Monday, December 8, 2008

Kelheim, a city with a population of about fifteen thousand, is situated at the confluence of the Altmühl River into the Danube in Lower Bavaria, Germany. In and around Kelheim are an unusual number of archaeological sites from the Palaeolithic to the modern day. Particularly important remains date from the Late Bronze Age (a large cemetery of cremation burials) and the Late Iron Age. From about the middle of the second century until the middle of the first century B.C., Kelheim was the site of an oppidum, a large, walled settlement of the final period of the prehistoric Iron Age, before the Roman conquest of much of temperate Europe. Just west of the medieval and modern town center is the site of the Late Iron Age complex, set on a triangular piece of land bounded by the Altmühl River on the north, the Danube in the southeast, and a wall 3.28 kilometers long along its western edge, cutting the promontory off from the land to the west. The area enclosed by this wall and the two rivers is about 600 hectares, 90 percent of which is on top of the limestone plateau known as the Michelsberg and 10 percent of which lies in the valley of the Altmühl, between the steep slope of the Michelsberg and the southern bank of the river. Some investigators believe that the settlement that occupied this site was one referred to as “Alkimoennis” by the Greek geographer Ptolemy.

Numerous archaeological excavations have been carried out on sections of the walls, on iron mining pits on the Michelsberg, and on limited portions of the enclosed land. The western wall, an inner wall 930 meters in length, and a wall along the south bank of the Danube that is 3.3 kilometers in length were constructed in similar ways. Tree trunks about 60 centimeters in diameter were sunk into the ground at intervals of 2 meters or less, and between the trunks the wall front was constructed of limestone slabs to a height of 5 to 6 meters. An earth ramp behind the wall held the stone facing in place and provided access to the top for defenders. Estimates suggest that more than eight thousand trees were felled, some twenty-five thousand cubic meters of limestone were quarried and cut for the wall front, and four hundred thousand cubic meters of earth were piled up for the embankment, representing a substantial amount of labor as well as a significant environmental impact on the surrounding forest.

On the Michelsberg plateau, both within the enclosed area and beyond the western wall, some six thousand pits have been identified from their partially filled remains visible on the surface. Excavations of a few reveal that they are mining pits, cut into the limestone to reach layers of limonite iron ore. Some are of Late Iron Age date and are associated with the oppidum occupation; others are medieval. Remains of smelting furnaces near some of the pits have been studied. The principal evidence for the settlement has been found below the Michelsberg plateau, between it and the Altmühl on a part of the site known as the Mitterfeld. Limited excavations on top of the Michelsberg have failed to uncover any extensive settlement remains, but on the Mitterfeld are abundant materials from the Late Iron Age occupation. They are densest in the eastern part of the Mitterfeld and thin out toward the west. Postholes, storage pits, wells, and chunks of wall plaster indicate a typical settlement of the Late La Tène culture, comparable to the site of Manching 36 kilometers up the Danube.

Pieces of ore, slag, and furnace bottoms occur over much of the settlement, attesting to the importance of iron production. Iron tools and ornaments were manufactured on the site, bronze was cast, and glass ornaments made. Tools recovered include axes, anvils, chisels, awls, nails, clamps, hooks, needles, pins, and keys. Vessels, brooches, and spearheads also were made of iron. Bronze ornaments include brooches, rings, pendants, pins, and several figural ornaments, including a small, finely crafted head of a vulture.

The pottery assemblage is typical of the major oppidum settlements. Most of the pots were made on a potter’s wheel, and they include fine painted wares, well-made tableware, thick-walled cooking pots of a graphite-clay mix, and large, coarse-walled storage vessels. Spindle whorls attest to textile production by the community. Lumps of unshaped glass indicate local manufacture of beads and bracelets. A number of bronze and silver coins have been recovered, along with a mold in which blanks were cast. All of this production of iron and manufacture of goods was based on a solid subsistence economy of agriculture and livestock husbandry. Barley, spelt wheat, millet, and peas were among the principal crops, and pigs and cattle were the main livestock.

Like all of the major oppida, the community at Kelheim was actively involved in the commercial systems of Late Iron Age Europe. The quantities of iron produced by the mines and the abundant smelting and forging debris indicate specialized production for trade. The site’s situation at the confluence of two major rivers was ideal for commerce. The copper and tin that composed bronze had to be brought in, as did the raw glass and the graphite clay used for cooking pots. Imports from the Roman world include a bronze wine jug, a fragmentary sieve, and an attachment in the form of a dolphin.

As at most of the oppida in Late Iron Age Europe, few graves have been found at Kelheim. Without burial evidence, population estimates are difficult to make, but an educated guess might put the size of Late Iron Age Kelheim at between five hundred and two thousand people. Landscape survey shows that when the oppidum at Kelheim was established during the second century B.C., people living on farms and in small villages in the vicinity abandoned their settlements and moved into the growing center, perhaps to take advantage of the defense system and for mutual protection. Around the middle of the first century B.C., the oppidum was abandoned, like many others east of the Rhine, for reasons and under conditions that are not yet well understood but are subjects of intensive ongoing research.


Engelhardt, Bernd. Ausgrabungen am Main-Donau-Kanal. Buch am Erlbach, Germany: Verlag Maria Leidorf, 1987.

Pauli, Jutta. Die latènezeitliche Besiedlung des Kelheimer Beckens. Kallmünz, Germany: Verlag Michael Lassleben, 1993.

Rieckhoff, Sabine, and Jörg Biel. Die Kelten in Deutschland. Stuttgart, Germany: Konrad Theiss, 2001.

Rind, Michael M. Geschichte ans Licht gebracht: Archäologie im Landkreis Kelheim. Büchenbach, Germany: Verlag Dr. Faustus, 2000.

Wells, Peter S., ed. Settlement, Economy, and Cultural Change at the End of the European Iron Age: Excavations at Kelheim in Bavaria, 1987–1991. Ann Arbor, Mich.: International Monographs in Prehistory, 1993.


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