The Heuneburg

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The Early Iron Age (600–450 b.c.) Heuneburg hillfort in the southwest German state of Baden-Württemberg is one of the most intensively studied Hallstatt period (Early Iron Age) settlement complexes in Europe. It occupies a roughly triangular natural spur about 60 meters above the Upper Danube River some 600 meters above sea level. The 3.3-hectare fortified promontory settlement was associated with a much larger outer settlement, or suburbium, whose precise boundaries are still unknown. The site came to the attention of the international scholarly community when the Württemberg state conservator Eduard Paulus excavated several burial mounds close to the hillfort in 1877, uncovering gold neckrings, metal drinking vessels, and other evidence of elite material culture. Paulus coined the term Fürstengräber, "princely burials," to describe these interments, a reference to the wealthy burials excavated by Heinrich Schliemann at Mycenae the year before. All four of the mounds in this group were partially or completely excavated by various researchers between 1954 and 1989. A looted and leveled fifth mound was discovered during excavations to the southwest of the hillfort in 1999.

Unsystematic explorations of mounds within 5 kilometers of the hillfort are recorded as early as the sixteenth century, peaking in the nineteenth century following Paulus's excavations. Looting combined with the gradual destruction by plowing of mounds on arable land has taken its toll on the Early Iron Age burial monuments in this area. Roughly 130 burial mounds, also referred to as tumuli, were known in the Heuneburg area by the end of the 1990s. This probably represents only 10 percent of the original total.

The first exploratory trenching of the hillfort took place in 1921, establishing the contemporaneity of the settlement and the tumuli roughly 400 meters north-northwest of the promontory fort investigated by Paulus. Beginning in 1950, twenty-nine years of systematic fieldwork on the acropolis, led by Wolfgang Kimmig and Egon Gersbach, uncovered a fortification system of air-dried, whitewashed mud bricks on a limestone foundation. This arid-climate construction technique is not found on any other temperate European Iron Age site. Far from being especially vulnerable to the wet climate of the region, it actually survived longer than the homegrown wood-and-earth fortification systems that came before and after it. Though relatively fire-resistant, the mud-brick wall was ultimately leveled following a major fire around 540 b.c. that destroyed a significant portion of the hillfort and outer settlement. Additional evidence for contact with the Mediterranean world of the sixth century b.c. was recovered in the form of distinctive Greek imported pottery known as black figure ware, as well as trade amphorae that were probably used to transport wine and olive oil. These imports, combined with the ostentatious wealth of the burial mounds near the hillfort, are the hallmarks of a so-called Fürstensitz, or "princely seat." The Heuneburg is one of a small number of such sites in the so-called West Hallstatt Zone (southwest Germany, eastern France, Switzerland north of the Alps).

By 1979, when excavation yielded to analysis and publication of features and finds, just over a third of the plateau had been explored. The site was occupied from the Late Neolithic (fourth and third millennia b.c.) until the medieval period (eleventh and twelfth centuries). Altogether twenty-three separate building phases were identified. The earliest fortification of the plateau dates to the end of the Early Bronze Age to the beginning of the Middle Bronze Age (seventeenth century b.c.). Throughout the thirteenth and twelfth centuries b.c. the site seems to have controlled the economic, social, and religious life of a local microregion. Beginning in 1999, the discovery by Siegfried Kurz of several small settlements in the Heuneburg hinterland dating to this period support this hypothesis of a twotiered settlement hierarchy for the Bronze Age Heuneburg region.

Population estimates for the Early Iron Age site complex (plateau, outer settlement, associated burial mounds) are complicated by the fact that the outer settlement, which in 2003 was still being explored, and the plateau itself have not been completely excavated. However, the site appears to have housed several thousand people at its peak during the Late Hallstatt–Early La Tène period (seventh to fifth centuries b.c.). Based on the known size of the settlement complex, the evidence for long-distance exchange and the wealth of the surrounding burial mounds, the Heuneburg during its Early Iron Age heyday is interpreted as a central place controlling a large region characterized by a multitiered settlement hierarchy composed of at least three settlement-size categories. The hillfort's strategic position on the Danube, its proximity to iron ore resources, the evidence for various kinds of production activity (especially metalworking and textile production) on a scale consistent with an export trade system, and the size of some of the multi-roomed structures at the site all testify to the sociopolitical and economic importance of the Heuneburg during this period.

