My Illlustrated Travel Journal with Essays about Roman and Mediaeval History and some Geology


15.8.17
  Neolithic Orkney - Life in Skara Brae

Skara Brae might look like a cozy little village at the end of the world, but it was in fact part of a net of settlements and stone settings in the area, from the Ring of Brodgar, the Stones of Stenness and the burial mound of Maes Howe to the settlement of Barnhouse and the really intriguing structures found at the Ness of Brodgar. Finds on the site also show contacts to places on the Mainland and in Ireland.

Skara Brae

5,000 years ago, Skara Brae didn't sit as closely to the coast as today. No one wants the ocean in his living room on a regular basis, after all. The sea level was lower and the settlement was therefore situated some hundred metres inland, on a gentle slope of bedrock covered by sand dunes and grass. Today, precautions have to be taken to prevent the sea from claiming the place.

Erosion at the coast and the protective wall of Skara Brae in the background

We don't know much about life at Skara Brae and the other Neolithic settlements. Archaelolgical remains are helpful, of course, but a lot is still guesswork. Does the uniformity of the houses point at a society without a clearly distinguishable elite, or was it an elite settlement, and other members of the tribe lived elsewhere in places not yet found? The construction of sites like the Ring of Brodgar would have required a good deal of organisation and probably some sort of leadership as well. We will likely never know for sure.

A covered passage

What we do know is that they were skilled workers of stone, walrus ivory and bone. They held cattle, sheep and pigs and thus ate meat and diary products, eked out with some barley and emmer wheat. They hunted red deer and boar, went fishing in the ocean for shellfish and cod, and gathered bird eggs. One came imagine that they would have found additional sources of food like kelp in bad times. They were probably clad in fur and leather, since no traces of working fabrics like wool have been found (like spindles or loom weights). Perhaps they knew felting techniques.

Remains of a house from the outside

The - less well preserved - village at Barnhouse had some houses of the same basic design as Skara Brae: the central hearth, the dresser, the beds to both sides, like Stone Age Ikea had a sale going on. *grins* We cannot say for sure whether that structure had a deeper meaning or just turned out to be the most practical one considering the material - local red sandstone that can easily be worked into slabs - and climatic conditions on Orkney. The slabs that framed the beds would surely allow for generous layers of dried heather, hay and furs against the cold.

The reconstructed house

The hearth had a central place in every house, even those not following the basic pattern. The hearths in Skara Brae and other settlements were framed with stone slabs and open on top - kids likely learned early not to go too close. Hearths were the main source of light and warmth, the fire was used for cooking and other endeavours that required heat (like the pre-heating of chert, see below), its smoke would cure leather and preserve fish and meat. We don't know if there was a chimney-like hole in the roof of the houses or by whatever means it was finally released into the air. The importance of the hearth is also shown by a hearth-like structure in the Stones of Stenness.

Interior of the reconstructed house, with the toilet enclosure in the left upper corner

The houses at Skara Brae were ensuite; I mentioned the toilet in the first post. This photo shows the special little corner, though there was no electric light, of course. In fact, we know little about the light sources other than the hearth fire. There may have been portable lamps filled with oil or fat, or maybe torches, but no archaeological digs have so far rendered clearly identifiable objects.

Interior of the reconstructed house at Skara Brae

I took this one with a flash to illuminate the limpet box to the right, between bed an dresser (about the limpet boxes see the first essay about Skara Brae). The dresser is a curious feature. It could have been used simply for storage, but since there is a lot of storage space in the walls and the position of the dresser opposite the entrance so prominent, it most likely held precious objects for display.

Carved stone objects

Something like this, maybe. We don't know what those objects were used for; the general assumption is that they had some religious significance which remains unknown. Religion and society remain mostly a mystery without written documents. The role of burial mounds and cairns implies that the dead, the ancestors, played a role in the religious thinking of the people, and the effort it took to built stone henges like Brodgar means those must have been important as well.

