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A Place in the Sun

Plan of the oval construction at Bilzingsleben.
Plan of the oval construction at Bilzingsleben (© LDA Sachsen-Anhalt).
Carbonised treetrunk from the excavation area. It is part of the remains of a campfire.
Carbonised treetrunk from the excavation area. It is part of the remains of a campfire (© LDA Sachsen-Anhalt, Foto: Juraj Lipták).

As early as 1818 the famous palaeontologist Friedrich Ernst von Schlotheim mentioned the discovery of a fossilised human skull in Bilzingsleben. Unfortunately it is no longer possible to say whether that was the first discovery of a genuine prehistoric human in Germany, as the object has now disappeared. It was almost a century later, in 1908, that Ewald Wüst of the Geological Institute in Halle found the first stone artefacts in the travertine limestone of Bilzingsleben. This stone had built up several metres over the findspot, so it was a stroke of luck for science that it was in demand as a raw material and was quarried away, revealing the layer of finds. In 1969 Prof. Dietrich Mania of the University of Jena identified this layer, which holds remains of a settlement and countless pieces of evidence of prehistoric human culture. A number of geological features and finds of fossilised plant and animal remains also allow the detailed reconstruction of the environment and climate at that time. There are hardly any other sites from this period - around 370,000 years ago - that can offer such a range of information.

Because of its position on a lake with a gradually rising water-level, many objects have survived on the old ground-surface in their original position and in good condition. Thus it was possible to observe that the area where the water-source originally flowed into the lake seems to have been used to dispose of larger pieces of refuse, which probably came from a work area at the water's edge. This was next to a residential area on which three outlines of huts or tents were still visible on the ground. In front of these residential structures were more work areas, containing anvils and smashed bones. Various signs of the use of fire were found here, although it was not possible to identify definite campfire remains. Beyond this residential and work zone, a circular area was discovered in which there was a large number of pieces of travertine and muschelkalk limestone. The only larger object in this area is an anvil which was probably positioned between the horns of an aurochs skull. Whether this positioning was intentional or not cannot be established for certain, but this area was certainly not used for everyday activities.

The flora at that time consisted of light, species-rich forests of oak and boxtree, such as are found today in the northern Mediterranean region. They were interspersed with bushes and open grasslands. The plants that have been identified include some with edible parts: oak, hazel, limetree, firethorn, barberry and raspberry, wild pear, sweet cherry and the grapevine. This environment was home to large herbivores like elephants, forest and steppe rhinos, wild cattle and horses, and deer. The animals were an inexhaustible stock of food reserves and were pursued by large predators like the cave lion, bear and wolf.