Sun 22 September 2019

It’s easy to feel a deep kinship to land, to the landscape of one’s birth. Many of us go through our lives, uncritically resting our sense of self on a history we’ve been handed down from our teachers and parents. A fierce pride in a highly-localized ‘tribe’ is ingrained within us. Yet, as archaeologists are increasingly discovering, humanity has always been interconnected, relying on the exchange of ideas to function.

I have deep links to the south of Germany – the state of Baden-Württemberg in particular. I worked there, then married into the populace. It’s a place I feel truly at home.

Among the stirring valleys and instagram-worthy villages, there are a number of archaeological sites that, as they are uncovered, are dramatically shifting what we thought about how late Iron Age peoples in central Europe lived, worked and died.

Prehistoric hillfort Heuneburg near Hundersingen, district Sigmaringen, Baden-Württemberg, Germany – Wikimedia Commons

One such site is the Heuneburg, not far from the Danube, and close to the town of Hundersingen. Long known as a prehistoric hillfort from the Hallstatt Culture, excavations over the last two decades are now presenting a picture of something far, far more complex than the popular image of warlike Celts would suggest.

The largest Iron Age ‘city’ North of the Alps?

“Rather than an outpost of a warrior folk, defended by wooden palisades, Heuneburg is revealing itself to be possibly the largest Iron Age city north of the Alps, a thriving trade community dealing in goods from all over Europe and the Mediterranean.”

Reconstructed Celtic city Heuneburg in 600 B.C – Wikimedia Commons

Digs have revealed that, during a ‘Golden Age’ of habitation around six hundred years before the birth of Christ, the settlement of Heuneburg was surrounded by a large mudbrick wall that bore striking similarities to some found throughout the Italian Peninsula.

With a hypothesized population of around 5,000, archaeologists discovered a significant number workshops and storehouses, More importantly, within the buildings were found a considerable number of fragments of pottery of various styles, some from far away as the Greek islands.

Elsewhere was found amber from the Baltic, and metals from across Central Europe. The sheer amount of goods points to the idea that this was a significant trading hub, not just for the immediate area, but for hundreds of miles around

Living the High Life

“These were the beneficiaries of a powerful trading culture. This was an Iron Age Wall Street. ”

Dominating the skyline for miles around, the people of Heuneburg also stood out in another way – they were extraordinarily wealthy.

A number of grave types have been discovered in the few square kilometres surrounding the settlement, containing bodies buried with extremely precious grave goods, such as beads, jewelry and other adornments

One significant find included a child and two women, the child and one of the women adorned with intricately woven gold jewelry, beads. and the kind of horse adornments that would only be owned by the extremely rich or powerful. Their origins spanned the continent, and would have taken hundreds of hours to make.

The fact that a child would be buried with such sophisticated goods signifies that these were no barbarians, rather the beneficiaries of a powerful trading culture. This was an Iron Age Wall Street.

What most archaeologists can agree on – and this is quite something
– is that the wealth of Heuneburg was only made possible by the transmission and acceptance of ideas, goods and individuals between cultures, often hundreds of miles apart.  

Referring back to the mudbrick wall that surrounded the settlement, some have surmised that it would have only been made possible by the presence of builders and overseers from south of the Alps – perhaps from as far as the south of Italy and Sicily.

Hundreds of years before Rome exploded onto the scene, there was movement of workers to complete projects, in areas considered ‘barbarian’ by previous generations of historians.

So Passes the Glory

The settlement at Heuneburg wasn’t built to last – archaeologists estimate that it was abandoned sometime in the 5th century – before the birth of Christ. Fire, weather and other natural forces quickly removed all traces of this significant, vibrant, cosmopolitan community.

The things left behind, however, would provide a massive boon to the teams of archaeologists who have documented the site. They show, without a doubt, that over two thousand years ago, the ancestors of modern europeans were trading, sharing ideas and enriching one another.

These people weren’t necessarily working for ‘the common good’, but certainly cooperating with – shall we say – less ego.

“These people weren’t necessarily working for ‘the common good’, but certainly cooperating with – shall we say – less ego.”

For those wishing to learn more about those who made Heuneburg their home, and how they acted as a significant node in a vast trading web, there is a museum, built partially on the site of the hillfort, with many finds on display. More finds from the site, and the graves surrounding it, can be found in the Landesmuseum Württemberg in the heart of Stuttgart.

As I said in my introduction – it’s easy to be lulled into a sense that one’s ancestors never moved from their patch, were fiercely self-sufficient, never yearned to experience and partake in the fruits of other cultures.

It’s incredibly easy to assume that the modern, global ethos is somehow an intrusion into a more self-contained patchwork of tribal groups.

It’s certainly something I’ve struggled with over the years.

Yet evidence increasingly points to the idea that we’re still the same people we were, way back then – questioning, searching, looking for something more than what’s in front of us. We yearn to interact with those different from us.

Against a rising tide of hate, based on spurious notions of blood and soil, that’s something to remember.

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