Bone pearl necklace

Or perhaps those small stone objects were just proof of the skill of the stone workers. To invest time in creating something of no practical use could indicate that the people were well enough off to be able to afford time to make decorative items, or had the means to purchase them. Jewelry like the above necklace most likely belonged in that category, except for bone pins necessary to hold clothes which also have been found at the site. Some slabs, like the bed frames, are sometimes decorated with carved butterfly designs.

Pots and pot sherds

Stone was not only used for the houses and furniture, but for cutlery and storage vessels as well. Some jars were so large and heavy that they probably were not moved around a lot but remained in the storage niches in the walls. There may have been wooden items as well, but those decay more easily and have not yet been found.

Worked stone tools and a hammerstone

The last photo from the displays in the small museum at the site shows some of the tools: sharpened sandstone flakes known as Skaill knives, chert (a flint like stone that is best worked by prior heating in a fire) tools, and a hammerstone. The Skaill knives were the Swiss knives of the time, used for everything from cutting wood to scraping leather.

A detail shot of House 8

I've mentioned that House 8 is different from the other houses at Skara Brae and might have been a place used for work, mostly of bone and walrus ivory. The knapping of the chert probably took place on the paved area outside of the house. An open space would be better suited for that sort of work since splinters tend to fly around, and you don't want them in your food or bed furs. It doesn't become clear from the description of the guidebook if the so called 'market square' was covered like the passages, though.

The 'market square'

Barnhouse shows a similar building outside the village proper, surrounded by a separate wall. In that case, it is assumed that it was some sort of gathering hall. Maybe the house at Skara Brae served a double function as work space and place for gatherings (since there is no other house suitable for the purpose, if not lost to the sea), though it would have been a bit small to hold all inhabitants of the village. Maybe it was only a special group who met there.

Skara Brae, seen from a different angle

Neoltihic Orkney continues to be an intriguing place. Maybe the digs at the Ness of Brodgar will help to solve some of the remaining riddles. And probably bring up new ones. *wink*

Sources
Dr. David Clarke: Skara Brae - Official Souvenir Guide, published by Historic Scotland 2012
Sally Foster: Maes Howe and the Heart of Neolithic Orkney, Historic Scotland Official Souvenir Guide. 2006
The Orkneya website

 


18.7.17
  Neolithic Orkney - Skara Brae

Storms often destroy coastal land, but sometimes they also bring to light interesting finds that have long been covered by sand and earth. The Viking Treasure from the German island of Hiddensee is one of those. Another one from Orkney is much larger: an entire Neolithic village.

Skara Brae, a Neolithic settlement on Mainland Orkney

It was the winter of 1850 when a great storm hit Orkney. Its ferocous waves tore the grass layer off a mound known at Skerrabra in the Bay o'Skaill in the west Mainland. The opening in the mound revealed some stone buildings. The laird William Watt who lived in nearby Skaill House took an interest in the place and started digging around, together with James Farrer who had discovered Maes Howe. Their notes are unfortunately sketchy, but it can be assumed that they discovered what is today known as houses 1, 3, 4 and 5.

Another view of Skara Brae

No more research took place and the site remained obscure until the Watt family gave it into the care of the Commissioners of Works, the predecessor of Historic Scotland (1), in 1924. A year later, another storm destroyed most of House 3, and it became clear that the site needed to be protected against the sea. A wall was built which had to be repaired several times until today. The sea and coastal erosion continue to be a threat to the site.

Gordon Childe, the first Abercromby Professor of Prehistoric Archaeology at the University of Edinburgh was tasked with the further excavation of Skara Brae as the site was now called, in 1928. But he was not allowed to do any proper digging; the aim was to clean out the houses so they could be displayed to the public.

Remains of house 3

At the time, the site was thought to be a Pictish village (about AD 500), albeit Gordon Childe was not so sure about that and suspected an earlier date. But it would take until the 1970ies to confirm the date by radiocarbon dating: the village was inhabited between 3,200 - 2,500 BC, thus making Skara Brae part of the Neolithic world of henges and settlements around the Ring of Brodgar.

