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Genesis and Structure of the Hessian-Westphalian Megalithic Soest Group

The project aims to explore the Soest Group, situated in the contact zone between the societies of the Funnel Beaker Culture and the Wartberg Culture, both known for erecting megaliths. The excavation of the newly-discovered collective tombs of Erwitte-Schmerlecke allows new insights into social differentiation processes, depending on both societies’ completely different interpretations of burying in collective tombs. Anthropological analysis enables conclusions about social structures. Furthermore, the immediate vicinity of the Soest Group tombs is to be examined to possibly find more hitherto unknown tombs and associated settlement places. Monumental earthworks are also in focus, especially concerning their relation to the megalith tombs. Finally, it is intended to reconstruct a grave and settlement landscape in the Hessian-Westphalian Megalithic. An interdisciplinary approach in connection with research and results of the Priority Programme helps to get an actualized overview not only for the Soest Group but for the whole region of the northern border of the German Uplands and its relations to the north western megalithic zone.



State of research

porthole slab
Porthole slab of the Züschen tomb near Fritzlar, Schwalm-Eder-Kreis (Photo J. Farrenschon)

Between 3500 and 2800 calBC, megalithic tombs were erected in Hesse and Westphalia by the people of the Wartberg Culture. These differ from the tombs of the northern German Funnel Beaker Culture concerning their construction, and also their burial rites (Fischer 1968; Fischer 1973; Günther 1986; Günther 1997; Raetzel-Fabian 2000; Schierhold in press). The gallery graves are, as one of the most important elements of construction, sunk into the ground, and covered with a mound. They measure 10 to 35 m long and 2 to 3 m wide. The building material consists (in the majority of the cases) of slabs of limestone or sandstone. The chamber can often be reached via a porthole (Fig. 1). There are two main types considering the entrance situation. The so-called type “Züschen” is characterised by an access on the smaller, axial side and an antechamber or vestibule. The so-called type “Rimbeck” has an access on the longer, lateral side like a Funnel beaker passage grave. Up to 250 individuals were found in these collective tombs. The distribution shows several regional groups, which lay about 30 km apart from each other (Hinz 2007).


Geophysical surveys
Results of the geophysical surveys in Schmerlecke (K. Schierhold)

The Soest Group, located in a loess zone between Dortmund and Paderborn, comprises the tombs of Hiddingsen, Ostönnen, Schmerlecke (three tombs), Uelde and Völlinghausen. Some research has already been conducted, especially concerning the collective tomb necropolis of Schmerlecke near Erwitte, Kr. Soest. Here, several geophysical surveys allowed relocating two already known tombs and a third one which was hitherto unknown (Schierhold/Baales/Cichy 2010; Schierhold in press). Furthermore, ring ditches show a later occupation of the place, probably in End Neolithic or Bronze Age times (Fig. 2). Survey finds in the immediate vicinity of the tombs hint to possible settlement areas. Furthermore, an earthwork of unknown age lies within eyeshot to the tombs. Sondages in 2008 proved not only details of the construction of the two tombs, but also a very good preservation of the bones.


Further investigations, for example to estimate the amount of work needed to build a megalithic tomb, can be supported by geological analysis of the building materials. Research on this topic has already been conducted concerning the tomb of Hiddingsen, Kr. Soest (Schierhold in press). These data can be compared with more new results from geological analysis of tombs in Hesse and Westphalia. Furthermore, the first and so far only 14C sample for the Soest Group from the tomb of Ostönnen, Kr. Soest, lies within the range of the oldest dates known for the erecting of megalithic tombs in Hesse and Westphalia.

Nevertheless, there is very few information about the social structures of the megalith builders win respect to anthropological analysis. An overview of all anthropological data available from the Hessian-Westphalian tombs (Schierhold in press) reveals a lack of knowledge, particularly concerning palaeopathological investigations.


Furthermore, there is no settlement known until now connected with a tomb of the Soest Group, and the role of the monumental earthworks and their relations to the tombs have to be examined. Concerning this matter, there have to be mentioned some earlier studies, especially in Northern Hesse, dealing with connections of hilltop settlements to surrounding tombs in the Fritzlar Basin (Schwellnus 1979), or with the phenomenon of a “ritual landscape” around the two tombs and the monumental earthwork of Calden (Raetzel-Fabian 2000). Research on this topic was continued in the analysis of territorial structures of the Wartberg Culture (Hinz 2007). But all known settlement structures of the Wartberg Culture belong to the younger period of use of the gallery graves; so the settlements of the megalith builders are yet unknown. The results of GIS-based view-shed analysis carried out for the Altenautal near Paderborn, Westphalia, revealed new perspectives, which findparallels on other regions of Europe, concerning the interpretation of the position of tombs, settlements and earthworks in a landscape (Posluschny/Schierhold 2010). Nevertheless, systematic research is needed, based on a regional group: the interrelations between tombs and tomb clusters within a regional group have to be focused on; furthermore, settlements have to be found and connected to the tombs. Finally, neighboured earthworks have to be examined and put in context. To achieve these aims, the Soest Group furnishes the best starting point.