A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
A 7,000-year-old henge in eastern Germany may be the world's first observatory.
When archaeologists Peter Biehl and Francois Bertemes decided to excavate a 7,000-year-old circular enclosure outside of Goseck, Germany, in 2002, they didn't expect to make any major discoveries, certainly nothing that might rewrite the history of Neolithic Europe. "We had just started our archaeology program, and we wanted a place near the university for our students to practice," says Biehl, formerly a professor at Halle-Wittenberg University and now at Cambridge. Combining Global Positioning System data with archaeological evidence from the site, they soon discovered that the two southern gates of the henge marked the start of the summer and winter solstice, making the enclosure possibly the world's oldest solar observatory. The farmers of Neolithic Central Europe, who most scholars believed were a generally unsophisticated group who tilled the land with basic wooden tools, were actually measuring the heavens far earlier than anyone had ever believed.
The Goseck enclosure and hundreds of similar wooden circular henges were built throughout Austria, Germany, and the Czech Republic during a 200-year period around 4600 b.c. While the sites vary in size--the one at Goseck is around 220 feet in diameter--they all have the same features. A narrow ditch surrounds a circular wooden wall, with a few large gates equally spaced around the outer edge. While scholars have known about the enclosures for nearly a century, they were stumped as to their exact function within the Stroke-Ornamented Pottery culture (known by its German acronym, STK) that dominated Central Europe at the time.
But the Goseck site has helped provide an answer. As one of the best preserved--and now one of the most thoroughly researched--enclosures, it shows that the sites were used, at least in part, to worship celestial objects and constellations. "This was probably the first monumental architecture in the world," says Biehl, noting that the sites served as ritual observatories two thousand years before the ancient Egyptians erected pyramids along the Nile. Since the Halle team released its initial research on the Goseck site in 2003, interest in the enclosure has swelled. Thousands of tourists have visited the area, which is located about 40 miles southwest of Leipzig, and the media has dubbed Goseck the "German Stonehenge," although the site predates the monument in southern England by more than two millennia and contains no standing stones.
To accommodate growing interest, officials in the German state of Saxon-Anhalt built a reconstruction of the enclosure on the original site last fall. To ensure authenticity, workmen stripped more than 2,000 oak posts by hand so that the henge would look like it had during Neolithic times. When the site was finally opened on December 21, just in time for the winter solstice, more than 2,000 people gathered to watch a pale winter sun blaze its last rays on the southeastern gate of the enclosure like it had 7,000 years ago.
Ulrich Boser is a contributing editor at U.S. News & World Report. He traveled to Germany as an Arthur F. Burns Fellow.