During the 1970ies excavation, some trenches were dug as well and more structures and artefacts discovered which are now shown in a little museum at the site.

House 1

Skara Brae consists of eight dwellings which are connected by a series of low, covered passages. Due to the site having been covered by sand and grass, the structures are very well preserved.

Most of the houses have a standard design that looks like everyone bought their stuff at Stone Age Ikea (complete with a set of Billys): a square room with rounded corners, with a central fireplace in the middle, a shelved stone dresser opposite the entrance and beds on both sides; all made of stone slabs. Niches in the walls served for storage. Each house had a low door that could be closed with a stone slab and a bar.

One must imagine the beds to be filled with dried grass or heather and furs, and a fire burning in the hearth - it was quite a comfortable dwelling back in the Neolithic Age.

House 9

There are two distinct stages of construction. In the older houses (no. 9 and 10) of more circular shape, the beds are built into the wall in alcove-style, while in the newer houses they stand along the side walls in the room.

The older houses date to about 3,200 BC which makes them 500 years older than the pyramids in Egypt. They were part of a village prior to the major part of the buildings visible today und hidden under those. Besides houses 9 and 10, remains of that older village have been found beneath house 7. The older village had freestanding houses and no covered passages.

House 10

The 'newer' village has been built mostly atop the older one, using the midden as part of the wall constructions. Midden consists of the organic remains of a settlement which over time turn into soil, together with harder materials like stone chips and shells. The new houses were built into the midden, and midden was also used to fill the space between the double stone walls, making the entire wall structure about two metres thick.

We do not know for sure how the roofs were built. Whale bones or driftwood beams (there never were many trees on Orkney) may have been used for support, then covered with skins, seaweed, reed or turf - all organic materials that have perished. Seaweed has been used for roofing on Orkney until the 19th century. Since the houses were built into the midden, the village would have appeared as a mound, probably with the high roofs of the houses standing out.

Exterior of house 4

With the current size, the place could have housed some 50 to 100 inhabitants. It is assumed that the village was never much larger than what we can see today, but on the other hand, since already one house was lost to the sea in 1928, there is a possibility that earlier storms destroyed more of the settlement.

A system of passages that connect the houses can be found in the newer village. The passages had a height of only about on metre and were covered with stone slabs. Since skeleton finds in house 7 show that the inhabitants were not much shorter than today's average, it meant that people had to stoop when entering the passages or passing through the doors of the houses. The main entrance of the passage could be closed by a barred stone door - maybe a measure of defense.

The passages

The similar layout of the houses and the position of the shelved dresser is an interesting feature. The dresser would be illuminated by the fire burning in the middle of the room and immediately visible from the entrance. It is assumed that valuable items would have been put there for display.

Another theory is that the right side of the house was the male, and the left side the female area. The beds to the right are usually larger, and on the left side, beads and other decorative items have been found. But there is no proof for this: beads could well have been male status jewelry and the larger beds used by mothers with children.

House 2

The thick walls had box-shaped holes for storage. In water bassins in the floor, made of stone slabs and clay, limpets were kept as fishing baits and perhaps also as emergency food, though they were not a regular part of the diet.

A somewhat larger hole; in some houses even a little rotund annex, is supposed to have been an indoor toilet. You can see one in the foreground of the photo of house 9 above. There was a surprisingly sophisticated drainage system underlying the village's design.

Storage holes in house 1

House 7 cannot be seen today because it is covered with a protective roof due to its importance. But there is a reconstruction outside of Skara Brae which is modeled after house 7. Since the house is a bit outside the rest of the village and can only be reached by a side-passage, and is built on sand, not midden, it may be the oldest structure on the site which has later been remodeled. House 7 also got an extra wall around its perimeter.

