13 June 2005
Found: Europe's oldest civilisation
Evidence has emerged of Europe's oldest known civilisation, whose buildings pre-date Stonehenge by 2,000 years, and whose monuments are even older than the Mesopotamian cities traditionally thought to have been the cradle of civilisation. Archaeologists have uncovered a network of 150 huge temples and buildings beneath the fields and cities of modern-day Germany, Austria and Slovakia. They appear to have been built nearly 7,000 years ago, between 4,800 BCE and 4,600 BCE, and their discovery will radically change the understanding of civilisation in Europe, which is traditionally thought to have lagged far behind the development of urban life and culture in the Middle East. The temples were built of earth and wood, and had ramparts and palisades that stretched for up to half a mile. They were built by a highly religious people who lived in communal dormitories up to 50 metres long, which were grouped around substantial villages.
It appears their economy and lifestyle were based around farming of cattle, sheep, goats and pigs. But puzzlingly, their civilisation - or at least the style of building and living in communal homes around the villages - seems to have died out after only about 200 years. Europeans did not begin putting together similar buildings for another 3,000 years, by which time the continent was firmly in the shadow of the glittering civilisations of the Middle East.
The monuments seem to be a phenomenon associated exclusively with a period of consolidation and growth that followed the initial establishment of farming cultures in the centre of the continent. It is possible that the newly revealed early Neolithic monument phenomenon was the consequence of an increase in the size of - and competition between - emerging Neolithic tribal or pan-tribal groups, arguably Europe's earliest mini-states. After a relatively brief period - perhaps just one or two hundred years - either the need or the socio-political ability to build them disappeared, and monuments of this scale were not built again until the Middle Bronze Age, 3,000 years later. Why this monumental culture collapsed is a mystery.
The archaeological investigation into these vast Stone Age temples over the past three years has also revealed several other mysteries. First, each complex was only used for a few generations - perhaps 100 years maximum. Second, the central sacred area was nearly always the same size, about a third of a hectare. Third, each circular enclosure ditch - irrespective of diameter - involved the removal of the same volume of earth. In other words, the builders reduced the depth and/or width of each ditch in inverse proportion to its diameter, so as to always keep volume (and thus time spent) constant. Archaeologists are speculating that this may have been in order to allow each earthwork to be dug by a set number of special status workers in a set number of days - perhaps to satisfy the ritual requirements of some sort of religious calendar.
The multiple bank, ditch and palisade systems "protecting" the inner space seem not to have been built for defensive purposes - and were instead probably designed to prevent ordinary tribespeople from seeing the sacred and presumably secret rituals which were performed in the "inner sanctum". The investigation so far suggests that each religious complex was ritually decommissioned at the end of its life, with the ditches, each of which had been dug successively, being deliberately filled in.
The people who built the huge circular temples were the descendants of migrants who arrived many centuries earlier from the Danube plain in what is now northern Serbia and Hungary. The temple-builders were pastoralists, controlling large herds of cattle, sheep and goats as well as pigs. They made tools of stone, bone and wood, and small ceramic statues of humans and animals. They manufactured substantial amounts of geometrically decorated pottery, and they lived in large longhouses in substantial villages.
The most complex of the sites excavated so far, located inside the German city of Dresden, consisted of an apparently sacred internal space surrounded by two palisades, three earthen banks and four ditches. Harald Staeuble, the person directing the archaeological investigations, said: "Our excavations have revealed the degree of monumental vision and sophistication used by these early farming communities to create Europe's first truly large-scale earthwork complexes." One village complex and temple at Aythra, near Leipzig, covers an area of 25 hectares. Two hundred longhouses have been found there. The population would have been up to 300 people living in a highly organised settlement of 15 to 20 very large communal buildings.
Andrew Sherratt, professor of archaeology at the University of Oxford, said: "What appears to have been discovered in Germany is something which might have astonished, for example, Britons, who were only just beginning to farm in this period. But to the Mesopotamians, it would have been the grounds for a rather patronising pat on the back."
Sources: The Independent (11 June 2005), The Scotsman (12 June 2005)