Westwards across Germany

We’ve had a busy few days as we’ve slowly wended our way west across Germany, visiting the Goseck circle, Arche Nebra, the Museum of Prehistory in Halle, the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp memorial, the Eichsfeld Borderland Museum, and the Wuppertal Schwebebahn.

We spent Tuesday evening outside a motorhome dealership (Gerth Mobile) at Weissenfels. Not the best Stellplatz we’ve stayed on (it was nearer the main road than we’d anticipated, with quite a lot of road noise) but it had the all-important service point that we needed (emptying / filling of tanks) and was within just a few kilometres of our first scheduled stop on Wednesday morning, Goseck.

The Goseck circle (or “solar observatory”, as the marketing bods have decided to call it) was discovered from aerial photos in the early 1990s. It’s a 71m diameter wooden structure dating back to around 4900BC (yes, nearly 7,000 years old!):

The basic idea is similar to that at Stonehenge, but Goseck is much much older. Openings in the circular fence are aligned with sunrise and sunset on the winter solstice. Smaller gaps (chinks in the fence rather than openings you could walk through) are aligned with the summer solstice.

Everything you can see at Goseck today is a reconstruction; basically there was nothing really to see at ground level when it was discovered (the underground structure showed up on aerial photos as differences in colour, with a bright green ring where the ditch was standing out particularly well, to the extent that the openings were also clearly visible). The site was excavated between 2002 and 2004:

The height of the posts above ground had to be estimated from the depths of the original post holes (apart from that, everything above ground is a guess – were the posts tied together? were they decorated? etc) and the ditch has been redug using a JCB:

An information centre at the local castle a kilometre or so down the road gave us further background information on the discovery of the circle and the subsequent archaelogical excavations.

About 30km or so from Goseck, near Nebra, another amazing discovery was made in 1999. Buried around 3600 years ago along with two swords, arm rings etc was the Nebra Sky Disc, which is unlike anything else found so far from the European Bronze Age:

It’s a copper disc about the size of a large pizza plate with a design hammered into it in gold. The original is in the Museum of Prehistory in Halle, but a modern museum (“Arche Nebra”) near the find site explains all about the disc (it’s complicated!) using an exhibition and a planetarium film.

Basically, we learned that it all comes down to the relationship between the lunar and the solar calendars. Bronze Age farmers using a lunar calendar would find that they. needed to add an extra month every three years or so to keep their calendar in sync with the seasons, since twelve lunar months are a few days shorter than a solar year:

Early written texts (from a few centuries BC – nowhere near as far back as the Bronze Age) give rules for doing this.

One rule involves looking at the size of the crescent moon as it passes close to the Pleiades in spring. The size of the crescent and its location next to the Pleiades when is was time to add a month does seem to be pretty much exactly as depicted on the Sky Disc (the Pleiades are the group of seven stars depicted close together).

An alternative rule involved counting the days from the start of the last month of winter until the moon passed the Pleiades; if this took 32 days it was time to add the extra month. There were initially 32 starts on the Nebra Sky Disc (two are now hidden under the gold strip on the right hand side, which was added later).

So the argument is that the original Sky Disc depicts two rules for adjusting between the lunar and solar calendars. All very intriguing stuff!

Two strips were added later along the edges (one has come off or been removed at some point, but you can see where it was). These seem to represent the solstice alignments: the diagram below shows the Sky Disc superimposed on the Goseck Circle to illustrate the point:

The bit at the bottom was also added later and is thought to depict a boat. We were shown lots of photos of the boat rock carvings at Tanum in Sweden (visited earlier this trip) to illustrate the cultural significance of boats…..

After spending Wednesday night in the very quiet car park 300m from the museum, we set out first thing on Thursday morning to the observation tower 3km away on the top of the hill near where the Sky Disc was found:

The mirror on the ground in the photo above marks the find site.

