because they are more well known and are often better preserved. Bronze Age sites like this should get more attention from the general public!
A view out from the top of the wall, where I was looking for invading armies. I only saw deer.
Most of the information gathered for this was taken from signs at the site, which were written by a variety of German organizations (Kronach, Lucas-Cranach-Stadt; Friedrich-Alexander-Universität, Erlangen-Nürnberg; UFG; Archäoscout; Archäologische Arbeitsgruppe Kronach; Bayerisches Landesamt für Denkmalpflege).