Züschen (megalithic tomb)

View of the tomb. Note the entrance stone with its circular hole.

The Züschen tomb (German: Steinkammergrab von Züschen, sometimes also Lohne-Züschen) is a prehistoric burial monument, located between Lohne and Züschen, near Fritzlar, Hesse, Germany. Classified as a gallery grave or a Hessian-Westphalian stone cist (hessisch-westfälische Steinkiste), it is one of the most important megalithic monuments in Central Europe. Dating to the late 4th millennium BC (and possibly remaining in use until the early 3rd), it belongs to the Late Neolithic Wartberg culture. The presence of incised carvings, comparable to prehistoric rock art elsewhere in Europe, is a striking feature of Wartberg culture tombs, known so far only from Züschen and from tomb I at Warburg.

Discovery and excavation

The tomb was accidentally discovered in 1894. For a number of years, a row of sandstone blocks had impeded the local miller from ploughing one of his fields. When he decided to remove them, Rudolf Gelpke, an inspector from nearby Garvensburg castle, noted the unusual presence of sandstone in the area of a basalt outcrop. On a visit to the site, he recognised it as a prehistoric monument consisting of two parallel rows of regularly shaped vertical slabs. Gelpke erroneously associated the monument with the Chatti, a local Iron Age tribe. He convinced the owner of the field to remove soil only from the ends of the row. This revealed bones and pottery sherds. At this point, Wilhelm von Garvens, owner of the Garvensburg, was notified. He, in turn, informed the antiquarian Baron Felix von und zu Gilsa. After Gilsa's scrutiny, the tomb was excavated, still in 1894, by Johannes Boehlau, former director of the State Museum at Kassel. Further excavations took place in 1939 and 1949, under the direction of O. Uenze of the archaeological service of Marburg.

Tomb architecture

The rectangular sunken chamber is 20m long and 3.5m wide. It is built of rectangular sandstone slabs, quarried several hundred meters away. Each long wall consists of a row of 12 slabs, one of which is missing. The narrow walls consist of a single slab each.

A terminal slab separates the tomb chamber proper from a small anteroom of 2.5 m length. At the centre of this slab is a perfectly circular hole, the so-called Seelenloch (German for "soul hole"), of 50 cm diameter. This is sometimes assumed to be too narrow as an entrance for the passage of human bodies, in which case it may have served as a symbolic connection between the dead within the tomb chamber and the living, assembled in the ante-room for some ritual, perhaps an offering ceremony. Whether the hole could be closed, like in some comparable tombs in France, is not known. The floor of the anteroom was of densely trampled mud. The presence of non-local stones outside the chamber suggests that it was originally covered by an artificial tumulus. It is not clear whether the chamber was roofed in stone or some other material (wood).

Human remains

The earth inside the chamber contained numerous disarticulated human bones. Although the minimum number of individuals is as low as 27, the broken and mixed state of the remains suggests severe disturbance. Thus, it is possible that the number of persons buried here was originally higher. The discovery of an Urnfield period burial above the original depositions indicates that the destruction of the grave, disturbance of its contents and removal of the roof must have taken place before the 10th/9th century BC. Charcoal and ashes were found in a number of locations, especially with human remains near the doorstone and near the southwest terminal slab. None of the human bones showed signs of burning. There was a continuous ash layer in the centre of the anteroom.

Grave offerings

Most finds appeared to be from the main chamber. They were probably placed there on the same occasions as the human bodies. The low number of finds may be the result of the early destruction of the tomb. More common finds included cattle bones and stone tools, including flint knives and sickle blades as well as locally typical triangular slate axes. There were at least three bone tools, namely a chisel, a point and an arrowhead. Pottery fragments were scant; they included a clay cup similar to examples from the related Lohra tomb and collared bottles connected with the northern Funnel Beaker (TRB) Culture. Such bottles appear to have served some special function, maybe the storage of vegetable oils or sulphur for healing purposes. A so-called Giant Urn belongs to the later burial.

Rock carvings

Carvings inside the tomb.

One of the most striking features of the tomb is the presence of carved symbols on the slabs inside the chamber. Lines are formed of rows of individual punched dots, possibly applied with a very early metal tool. One of the more common symbols is a simple line with an attached open semicircle, usually interpreted as a stylised depiction of cattle. Normally, two of these symbols are linked by a further line with emphasised terminals. This may be a simple depiction of a plough. More rarely, two of them are linked by what resembles a yoke and pole, suggesting a cart. Occasionally overlapping signs suggest that the individual carvings are in no meaningful relationship to one another, but represent an accumulation of individual signs. Similar depiction of teams of cattle are known from much more recent (Bronze or Iron Age) carvings at Valcamonica near Capo di Ponte, Northern Italy and at Mont Bégo in the French part of the Ligurian Alps. The symbols are normally assumed to reflect Neolithic ideological or religious ideas.


A reconstruction of the grave can be seen in the Hessian State Museum (Hessisches Landesmuseum) in Kassel.

Relationships with other sites

Like any archaeological monument, the Züschen tomb should not be seen as isolated. It is in a close relationship with its landscape and with other sites in the area. Two further tombs, Züschen II and Züschen III, existed in the area. Züschen II was 150 m northwest of the main tomb, it was generally comparable, but smaller and undecorated. A third tomb, Züschen III, is located further east. Less than 1 km from the Züschen tomb lies the Hasenberg, a prominent basalt dome, the top of which contains an important Wartberg settlement. Intriguingly, the Züschen tomb also appears to be designed in such a way that its main axis point directly at the Wartberg itself, 4 km to the east.

See also

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