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2017-05-29 09:08:24   •   ID: 1605

The Middle Paleolithic of the North German Plain

Nearly the entire North German Plain lies less 100m above sea level. The lowland is drained by the north-flowing Rhine, Ems, Weser, Elbe, and Oder rivers; nowadays a network of shipping canals and inland waterways connect the rivers from east to west.

Glacial action formed the region’s landform patterns, which can be divided into three major areas of relief from west to east: the alluvial deposits of the Lower Rhineland, the flat glacial sands and gravels of Lower Saxon west of the Elbe River, and the series of morainic uplands and troughs extending eastward from Schleswig-Holstein along the Baltic Sea.

Figure 1
Fig 1. shows a discoid core from Lübbow, Lüchow-Dannenberg, Lower Saxony, dated to the Saalian (MIS 6). The  Saalian, which directly follows the Holsteinian in N-Germany, is a complex stratigraphic unit.

Recently the Holsteinian interglacial was correlated on the basis of radiometric dates with MIS 9,  300 k.a. old, not 400 k.a.  as formerly thought. 

Therefore, the Reinsdorf interglacial from the Schöningen opencast mine, where the famous spears were found is most probably 300 k.a. old (correlated with MIS 9a) or even 240 k.a.  old (correlated with MIS 7).

The Saalian sensu stricto (MIS 6) lasted from 230-120 k.a. with Drenthe and Warthe ice advances, between 150 and 140 k.a.  

The Early Middle Paleolithic in the North-German Lowlands, defined by the use of the Levallois technique, comprises sites which are stratigraphically underlying the Drenthe and Warthe ice advances. In general such ensembles are now dated younger than some years ago, and therefore younger than early Middle Paleolithic ensembles in France, Italy and the Iberian Peninsula. 

Most ensembles are small, except Markkleeberg (near Leipzig) with thousands of artifacts found so far. Here, the Middle Paleolithic archeological horizon is underlying the Drenthe gravels, which previously gave reason to date the archeological find horizon to early MIS 8, but might now be either as young as MIS 7 and 6.

The Markkleeberg assemblage combines rare bifacial tools (handaxes and bifacial scrapers) with developed Levallois products of various kinds (Levallois points, scrapers). Moreover an important laminar component with volumetric blade cores has early identified in the Markkleeberg assemblage.

Figure 2
Another important site from the penultimate Glacial period was discovered in 1993 at Ochtmissen, Landkreis Lüneburg. Until 1994 large numbers of flint artefacts were excavated from a 420 m2 sand layer, ca. 1.25 m beneath the surface.

The ice wedges in the upper layers date back to the latter part of the penultimate Glacial period (ca. 150-130 k.a.).

The assemblage is interpreted as an Upper- Acheulian inventory including Levallois-technique. Fifty-six evenly worked hand-axes distinguish this find material, which is a quite unusual rate of recurrence for this tool.

The skeleton of a forest elephant with a yew lance is an outstanding piece of evidence that hunting took place in the Neanderthal period. This site from the Eem-interglacial was discovered in 1948 near Lehringen, Landkreis Verden.

Detailed analysis of lance fragments by Thieme and Veil (1985) demonstrated the skill and care with which the weapon had been made; it featured no less than 40 knots and all the bark had been removed from the shaft.

Hundisburg near Neuhaldensleben, northwest of Magdeburg, now dated to MIS 6 shows a similar artifactual spectrum: Handaxes are rare (2 handaxes /270 artifacts) and a sophisticated Levallois technology is present.

This ensemble also compromises some bifacial scrapers and Keilmesser. Renewed excavations at Hundisburg since 2005 recovered mostly sharp edged artifacts combined with the remains of large mammals and rich microfauna, while such contextual information is not available for Markleeberg.

Other findings most probably from MIS6 are only indirectly dated. The most important sites in Northern Germany  come from the Pleisse gravels near Leipzig (Cröbern, Zehmen), Gravels near Magdeburg (Magdeburg-Rothensee, Magdeburg-Neustadt, Gerwitsch).

In 1949 K.H. Jacob-Friesen published Paleolithic material from the gravels of Hannover-Döhren, Hemmingen and Rethen. Figure 2 shows an handaxe found in the gravels of Döhren during the 1930ies.

This was followed by a second publication of a handaxe rich ensemble, associated with non-Levallois debitage in  1978 by Zedelius- Sanders.  

The material of the Leine valley south of Hannover increased during the last 20 years by the work of  numerous voluntary helpers and assistants. While earlier studies allocated the artifacts to Pre MIS-5 times, new considerations take into account a Post MIS-5 embedding of the artifacts.

Figure 3
The ensembles include many bifacial tools (handaxes, bifacial scrapers, some Blattspitzen and Keilmesser) and may be related to the Central European Micoquian (KMG), well attested at Lichtenberg and Salzgitter.

The last Figures (Figure 3 and 4) show a bifacial piece from the Lichtenberg site (early MIS3; Courteously by NLM).

Regarding the Middle Paleolithic of the last Glaciation of the North German plain (and the North European plain, too: for example the Zwolen site) it is interesting to note the long persistence of classic handaxes in these ensembles-very (Figure 3)-very different to the MTA/ non-MTA ensembles of N-France.

Three cranial fragments of a Neanderthal were recovered from coarse-grained deposits dug up by a suction dredge from gravel pits on the Leine river flats in the vicinity of Sarstedt.

Also recovered were a number of artefacts which, upon careful inspection, could be assigned to the Middle  Paleolithic with  KMG affinities. 

The geological pattern of the Leine Valley in this region suggests that these fragments were deposited in the lower terrace during a yet undetermined warm period—possibly Brörup or Odderade—during the Weichsel glaciation. However, attribution to the Eemian period or a Saale interstadial cannot be ruled out.

Suggested Readings:

Karl Hermann Jacob, Carl Gäbert: Die altsteinzeitliche Fundstelle Markkleeberg bei Leipzig. Leipzig 1914. (Veröffentlichungen des Städtischen Museums für Völkerkunde zu Leipzig, H. 5)

Figure 4
Rudolf Grahmann: The lower palaeolithic Site of Markkleeberg and other comparable locatilies near Leipzig. In: Transactions of the American Philosophical Society. N. S. Vol. 45, S. 6. Philadelphia 1955, S. 509–687.

Willfried Baumann, Dietrich Mania: Die paläolithischen Neufunde von Markkleeberg bei Leipzig. Berlin 1983. (Veröffentlichungen des Landesmuseums für Vorgeschichte Dresden, Bd. 16)

Joachim Schäfer, Thomas Laurat, Jan F. Kegler: Bericht zu den Ausgrabungen am altsteinzeitlichen Fundplatz Markkleeberg 1999 bis 2001. In: Arbeits- und Forschungsberichte zur sächsischen Bodendenkmalpflege. 45, 2003, S. 13–47.