After learning so much about the Sky Disc, we did of course have to go see the original. Visiting the Museum of Prehistory in Halle turned out to be remarkable easy: there are three marked motorhome spaces in a car park nearby (costing a whopping 5 euros for 24 hours); there’s even a service point (water and emptying) and electricity (1 euro for 8 hours).

It turned out that the old dears piling out of the bus were rushing round the corner to a restaurant for their lunch! “Ach, du liebe Scheisse!” exclaimed one of them as she reached the restaurant only to discover two rather tall steps leading up to the front door!

The museum was great. No photos were allowed of the Sky Disc or the things found with it (which are all kept in a very dark room), but at least we’ve seen them. We spent a lot longer than we’d expected going round the rest of the museum. The audioguide gave lots of interesting information that wasn’t included on the wall displays. The presentation here was made much more interesting than the usual “stone age blah blah” you normally get in museums as it used the examples of particular sites in Germany to not just tell us how people lived but also to explain “how we know”. So we started off 370,000 years ago at Bilzingsleben, for example, then moved on to a more recent site, and so on.

An aurochs and a mammoth (both are the real deal):

One of these is a reconstruction of a man from around 200,000 years ago. The other one dates back 54 years. Evolution at work ?!?

Lots of Bronze Age bling. This stuff is huuge – the fibulae (brooches) below are about 50cm long:

Swords. You’ve gotta have swords….

Here’s something we didn’t expect to come across. I’ve seen this kind of thing before in Peru, but apparently binding heads in early childhood (often involving wooden boards, the idea being to produce a drastically elongated skull) was also big in central Asia and the arrival of the Huns sparked a short-lived craze in central Europe in the first half of the 5th century AD:

Yeuch!

After spending the night on the car park in Halle, we continued our journey on Friday morning, stopping this time at the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp memorial. We hadn’t even heard of Mittelbau-Dora until we visited Peenemünde earlier this trip.

As we saw at Peenemünde, the V1 and V2 rockets were developed up there. We saw some footage of V2 launches going wrong at Peenemünde, but we didn’t realise just how badly the early tests in 1942/3 had gone. On the test sheet below, the tests marked in pink in the left hand column failed:

Nevertheless, the decision was made to put the V2 into production anyway in the summer of 1943. Forced labour was brought in for the purpose. Soon after, of course, the RAF bombed Peenemünde and the decision was taken to move production to an underground facility in central Germany.

Some tunnels had been dug into the mountainside at the chosen site near Nordhausen, originally for storage of fuel and other supplies for the army. The Dora camp was set up here (initially a subcamp of Buchenwald) and forced labourers were set to work in the tunnels. Grim really doesn’t cover it – they had to live in the tunnels for the first six months or so in cold, damp conditions without ventilation (even though blasting was taking place in there so the air was thick with dust and fumes), toilets (they used petrol cans, emptied infrequently), opportunity to wash or even opportunity to go outside occasionally.

The prisoners were taken from the occupied territories – mainly Russia, Poland, and France – having been accused of some kind of resistance to the regime. By Christmas 1943, there were 10,000 prisoners living in the tunnels. Five thousand died during those first few months. The picture below was done after the war by a prisoner who survived:

After the first six months, a complex of wooden barracks was completed outside the tunnels. Later on, 39 smaller camps were set up in the surrounding region with the aim of starting other underground projects (to build aircraft etc): the camp now became the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp (no longer a satellite of Buchenwald), administered from Dora.

More than three quarters of the inmates at Dora were involved in construction: less than a quarter were used in the actual production. Basically, the construction workers were worked to death, and the production workers, although faring somewhat better (having received some training and therefore possibly having some limited value), still faced a bleak outlook. Of the 60,000 held at the camp during the war, over a third died.

