Tue, Jun 21, 2005 - Page 16 News List

Europe's ancient past revealed

Around the same time as great cultures long ago such as China, Mesopotamia or Egypt, Europeans appear to have been building gathering places


Work is under way to rebuild a so-called temple of the sun in Germany that was erected by Europe's first known civilization 6,800 years ago, long before the great cultures of Mesopotamia or the pyramids of Egypt.

Known as the Goseck Circle, it is one of 150 monumental sites arrayed through Germany, the Czech Republic, Austria and Slovenia.

Each comprising four concentric rings of earth and wood, their gates are thought to point to sunrise and sunset at the winter solstice.

The realization that a very early European farming people designed and built such vast sites has arrived in little more than a decade. Textbooks that assume late Stone Age Europe was far more primitive than the Middle East must be rewritten.

But despite the growing interest, archaeologists know nothing of the appearance or language of the people and can only surmise about their religious beliefs. The culture is known only as that of stroke- ornamented ceramic ware, from fragments of pottery it left.

The jars and bowls had their decoration jabbed into the soft clay with a kind of fork to form zig-zag lines.

The discovery of the 75m-wide circular enclosure at Goseck, 40km southwest of the German city of Leipzig, was announced in 1993, a couple of years after archaeologists in aircraft first noticed the pattern in wheat growing on the flood-plain site.

After excavations, work began this month to rebuild the site for growing numbers of tourists.

In a make-work project, 10 local unemployed people are cutting 3,000 oak posts in a nearby forest to make new palisades.

"The bark has to be stripped off by hand, the same as 7,000 years ago," said Ruediger Erben, the chief executive of Weissenfels County.

"It mustn't look as if it was done by machine or came from a shop."

The walls and ditches are intended to be completed by Dec. 21 for a winter solstice festival: the sun is to rise that day over the southeast and set over the southwest gate, as seen from the "sacred place" at the center.

In a dry run, hundreds of people showed up last December to eat sausages, drink and cheer the sunset there.

Erben said reconstruction would cost just 100,000 euros (US$120,000), while a parking area, plus an information center set to open next year in a castle a kilometer away, will cost 787,000 euros.

Bus tours of Stone Age and Bronze Age sites are already coming through Goseck, which is only 25km from Nebra, where a bronze-and-gold map of the heavens dating from 3,600 years ago was discovered in 1999.

The Nebra celestial disc was in use for hundreds of years, and its latter-day Bronze Age owners were closer to us in time than they were to the people who built the quadruple enclosures. But both discoveries are leading to a reassessment of Central Europe's past.

Long before the first towns developed in the 4th millenium BC in Mesopotamia or the first pyramid was built after 2700 BC, some kind of political leadership had formed, had a vision of monuments and could count on collective labor to build them.

Scientists remain puzzled at the short life of the enclosures, which only remain as discolored earth from where the postholes and ditches were. Analysis shows they collapsed and were replaced by farmsteads within about 200 years and monuments stopped being built.

The whole period of stroke-ornamented pottery is limited to 4900 BC to 4650 BC.

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