Museum Herxheim | A brief introduction
Steinzeit und Kulturgeschichte
A brief introduction into our Neolithic exhibition
Starting in 1996 the Palatinate Heritage Board (Direktion Landesarchäologie Rheinland-Pfalz) conducted rescue excavations at the early Neolithic site of Herxheim. Located to the west of the modern village, a typical settlement of the “Linearbandkeramik” (LBK) was partly uncovered where a new industrial park was planned. A typical settlement? Not quite: While the remains of long houses and settlement pits are also known from numerous other sites of this archaeological culture, dating to the early Neolithic, the excavations also unearthed highly unusual features: pits containing plenty of human bones together with broken pottery, tools etc. A highlight in Neolithic research!
Roughly half of the area originally covered by the LBK settlement was excavated until today, a small part during a research excavation with more time and staff for a more detailed recording of features and finds than during the rescue excavation. The remainder of the site was examined by geomagnetics and drillings, showing the actual extent of the site. The research excavation was part of an international research project, funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG), which will publish results on the archaeology, archaeo-zoology, anthropology and other scientific analyses in a series of academic books.
The Museum Herxheim hosts two permanent exhibitions: one on the recent history of tobacco agriculture, cigar production and textile manufacturing in Herxheim; the other on the early Neolithic Linearbandkeramik (LBK) in general and the ritual treatment of human bodies in the Herxheim site in particular. Thus, the museum is the first to devote its archaeological section completely to the LBK – the archaeological culture responsible for introducing sedentism and agriculture and stock breeding. This culture developed from c. 5600 BC in what is today Hungary and subsequently spread to the Paris Basin in the west and to the Black Sea in the east. Characterised by hamlet-like villages with wooden long houses, the LBK people started clearing the woodland and tilling the soil to grow “emmer” and “einkorn”, two early variants of wheat, thus changing the primordial landscape.
The exhibition features prominently the finds of human bones: During the excavation a kind of enclosure surrounding the settlement was uncovered that turned out to consist of long pits overlapping each other. These pits had been cut over and again until two ditch-like rings encircled the village. Inside the pits an almost countless number of heaps of cultural material were uncovered, consisting of broken ceramic vessels and animal bones and tools – and ten thousands of human bones. The exhibition presents the evidence and tries to reconstruct the (ritual) treatment of human bodies prior to the deposition of these remains.
The LBK settlement of Herxheim was probably founded around 5300 BC and was abandoned c. 4950 BC – when the LBK culture ended in all of its distribution area. According to the decoration styles of the vessels found together with the human bones, the practices leading to their deposition were enacted only in the last c. 50 years, or even less, i.e. right before the disappearance of the LBK.
The researchers scrutinising the finds suggest that they are the results of ritual actions. The pottery was deliberately broken – mainly lavishly decorated and finely polished small (drinking?) pots – and the stone adzes and flint blades were deliberately destroyed. Also grinding stones were broken into pieces. Most of all, the human bones show signs of a regular, systematic (if gruesome) treatment: Cut-marks, for example, show that the flesh was removed and the scalp was cut to expose the skull. The skull cap was cut off with a few sharp blows by adzes. The long bones were broken and probably the marrow extracted.
It has been suggested that this treatment was part of cannibalistic practices, i.e. that parts of the flesh, brain and marrow might have been eaten by those who conducted the ritual. However, no clear signs of gnawing or eating were found. Moreover, the bones do not bear evidence connected to pre-mortal violence or killing, such as broken arms or lethal blows on the head, i.e. no injuries that might suggest combat or war. Rather, the individuals seem to have been killed in a way leaving no traces.
Why, then, do we think they were killed after all? The broken and mixed up bones lead to an estimate of up to 500 individuals that are represented in the finds of the excavated area. The same amount of bones and, thus, individuals may be expected in the area still unexcavated. We conclude that roughly one thousand bodies of men, women and children were dismembered and mixed up – while the LBK village might have inhabited only a few dozen people. In average, no less than c. 20 individuals were treated this way per year (during the maximum 50 year period). But what is more important: all age groups are represented to a more or less equal amount, while usually we do have a high mortality during infancy but a low one among juveniles and early adults. The death at Herxheim affected individuals irrespective of their age. And it affected many more individuals than were actually living here.
Many questions still remain unanswered – and some may never be solved. Where do the dead come from? Isotope analyses suggest that many of them did not live in typical LBK areas, i.e. regions with fertile loess soil. How and why did they come to Herxheim? While we exclude warfare, both a more violent scenario with victims captured and forced to Herxheim and a more pacific one with volunteers sacrificing themselves are still possible. Why Herxheim at all? So far no evidence suggests that the village was of any particular signifi-cance prior to the emergence of this ritual at the end of the LBK. And no other contempo-rary site is known that is comparable to the ritual at Herxheim!
Research is going on and academic publications are underway, and as soon as we know more, the Museum Herxheim will include the new knowledge in its exhibition. So: keep connected!
In addition to the two permanent exhibitions – the recent social and economic history and the Neolithic lifeways and the body ritual at Herxheim – the museum hosts several temporary exhibitions per year, related to both topics. Workshops, courses and special events invite groups, school classes and individual visitors to engage actively with the museum. Guided tours and birthday parties can be booked, and every now and then a “Special Object” is presented, highlighting particular narratives from the prehistory and history of Herxheim and its region.
More information can be found at our German-language pages. Approximately 8-10 times per year we also send out a newsletter to subscribers.
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