Two female skeletons have been found in a decorated stone cist under the right side beds (2) which must have been interred prior to the building of the house. The door of house 7 could only be bolted from the outside, another curious detail. One can only speculate about those features: The house could have been used for rituals, perhaps those involving the dead or the cycle of life (childbirth, menstruation etc.; 3)

Interior of the reconstructed house

The Office of Works wanted to display house 7 to the public while also protecting it from the elements. A concrete layer was put on top of the walls which still stand to 3 metres height, supporting a glass roof with sliding panels. But it turned out that the weight of the concrete and glass had damaged the walls. Therefore the roof was replaced with lighter material and measures taken to ensure that humidity and temperature inside the house remain constant.

For years, visitors were allowed to walk between the houses and crawl through the passages. But while the stone walls look solid, they are actually quite fragile, and people walking on them and touching them will cause damage in the long run. Today, the site can only be seen from a path running at its perimeter. You can still get a good view from there and use the camera zoom for details.

Skara Brae on a 'busy' day in June

Another special building is house 8. That one stood apart from the rest of the settlement to the west, was egg shaped instead of rectangular, with a fire place in the centre, but no beds and no dresser. The walls hold several alcoves. In front of it, the passage opens to a paved area which today is known as 'market place'.

The floor of the house was littered with fragments of flint and chert and other traces of toolmaking. Therefore, house 8 is considered to have been a workshop, at least for some time while the village was inhabited. Its separate situation could also point at a meeting hall or something along those lines.

House 8

Gordon Childe thought that Skara Brae was abandoned due to some catastrophic event, a 'northern Pompeii'. But today it is thought that a combination of coastal erosion, sand blows, and changes in Neolithic society led to the site being abandoned. Sand and salt spray from the sea may have rendered the land unfit for cereal production and maybe even for grazing. A migration to more productive lands is a possibilty. In that case, the village may have been abandoned step by step, with the younger members probably leaving first.

Another reason could have been the development of an elite society that changed the social patterns of village life. Larger communities became more common, attracting migrants from the village. There are no signs of a violent end (like fe. a battle) to Skara Brae.

Plan displayed at the site

Another post about Skara Brae can be found here.

Footnotes
1) Since 2015 it is the HES, Historic Environment Scotland.
2) Which implies that in fact the right side may have been the female one.
3) Or maybe as prison, albeit a pretty comfortable one.

Sources
Dr. David Clarke: Skara Brae - Official Souvenir Guide, published by Historic Scotland 2012
Sally Foster: Maes Howe and the Heart of Neolithic Orkney, Historic Scotland Official Souvenir Guide. 2006
The Orkneya website
 


9.7.17
  From Castle to Convention Centre - Castle Scharfenstein in the Eichsfeld

We can thank Pope Benedict XVI for most of the repairs of castle Scharfenstein near Leinefelde-Worbis (1), and the surprisingly comfortable road leading to it.

The castle sits on a promontory of a musselkalk plateau near the twin town of Leinefelde-Worbis in the Eichsfeld, a Catholic enclave in the overall Protestant county of Thuringia, and a little part of southern Lower Saxony (2). And that is why the pope came here in 2011.

Castle Scharfenstein, view to the inner bailey with the great hall

Like so many castles in the former GDR, the Scharfenstein had first been used as state holiday site for families and later fell into decline; it was pretty much abandoned in the 1980ies. After the reunion, no one wanted to take the financial burden until the community of Leinefelde-Worbis bought the ruins in 2002. The visit of Pope Benedict gave a real boost to the renovation work, since it was planned for him to hold a public mass there. The event was later moved to nearby Etzelsbach Chapel, but the road, the newly renovated great hall and the rooms in the former stables and other outhouses remained.

View to the castle, with the keep in construction to the right

The castle probably dates to the second half of the 12th century; a Godehard of Scharfenstein is mentioned as witness in several chartes since 1161. The castle itself is first mentioned in 1209.

