CRC 1266 - Scales of Transformation

Phase 1 - Research activities 2016-2020

D2: Third millennium transformations of social and economic practices in the German Lower Mountain Range

Principal Investigators: Dr. Christoph Rinne, Prof. Dr. Martin Furholt
Staff: Clara Drummer, Marianne Talma


Research agenda

Network analysis
Fig. 1. Network analysis based on the quantitative occurrence of Corded Ware pottery forms, pottery ornamentation styles, tools, weapons and ornaments. The line thickness represents similarity. (Furholt 2014)

Project D2 explores the transformation of ritual practices, economic patterns and the use of the environment by communities during the 3rd millennium BCE in the area of the German Lower Mountain Range, which is archaeologically connected to the transition to Corded Ware groups. The main question is to what degree the marked changes in ritual practices and material culture are connected to changes in the economy and land-use. This will be mainly explored through analyses of social networks, nutrition, mobility patterns and land-use, using available archived materials, mainly from graves, but with a special focus on the scarce settlement data.


Graphic bone bed
Fig. 2. Gallery grave Niedertiefenbach (Landkreis Limburg-Weilburg, Hessen). Three dimensional representation of the bones documented in ten layers during the excavation of 1961. (graphic: C. Rinne)


The first phase suggested three major transformations which are archaeologically not yet very well understood, and which will potentially add a substantial degree of nuance to the current migration debates, which focus too much on the transition to Corded Ware burials after 2900 BCE and their connection to the eastern European steppes. We found (1) the significance of population admixtures with a western European signature taking place around 3800 BCE, probably connected to the Michelsberg and enclosure phenomena, as a constituting event forming the Neolithic communities of the Middle Mountain areas. We found (2) a marked break in the burial ritual around 3100 BCE, ending the inhumation in two gallery graves, a phenomenon also known from Northern Germany (see C1), and (3) the renewed use of gallery graves around 2600 BCE.

Research activities

In order to present the transformation of social behaviour in ritual and economic practice from the 4th until the first half of the 3rd millennium BCE, outstanding finds from individual sub-regions were selected and reworked for interdisciplinary analysis within the Collaborative Research Centre. The main focus was on gallery graves, enclosures and settlements in the Hessian regions and the southern part of Lower Saxony and as well as Corderd Ware graves from the area around Frankfurt.

A total of 37 sites were analysed under the aspect of the research project and 19 of them were selected for further detailed analyses originating from the regions of Hildesheim, Kassel, Marburg Wiesbaden and Frankfurt. The analyses include detailed re-evaluations of the excavation documentation still available, geophysical prospections, typological and material-scientific analyses of the finds as well as sampling for radiocarbon dating and the extraction of aDNA.

Types of settlement

The investigation of the enclosures of Wabern - Uttershausen, Wittelsberg and Einbeck - Kleiner Heldenberg, which for the first time were documented completely in their extend by geophysical prospection, showing various details of the structure and organization.  A previous excavation at Wittelsberg yielded pit houses within the trench system. The large-scale geophysical prospection allows us to project these spatially restricted results to the entire settlement area of 1.5 hectares. The combination of both, including the analysis of the inventories of selected pits, enables us to describe the spatial organisation of the settlement during the beginning of the 3rd millennium BCE, including the orientation and location of a total of 11 pit houses.

Wittelsberg-Magnetik geomagnetische Prospektion
Fig. 1. Wittelsberg 7: Plan of the geomagnetic prospection with highlighted pit houses and other features.

The enclosure of Wabern - Uttershausen is so far only known by a report on a small trench in the northern part and three radiocarbon dates with a very large standard deviation spanning from the 4th to the end of the 3rd millennium BCE. The site is located on a prominent spur above a tributary of the Eder and is severely affected by mining and a railway line. The remaining and accessible areas were prospected with a geomagnetic device in order to record the structure of this important monument for the first time. From the topography and the results of the geomagnetic prospection a settlement area of approx. 10 ha with an inner area of approx. 8 ha can be deduced. A double ditch system with an internal palisade, a free space as well as an area with a high density of features can be clearly delineated. A large part of the measurements is characterized by cracks in the rock and is difficult to interpret therefore. In addition some features can be interpreted as graves of the Late Neolithic or Bronze Age.

Wabern-Uttershausen-Magnetik Magnetogram
Fig. 2. Uttershausen 3: Magnetogram (gradiometer, +/- 8 nT) of the prospection with important features highlighted. Base map TK25 (c) Hessian Administration for Soil Management and Geoinformation.

The results of the investigation at the sites offer numerous approaches for comparative analyses within the research project as well as for outstanding sites such as the Burgerroth in Lower Franconia. Common and varying features point to regional specifics as well as to a more dynamic changes suitable for the analyses of small-scale transformation. The technological analysis of the pottery of Wittelsberg and the hilltop settlements of the Wartberg period allows a regional comparison as well as the description of differences to the pottery of the neighbouring gallery graves.

Tomb monuments and tradition

The initial work on the gallery grave of Niedertiefenbach was extended to include e.g. the Altendorf gallery grave and the rock chamber grave of Sorsum as well. In addition we investigated Corded Ware cemeteries near Frankfurt and other graves of the late Neolithic and early Bronze Age in Hesse. For Niedertiefenbach, a precise chronological model based on the features and the documented burial phases was developed. Within this frame kinship as well as changes in the health status are analysed.

The Altendorf gallery grave was a focal point within the selected key sites of the project. This includes the detailed processing and re-evaluation with new methods of all documents and the finds stored in the archives. All drawings and find lists were reviewed for a three-dimensional reconstruction. In particular, the ceramic finds were sifted again in order to be able to carry out sampling for the scientific analyses on technological aspects of the production. In addition, extensive samples were taken for the investigations of aDNA and a dating project. The stratigrafic analyses led to a complex model of the inhumation sequence, which was correlated with the results of the radiocarbon dating. In addition to the precise absolute chronological dating of the primary burial activity during the Wartberg period a regular and extended inhumation activity up to the regional beginning of the Urnfield Period can be detected. Altendorf is the outstanding site for the analysis of synchronicity and temporal dimension of transformation.

Altendorf Radiokarbondatierung Dichtemodell
Fig. 3. Altendorf: The distribution of 37 radiocarbon dates in a density model with a first inhumation phase during the Wartberg period and a subsequent phase up to 1500 cal BC.

The archives of the rock chamber tomb of Sorsum were also processed for a three-dimensional reconstruction and the analysis of the burial processes. This was mainly due to the importance of the site and at the same time in favor of the regional connection to the research area of the Project D3 within the CRC as well as to integrate own earlier research. Initial taken radiocarbon dates clearly contradict a simple horizontal model for the burial sequence. In contrast, integrating the localisation of the skeletons, a relatively short burial sequence over a few generations can be suggested. The aDNA analysis of a small sample has revealed one of the rare hepatitis B pathogens. The review and reanalysis of Corded Ware and Early Bronze Age sites with sampling of finds for mineralogical investigations has to added.

Sorsum Aufsicht 3D-Sicht Verfuellung aus Steinen und menschlichen Knochen Felskammergrab
Fig. 4. Sorsum: Top view and three dimensional view of the infill in the rock chamber consisting of stones and human bones.

Mineralogical investigations

The finds from various sites have been examined, in particular on the basis of almost 100 sections of selected sherds. A special focus was set on the mineralogical characterization. In addition to macroscopic analysis and X-ray analyses (pXRF, XRF), other methods such as microtomography (myCT) for the analysis of porosity or scanning electron microscope (SEM) were used for selected objects. The resulting data facilitate various approaches to answer the questions of regional characteristics, the provenance of the raw material and chronological differences.

Principle Component Analysis (PCA) of the results from pottery analysis using a portable XRF device
Fig. 5. Principle Component Analysis (PCA) of the results from pottery analysis using a portable XRF device.

Research activity 2019

In 2019, the main focus of the research activity was the publication of previous findings on topics and sites from previous years. This includes the final publication as well as the further development of current manuscripts. Deriving from here new research questions have arisen, e.g. on the development of settlement structure  in the low mountain range in the first half of the 4th millennium. They form a supplementary perspective in our research aims.

In a publication on infectious diseases in the Neolithic, the very general topos of the increasing risk of infection by settlement agglomeration and coexistence with animals is considered. The article discusses individual facts, scenarios and expectations from the perspectives of aDNA research, physical anthropology and archaeology under the premise mentioned above. From an archaeological perspective, the focus was on expected behavioural changes and new concepts in the treatment of the dead and the size or organisation of settlement communities. For this purpose, data on this topic were diachronically collected and analysed for the Neolithic between the low mountain ranges to the Alps between the Rhine and the Elbe.

Transformations in settlements and burial communities in the Neolithic German loess zone
Fig. 6. Transformations in settlements and burial communities in the Neolithic German loess zone. Statistical analyses of archaeological proxies from the area of study. The data are presented as box-and-whisker plots across time slices. The plot for house size has additional notches to illustrate a 95% confidence interval for differences in medians. EN: Early Neolithic; MN: Middle Neolithic; YN: Younger Neolithic; LN: Late Neolithic; FN: Final Neolithic.

New Publications