The Iron Age burial mounds associated with the Heuneburg echo the social complexity and economic dominance suggested by the settlement record. Following Paulus's excavations in the mounds near the hillfort, no systematic explorations were conducted until Gustav Riek's partial excavation in 1937–1938 of the Hohmichele—at 13.5 meters high and with a diameter of 85 meters, the second-largest known Early Iron Age burial mound in Europe (fig. 1). Although the central chamber had been looted, seven inhumations (body burials) were recovered, including an intact chamber grave (Grave VI) containing the inhumations of a man and a woman buried with a four-wheeled wagon, bronze drinking vessels, personal ornaments (for both individuals), and weapons (a dagger, a quiver full of iron-tipped arrows, and a bow with the male individual).

Beginning in 1999, excavations by the author and colleagues in two smaller mounds (Tumulus 17 and Tumulus 18) 200 meters from the Hohmichele produced twenty-three new burials. Tumulus 17 Grave 1 contained a bronze cauldron, an iron short sword, two iron spear points, an iron belt hook, and a helmet plume clamp, whereas Tumulus 18, excavated in 2002, produced two burials with bronze neckrings, a costume element that was a marker of elite status in Iron Age Europe until well into the Christian period in Ireland and Scotland. The ongoing search for supporting, smaller settlements in the Heuneburg hinterland (by Siegfried Kurz), the efforts to delineate the boundaries of the outer settlement (by Hartmann Reim), and the systematic excavation of additional burial mounds (by Bettina Arnold and colleagues) are beginning to fill in the picture scholars have constructed of this dynamic Early Iron Age center.

See alsoHillforts (vol. 2, part 6); Greek Colonies in the West (vol. 2, part 6); Iron Age Germany (vol. 2, part 6).


Arnold, Bettina. "The Material Culture of Social Structure: Rank and Status In Early Iron Age Europe." In Celtic Chiefdom, Celtic State: The Evolution of Complex Social Systems in Prehistoric Europe. Edited by Bettina Arnold and D. Blair Gibson, pp. 43–52. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Arnold, Bettina, and Matthew L. Murray. "A Landscape of Ancestors in Southwest Germany." Antiquity 76, no. 292 (2002): 321–322. (Additional information is available from the website "A Landscape of Ancestors: The Heuneburg Archaeological Project" at

Bittel, Kurt, Wolfgang Kimmig, and Siegwalt Schiek. DieKelten in Baden-Württemberg. Stuttgart, Germany: Theiss, 1981.

Kimmig, Wolfgang. Die Heuneburg an der oberen Donau. Führer zu archäologischen Denkmälern in Baden-Württemberg 1. Stuttgart, Germany: Theiss, 1983.

Kurz, Siegfried. "Siedlungsforschungen bei der Heuneburg, Gde. Herbertingen-Hundersingen, Kreis Sigmaringen—Zum Stand des DFG-Projektes." In Archäologische Ausgrabungen in Baden-Württemberg 2001, pp. 61–63. Stuttgart, Germany: Theiss, 2002.

Reim, Hartmann. "Siedlungsgrabungen im Vorfeld der Heuneburg bei Hundersingen, Gde. Herbertingen, Kreis Sigmaringen." In Archäologische Ausgrabungen in Baden-Württemberg 1999, pp. 53–57. Stuttgart, Germany: Theiss, 2000.

Rieckhoff, Sabine, and Jörg Biel. Die Kelten in Deutschland. Stuttgart, Germany: Theiss, 2001.

Bettina Arnold