As is the case with many of the old concentration camps, there isn’t a huge amount visible above ground nowadays:

The crematorium is original. Initially, bodies were transferred in trucks to Buchenwald for incineration, but by 1944 this had become impractical due to the sheer numbers involved:

We signed up for the guided tour, this being the only way to go inside the old tunnels, which were dynamited shut by the Russians after the end of the war:

A new entrance has been made to allow visitors on guided tours access to the first three chambers. This is where the inmates lived in such terrible conditions during the camp’s first few months. Later, this area was used for V1 production. The floor is covered in rusty bits of metal and rubble (fallen bits of tunnel lining?); you walk on a metal walkway above it all.

The metal bits are apparently left over from the V1s – whereas the allies cleared out all the V2 stuff at the end of the war, they weren’t so interested in the V1 flying bombs, so that stuff was just left in the tunnels.

A bit of a V2 that was left behind was displayed in the entrance:

Our tour guide went to (possibly excessive) great lengths to tell us how the local population was complicit in everything that happened at Mittelbau-Dora. Nothing was hidden – Dora is clearly visible from Nordhausen and the smaller camps were typically placed in or very near to settlements (the example was given of one village with a population of 250-300 that suddenly received a camp of 4,000 prisoners). Prisoners were marched through the streets to work in many places, civilian workers would have come into contact with prisoners (so would have seen their condition), and so on. We were told that the camp was popular as it was good for the local economy and lots of people profited from it. Local building companies could even rent workers for a fixed daily fee…..

It’s probably best if we don’t go into the information we were given about the death marches at the end of the war….. That part was truly beyond horrific…..

In a (somewhat failed) attempt to find something more cheerful to look at on Saturday, we stopped at the Eichsfeld Grenzlandmuseum at Teistungen. There are lots of border museums strung along the old border (1394 km long) between East and West Germany. We picked this one as it was closest to our route.

This was another place where we spent a lot longer than we’d anticipated! There was quite an extensive exhibition to look at, then a 6km trail along a section of the old border to see the various features.

Watch tower:

They had concrete blocks lining the ditch to stop cars from crossing. The “control strip” of bare earth would be difficult to cross without leaving a trace. Then, of course, there were the fences, the guards, and the really dangerous stuff – automatic guns and land mines….

Crikey!

Today (Sunday) has mainly been a travelling day, Sunday generally being a good day to hit the German autobahns (no lorries!). We’ve made it to just south of Mönchengladbach, having stopped at Wuppertal for a couple of hours this afternoon for a ride on the Schwebebahn.

The Schwebebahn is a 13.3km long railway line with 20 stations. It’s the oldest elevated hanging railway in the world, opened in 1901.

This thing isn’t just a tourist attraction: it’s a mainstream part of the public transport system, with over 80,000 passengers using it each day. Here’s one of the trains entering a station:

The trains themselves are all brand new, the Schwebebahn having been closed and upgraded between November 2018 and August 2019 following an incident. A more famous incident occurred in 1950 when a circus elephant was taken on the Schwebebahn as a publicity stunt. The elephant panicked, jumped out of the carriage, and landed in the river below – miraculously unhurt. Apparently it all happened so fast that no photos were taken.

The track runs above the river for most of its length, but near where we were parked (there’s a car park at Kornstrasse with marked motorhome spaces) it briefly travels above a busy road:

We went right to the far end of the track then back again. Riding on the Schwebebahn feels exactly like travelling on the tube in terms of the motion of the carriages, but looking out of the windows as you go along, it definitely does have something of the Alton Towers about it!

We’re parked up for the night in a castle car park. Having arrived late (again!), we haven’t set eyes on the actual castle yet. A job for tomorrow morning….

4 comments

  1. The Schwebebahn is quite a thing to see. It’s sort of like an upsidedown version of the Chicago Loop elevated railway. Looking it up on-line, it appears that there are others in different cities dotted around the world. As usual, a fascinating account of your travels.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve just come across your blog because I noticed your website on the back of your motorhome as we are follow you across the bridge on the M4 into Wales! Looking forward to reading more about your adventures.

    Like

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