Mapping Ancient Germania Berlin Researchers Crack the Ptolemy Code

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Part 2: 'Lost Places in Our Past'


The new map suggests that minor German towns such as Salzkotten or Lalendorf have existed for at least 2,000 years. "Treva," located at the confluence of the Elbe and Alster Rivers, was the precursor to Hamburg; Leipzig was known as "Aregelia."

All this offers up rather exciting prospects, since it makes half the cities in Germany suddenly 1,000 years older than previously believed. "Our atlas is a treasure map," team member Andreas Kleineberg says proudly, "and the coordinates lead to lost places in our past."

Archaeological interest in the map will likely be correspondingly large. Archaeologists' opinions on the Germanic tribes have varied over the years. In the 19th century, Germany's early inhabitants were considered brave, wild-bearded savages. The Nazis then transformed them into great heroes, and in the process of coming to terms with its Nazi past, postwar Germany quickly demoted the early Germanic peoples to proto-fascist hicks. The Romans, it was said, had to put up a border wall between themselves and the nuisance Germans before they could finally get some peace.

Bribes and Assassinations

More recent research proves this view to be complete invention. New excavations show that the Germanic groups were anything but isolated -- quite the contrary. Veritable hordes of Roman traders crossed the border to deal in amber, pomade, smoked fish and leather with their neighbors. Caesar mentioned that his people traded with the "Sueben," the Swabians of southwestern Germany. As far back as the first century AD, a Roman knight traveled from Carnuntum, a legion camp near Vienna, to the Baltic Sea coast to trade in amber.

Roman diplomats were also eager to intervene in their neighbors' affairs, bribing tribal princes, organizing assassinations and supporting their favorites all the way to the throne. Excavations in the state of Lower Saxony in August 2008 even uncovered a battlefield containing the remains of 3rd century weapons. Closer inspection revealed that a Roman legion equipped with catapults had advanced as far as the Harz region in central Germany in a lightning campaign probably intended to punish insubordinate tribes.

These soldiers didn't have to struggle through wastelands and swamps to get there. "We were able to locate 11 settlements along the highway that started at Moers on the Rhine and reached as far as the Sambia peninsula in present day Kaliningrad," Kleineberg explains.

Most Germanic sites appear to have been situated along rivers and at road junctions, indicated by the word "furd" included in many place names. "Lupfurdum," the predecessor to Dresden, for example, was located at a shallow, fordable spot along the Elbe River. Hanover, then "Tulifurdum," was a place where the Leine River could be crossed.

Researchers believe Ptolemy's map now allows them to trace the path followed by amber traders from the Vienna area up to Gdansk Bay as well.

Military Work

It was primarily surveyors with the Roman army, which appears to have advanced as far as the Vistula River, who collected information on the barbarians' lands. Dieter Lelgemann, a geodesist in Berlin, is firmly convinced that "Ptolemy was drawing on work done by military engineers."

The ancient astronomer indicated cities' exact locations down to minutes of degrees. These coordinates, once decoded, indeed often turn out to line up precisely with sites where archaeologists have previously found Gothic or Teutonic houses and grand burial tombs erected for tribal princes.

The evidence suggests that the researchers in Berlin have truly cracked the code. The group appears, for example, to have accurately located three particularly important Germanic sites, known to Ptolemy as "Eburodunum," "Amisia" and "Luppia." The new calculations put these sites at the present day cities of Brno, Fritzlar und Bernburg (Saale), all places already possessing unusually distinguished recorded histories:

  • Waldau, now a part of Bernburg in eastern Germany, was mentioned in a monastic chronicle for the first time in 806, at which point the town was also a military center.
  • Brno in the Czech Republic has offered up a wealth of splendid Germanic archaeological finds and was likely a stop along the amber trading route.
  • Legend has it that Fritzlar in central Germany is the site where the missionary St. Boniface felled the Donar Oak, a sacred symbol to the Germanic Chatti tribe, in 723.

Astonishing Finds

The next question is what these metropolises of early northern Europe looked like. Old maps mark them with massive defensive towers, but this makes little sense, since the Germanic tribes didn't have stone structures, only wood and clay mortar.

But this doesn't mean the villages this side of the Alps were unimpressive. On this point too, experts are adjusting their views. A town on the Elbe River called Hitzacker, for example, has yielded up astonishing archaeological finds over the years, such as magnificent tombs filled with silver dishes. This year, archaeologists added houses, a large farmstead and ironworking ovens to their finds here. The area under investigation extends across more than 10 hectares (25 acres).

This settlement too can be found in the new atlas. In Ptolemy's day, it was called "Leufana," a center of the Germanic Lombards.

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