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.
Links between Nebra disc and observatory
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.
A Mecca for archeologists
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."