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A Monumental Tomb under Trees in Prignitz

Archaeological Studies by the Topoi Cluster of Excellence Yield New Insight into the Construction of the Royal Tomb of Seddin

Sep 02, 2014

Die Öffnung der Grabkammer am 20. September 1899. Das größte Hügelgrab im nördlichen Mitteleuropa war kurz zuvor von Arbeitern bei Chaussee-Bauarbeiten entdeckt worden.
The opening of the burial chamber on September 20, 1899. The tomb, the largest burial mound in northern Central Europe, had been discovered shortly before by workers doing road construction. Image Credit: Stiftung Stadtmuseum Berlin
Grabungsleiterin Andrea Moser zeigt die unterschiedlichen Sand- und Steinschichten.
Dig leader Andrea Moser points to the different layers of sand and stone. Image Credit: Nina Diezemann

After it was built, nearly 3,000 years ago, the monumental tomb located amid the gently rolling hills of the Prignitz district must have been visible from several kilometers away: a gigantic Bronze Age structure, a dome-shaped hill covered with rocks or a thin layer of grass, ten meters tall and 62 meters in diameter. Today, the tomb – which was discovered in 1899 during quarrying work for road construction near the village of Seddin, in the Prignitz district – lies tucked away under trees, between forests and meadows.

Many Mysteries Still Unsolved More than 100 Years after Discovery

Starting this past spring, visitors can get a little better idea of the site’s former grandeur, as it has been redesigned as a “central archaeological site.” Paths have been laid, and some of the trees have been cut down. More than 100 years after it was first discovered, there are still a number of unsolved mysteries surrounding the “royal tomb” built around 830 B.C. Now, a research project by the Topoi cluster of excellence aims to solve these puzzling questions. Where did the material used to build the massive mound come from? How was it built? How did the people who built this monument to one of their leaders live as a group?

Since no written sources remain from the Bronze Age (2200 to 800 B.C.) in northern Central Europe, physical remains are the only testaments to the history of this era. In 1899, workers looking for rock to quarry stumbled on the burial chamber that guests visit today, artfully built of erratic blocks – rocks deposited by glaciation in areas where they differ from the local rocks. The chamber contained three urns and a trove of grave goods, which are now on display at the Stadtmuseum Berlin (Berlin City Museum), which houses exhibitions on Berlin culture and history, ranging from pre- and early history to contemporary history.

These objects, too, are unusual, but what is unique about them is not the sword, symbol of power and dignity, or the bronze amphora, painstakingly decorated with a pattern of dots believed to be a calendar; it is two simple needles made of iron – heralds of the Iron Age that lay ahead. At the very end of the Bronze Age, when the tomb was built, iron was still a new metal, so it was an especially valuable one – a gift to place in the grave of a powerful ruler and one who was evidently open to new developments, buried here at the age of about 40, probably together with two younger women.

The tomb is the largest burial mound in northern Central Europe, says Jens May, the archaeologist responsible for northwestern Brandenburg at the Brandenburg State Office of Historical Preservation and the State Archaeological Museum. May has been studying the tomb and the surrounding area with colleagues for more than ten years, and he is in charge of the project for the Topoi cluster of excellence, a joint research alliance between Freie Universität and Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, both of which work closely with numerous institutions outside the universities themselves, including the German Archaeological Institute (DAI). The project is headed by the director of the DAI’s Eurasia department, Svend Hansen, and Brandenburg’s state archaeologist, Franz Schopper, both of whom teach at Freie Universität Berlin.

The burial mound isn’t the only part of the site that is of interest to researchers; the surrounding area is also interesting. Right nearby, there is a 290-meter-long, almost perfectly straight row of fire pits consisting of some 150 stone-filled pits, each about 80 centimeters deep, whose significance has not yet been clarified conclusively. Eighty of the pits were reconstructed for visitors on the surface this past spring. Almost within sight, the “Wickbold’sche Tannen,” a forested area named for its former owner, is home to the largest barrow field in Prignitz. It originally consisted of more than 100 burial mounds, but much smaller ones than the royal tomb. “The high density of richly appointed burial mounds and clustering of graves containing swords, which is found nowhere else in the north, point to a great concentration of power and wealth in just a small area,” May says.

During the Bronze Age, the population of the Prignitz area was probably about what it is today – a high density back then, while the region is among the most sparsely settled in Germany today. Burial sections have now revealed the details of how the massive mound for the Royal Tomb of Seddin was built – like a “layer cake,” as May says, consisting of rocks of different sizes and sand. It is possible that a single layer of rocks formed the barrow’s surface. This might have been done “to declare it as a stone structure to those viewing it from the outside while also preventing erosion,” says May.

Magical Atmosphere Still Felt by Visitors

How long the construction process lasted in all, and how many people were involved – whether a small group of selected experts or a large number of forced laborers – is a matter of pure speculation. Digging work this past summer has now shown that the construction materials were not taken from a trench dug around the barrow, but must have been transported to the site from elsewhere instead. May says he can also imagine the site having been used for ritual purposes even before the burial.

May hopes further sections will uncover the cremation site, or ustrinum. Although it was damaged by the road construction and has long been covered by trees, the Royal Tomb of Seddin is a special place with a magical atmosphere that even present-day visitors still feel. The tomb tells the tale of the great creative will of the people of this region at the time, of their desire to leave lasting testimony to their power and to build for eternity. They succeeded in that, at least up to the present day.

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