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In a Land before Our Time

An interdisciplinary team of researchers studies the influence of prehistoric migration patterns on past landscapes.

Aug 28, 2012

Teilübersicht der Ausgrabung am Leimbach bei Nordhausen: Im Vordergrund sind die flächigen archäologischen Grabungen zu sehen.
Partial overview of the excavation in Leimbach near Nordhausen, south of the Harz Mountains in Thuringia. Image Credit: Freie Universität Berlin

Even scholars have luck on their side at times. Take, for example, the scholars of ancient studies who are working near the city of Nordhausen, in the central German state of Thuringia, to uncover traces of two long-past cultures. “Immigration by one group into a society with a different structure can create tension. If it is possible to identify and analyze a situation like that occurring in the distant past, that’s an unusual stroke of luck for archaeologists,” says Michael Meyer, a professor at the Institute of Prehistoric Archaeology at Freie Universität Berlin and director of the Topoi cluster of excellence.

“In fact, we have been able to prove that a larger group of people from around southern Poland migrated to the Goldene Aue valley, south of the Harz Mountains, in the latter part of the Iron Age,” Meyer says. Archaeological research into this prehistoric encounter is a sub-project of Topoi, a joint research alliance between scholars at Freie Universität and Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin that received approval in mid-June of this year for another five years of funding as part of the Excellence Initiative jointly sponsored by the German federal and state governments.

The encounter between the La Tène culture settled to the south of the Harz Mountains and immigrants from the Polish Przeworsk culture lasted from 200 to about 50 B.C. The researchers are now studying it with a two pronged-approach. First, they are using traditional archaeological methods, such as excavation – with funding from the German Research Foundation (DFG) – and interpretation of finds. Second, researchers are also engaged in scientific testing, including studies of core samples, laboratory analyses of sediments, ground-penetrating radar, and analysis and interpretation of relief and remote sensing data. “We don’t just want to find out how the immigrants’ arrival affected the landscape, but also whether the new arrivals changed the existing settlement patterns in the region,” explains project manager Philipp Hoelzmann, of the Institute of Geographical Sciences at Freie Universität Berlin.

At the same time, the researchers are trying to discover what changes the landscape experienced over the millennia, and to what extent those changes affected local conditions and settlement patterns. Climatic conditions toward the end of the second millennium B.C. are also a factor, reflected in developments such as filling of previous geological channels due to erosion caused by human settlement. “Studying past landscapes helps us trace spatial distribution patterns for raw materials or ways in which prehistoric people intervened in their natural environment,” explains the second project manager, Wiebke Bebermeier, a junior professor at the Institute of Geographical Sciences at Freie Universität. “And that in turn could explain how earlier cultures perceived or organized their environment,” she points out.

Hoelzmann was recently able to present the results of the group’s research on the history of settlement in the region at an international conference on landscape archaeology held at Freie Universität. Bebermeier organized the conference, which drew an audience of specialists from more than 20 countries, together with archaeologist Elke Kaiser. Hoelzmann’s summary: “Because of the erosion and displacement of sediment in the new settlement area during the Przeworsk culture, we have only found deeper-seated traces caused by people – postholes, for example, and trenches. We have, however, been able to depict the original landscape at the time of settlement.”

The researchers were also able to show that the migrants from the east definitely had different priorities from those of the existing culture. Unlike the natives, the new arrivals preferred to settle around the edges of the valley. A historical analysis of settlement in the region shows that these migrants were the first ever to use these areas, which had never been settled this way before. Farming conditions might be one reason. These areas are home to the last outskirts of rich soil, as different geological conditions made agriculture just a few hundred meters to the north less fertile. Above all, though, the new settlers built their homesteads on easily accessible deposits of iron ore. Clay ironstone outcroppings are found here, and the stones can still be gathered right from the fields to this day.

“The different concepts of space existing between the local settlers and the representatives of the Przeworsk culture side by side tell a story of balanced coexistence,” says Topoi director Meyer. Interpretation of later settlements shows, however, that the immigrants dominated in the long term. Further studies in the area where the Przeworsk culture originated, in present-day Poland, should shed light on what first motivated the migrants to leave their homeland to the east.

Further Information

  • Jun. - Prof. Dr. Wiebke Bebermeier, Freie Universität Berlin, Department of Earth Sciences / Institute of Geographical Sciences, Tel.: +49 (0)30 / 838-70873, Email: 
  • Dr. Philipp Hoelzmann, Freie Universität Berlin, Department of Earth Sciences /  Institute of Geographical Sciences, Tel.: +49 (0)30 / 838-70635; Email:
  • Prof. Dr. Michael Meyer, Freie Universität Berlin, Department of History and Cultural Studies / Institute of Prehistoric Archaeology, Tel.: +49 (0)30 / 838-55078, Email: