Landesamt für Denkmalpflege und Archäologie Sachsen-Anhalt
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Paleolithic period

The collection of the State Museum on the palaeolithic period in central Germany

The museum's collection of material from the early stone age - the palaeolithic period - is one of the oldest and most extensive collections of this type in Europe. Some of the best known items from sites like Bilzingsleben, Neumark-Nord, Weimar-Ehringsdorf, Gröbern, Königsaue and Ranis can be seen here. All these sites make a special contribution to our understanding of the palaeolithic era in Central Europe. Once you enter the exhibition, there is perhaps no better place to enter the world of the early palaeolithic than by encountering the finds from Bilzingsleben in Thuringia, which are arranged for the viewer in an area of around 40 m².

The camp site at Bilzingsleben
The camp site at Bilzingsleben (© Karol Schauer / LDA Sachsen-Anhalt).

Here bones, pieces of antlers and flints lie around, seemingly in no order - a reconstruction in detail of the situation at the excavation in Bilzingsleben. It is almost unique that settlement structures, food refuse and the remains of material and cultural life have been preserved. Pieces of skull that were found show that the people of Bilzingsleben belonged to the group of human forms called Homo erectus, 'the man who walks upright', which, together with the scientific dating of the site, gives a date of around 370,000 years ago. In the interpretation of the excavator Dietrich Mania, Bilzingsleben appears to be a camp that was used over a long period, and its division into work zones and zones with residential structures, almost unknown elsewhere, shows that even in that era humans were able to create their own micro-environment.

On the upper foreleg bone of a forest elephant, the prehistoric humans of Bilzingsleben have left a striking piece of evidence: there are thin lines scratched on the bone, at right-angles to each other. Microscopic analyses have shown that the scratches were made intentionally. They are thus among the oldest abstract signs in human history, in a certain sense a graphic representation of communication.

 

Gravierter Knochen von Bilzingsleben © LDA Sachsen-Anhalt (Foto: Juraj Lipták)
Gravierter Knochen von Bilzingsleben (© LDA Sachsen-Anhalt, Foto: Juraj Lipták)

The site Neumark-Nord in the south-eastern foothills of the Harz Mountains also permits the reconstruction of an entire ecosystem, where ice-age man hunted 200,000 years ago. A unique picture of life can be gleaned from the sediments - in places up to 15 m deep - of what was once a lake basin.

Reconstruction of the landscape at Neumark-Nord
Reconstruction of the landscape at Neumark-Nord (© Karol Schauer / LDA Sachsen-Anhalt)
Organic material attached to a flint tool
Organic material attached to a flint tool (© LDA Sachsen-Anhalt, Photo: Juraj Lipták)

A large part of the finds is made up by skeletons of large animals like the forest elephant, the forest, steppe and woolly rhinos, fallow and red deer; the bones must have come from around 150 individual beasts. There are many signs of human activity: certain flint tools point to woodworking, like ones with serrated edges that would be suitable for sawing or with scalloped edges that would be ideal for removing bark and smoothing branches. Another find, at first sight less spectacular, shows that the people of Neumark-Nord had astonishing technical abilities. While an intact elephant skeleton was being uncovered in 1996, a stone tool was discovered among the bones. Stuck onto it was a mass of black stuff that looked like an adhesive putty for fixing a shaft in place. In itself that would have made a spectacular discovery. But analyses of the material revealed that the remains were traces of oak tannin, which does not occur naturally in such high concentration. This acid in the bark of oaktrees is still used today for tanning skins and pelts, so the find shows that the people in those days too knew how to tan leather and probably made clothes, sandals or containers from it. The finds from the excavation at Neumark-Nord make it possible to distinguish camping areas from butchery areas. In the area of the butchery sites, the stone tools are of relatively simple design and were suited to the initial carving of large carcasses. In this they are similar to the tools from Gröbern in Saxony-Anhalt. In a brown coal stripmine there, the skeleton of an elephant was discovered with a number of flint tools among the bones, which suggests a butchery site. The find is around 125,000 years old, which was the last time that real elephants, of the species of the forest elephants (today more distinctly called Eurasian ancient elephants), lived in central Germany. After that, their place was taken by the woolly mammoth.

Königsaue at the former lake, Ascherslebener See, in Saxony-Anhalt is one of the most important sites for the mid-palaeolithic period in Europe.

Reconstruction of the area around Ascherslebener See
Reconstruction of the area around Ascherslebener See (© Karol Schauer / LDA Sachsen-Anhalt)

The distinctive sequence of levels at the lake points to a date of at least 125,000 years ago, and also makes it possible to identify three separate find-horizons precisely and without uncertainties. Thousands of stone artifacts were recovered here, including such interesting items as the tools worked on both sides known as 'Keilmesser' (a wedge-shaped cutting tool) and 'Faustkeilblätter' ('leaves' of stone worked to a fine point) that demonstrate an extraordinary mastery of flint as a material. An especially notable aspect is the occurrence of two tiny black objects which look a little like dried tar. Chemical analysis showed that these are pieces of birch tar. This is a revolutionary discovery because birch tar, unlike plant resin, does not occur naturally but must be roasted from birch-bark. To do this, pieces of bark must be heated to around 400°C with oxygen excluded. Attempts to recreate this technique using traditional methods have not yet been successful, demonstrating the intellectual and technical skills of the people who once lived at Königsaue.

Stone tools from the find-complex at Ascherslebener See: Keilmesser and one Faustkeilblatt
Stone tools from the find-complex at Ascherslebener See: Keilmesser and one Faustkeilblatt (© LDA Sachsen-Anhalt, Photo: Juraj Lipták).
Three different views of the birch tar. The imprints of the wood and of a retouched stone tool can be seen.
Three different views of the birch tar. The imprints of the wood and of a retouched stone tool can be seen (© LDA Sachsen-Anhalt, Photo: Juraj Lipták).

Late palaeolithic period

Reindeer hunt with throwing sticks
Reindeer hunt with throwing sticks (© Karol Schauer / LDA Sachsen-Anhalt)

The later part of the early stone age, known as the late palaeolithic period, is characterised in Europe by the appearance of the modern human (Homo sapiens sapiens), who migrated to Europe from Africa. The period began around 35,000 BC and lasted until the end of the Ice Age around 10,000 BC. This modern human is our direct ancestor. For a long time these people lived alongside the neanderthals, until the latter became extinct for reasons we still do not understand.

Like the early and mid-palaeolithic periods, the late palaeolithic is also characterised by the climate of the Ice Age, in which cold and temperate periods alternated. Humans lived as nomads, surviving by hunting and gathering.

Antler fragment from which splinters have been taken to make needles, Nebra (Burgenlandkreis).
Antler fragment from which splinters have been taken to make needles. Nebra (Burgenlandkreis) (© LDA Sachsen-Anhalt, Photo: Juraj Lipták)
Canine tooth of a fox, perforated to make a decorative pendant, Nebra (Burgenlandkreis).
Canine tooth of a fox, perforated to make a decorative pendant. Nebra (Burgenlandkreis) (© LDA Sachsen-Anhalt, Photo: Juraj Lipták)
Flint scraper, used for working pelts and leather, among other things, Breitenbach (Burgenlandkreis).
Flint scraper, used for working pelts and leather, among other things. Breitenbach (Burgenlandkreis) (© LDA Sachsen-Anhalt, Photo: Juraj Lipták)

Modern humans brought changes not only to tool production and technology, but also to beliefs. Tools were now generally made by working long flakes, known as blades. Bones and antlers were increasingly used to make tools. The tips of projectiles (known as 'points') were made from reindeer antlers, among other things. There are also some more decorative objects, like perforated animal teeth, and a novelty is the creation of so-called 'small art objects' like statuettes or engraved bone or stone. The many cave paintings in France and Spain show the artistic creativity of the modern human in Europe.

The oldest culture of the Homo sapiens sapiens in Europe is called the Aurignacien. It lasted from around 35,000 to 28,000 years ago. In Saxony-Anhalt finds from Breitenbach are from this period. As well as the characteristic tools of the Aurignacien period, like scrapers, retouched blades and burins, in Breitenbach a bone was found with parallel lines scratched on it. It is the oldest decorated object from Saxony-Anhalt.

Rib fragment with numerous parallel cut-marks, Breitenbach (Burgenlandkreis).
Rib fragment with numerous parallel cut-marks, Breitenbach (Burgenlandkreis) (© LDA Sachsen-Anhalt, Photo: Juraj Lipták).
Flint stemmed points
Flint stemmed points (© LDA Sachsen-Anhalt, Photo: Juraj Lipták).

From the culture which followed the Aurignacien, the Gravettien, come the stemmed points from the Thuringian site Bilzingsleben-Simsensee, of the western European type known as Font Robert points.

With the Magdalénien, which dates to the late ice age and forms the last culture of the  palaeolithic period, the finds in Saxony-Anhalt become more frequent; sites with material from this culture are especially numerous in the Saale-Unstrut region. A new hunting weapon, the throwing stick, now appears. In Nebra in the Unstrut valley, numerous stone and bone tools from the period around 15,000 years ago have been found. Among other things, three very stylised female statuettes were discovered there, two made of mammoth ivory, the other from bone. There are contemporary parallels in figures from Oelknitz in Thuringia and other sites in central, eastern and western Europe. They are known even in the art of the French cave paintings and very probably are evidence of a shared set of beliefs, but what these beliefs were remains unknown.

Stylised female statuettes
Stylised female statuettes (© LDA Sachsen-Anhalt, Photo: Juraj Lipták).