There must have been some feudal problems between the lords of Scharfenstein and the landgrave of Thuringia, because Landgrave Ludwig III conquered the castle in 1219 during a feud with the archbishop Siegfried II of Eppstein of Mainz; a feud which had been caused by the strife between the emperor Otto IV and Friedrich II of Staufen.

The outer bailey seen from the outside

The castle then went to the family of Gleichenstein (sometimes also called 'of Gleichen') who must have been vassals to the landgraves of Thuringia. In 1287, Heinrich the Illustrious pawned out the 'castrum Scharphenstein' to the archbishop of Mainz. His successor Albrecht II ('the Degenerate' - he of the ongoing money problems) sold the castle to Mainz together with some other possessions a few years later (1294). This was the beginning of the Eichsfeld, an enclave of the archbishopric of Mainz in Thuringia. The lords of Gleichenstein seem to have kept the castle as fief for some time.

Remains of the outer curtain walls in the foreground

The castle must have been much larger than today at the beginning of the 14th century. But it burned down in 1431, due to a lightning strike. At that time, the Scharfenstein was held by the Wintzingerode family who rebuilt the castle, but in smaller scale. The Wintzingerode - the family still exists today - had large possessions in the Eichsfeld (3).

The outer bailey with convention rooms and a chapel

Next time the castle comes into the focus of the local history was during the Reformation. The former Cistercian munk Heinrich Pfeiffer, a follower of Luther's reformation, found shelter on the Scharfenstein in 1521. But he joined the more radical and anti-nobility preacher Thomas Müntzer who led a peasants' army in revolt against not only the Catholic Church but against the nobility as well. Many castles in Thuringia fell prey to the peasants and went up in flames; Pfeiffer led his men to castle Scharfenstein and destroyed it (1525). So much for gratitude.

Interior of the chapel

The peasant revolt was put down and the leaders executed. Friedrich of Wintzingerode rebuilt the castle in 1532. Friedrich was a Protestant and at the time held the castle as pawn from the Catholic archbishop of Mainz. Who probably was not happy about that. The archbishop was looking around for money to redeem the pawn and kick that Protestant guy out. He succeeded in 1587, during the Counter-Reformation, and regained the Catholic foothold in the Thuringian Eichsfeld.

The gate house

The Eichsfeld came to Prussia in 1802, and the Scharfenstein was turned into a royal domain. But it was not one of the most important places; the crumbling granary and keep were demolished instead of reapaired in 1864. A few years later the castle - or what was left of it; basically the great hall - became the lodge of the district forester. It served in that function until 1956. (Not so different from the fate of another Eichsfeld castle, the Altenstein)

The great hall in the inner bailey

The Wintzingerode still had some interest in the castle. In 1905, Baron Wilhelm Chlothar of Wintzingerode tried to rebuy the Scharfenstein from Prussia, but his offer was turned down. Well, maybe he counted himself lucky a few years later when most of the outbuildings of the castle were destroyed in a fire (1909). I wonder if the forester kept sending letters about the bad repair of his lodge to the revenue of Prussia like his colleage from the Altenstein did to the revenue of Hessia.

Another view of the yard, towards the gate house and the former granary

Today, excavation and restoration work is still going on. One feature-in-constuction is a modern tower with glass walls at the site of the former keep. One can discuss the addition of modern elements in a Mediaeval castle (instead of restoring the old buildings), but since the place is intended as convention centre, the modern elements may work. After all, the community has to get some money out of the expenses it put into the castle.

There is a restaurant at the site of the former granary, with a terrace that offers a good view.

Former wall of the granary, with the gate now leading to a terrace

Footnotes
1) There are two more castles called Scharfenstein, one in the Middle Rhine Valley and one in the Ore Mountains near Chemnitz in Saxony.
2) Which leads to the fun fact that Thuringia gets the Catholic holidays which Lower Saxony does not get; and twice a year all the Thuringian Eichsfeld comes to Göttingen for shopping..
3) They lost most of it during the GDR-expropriations, but got returned some of their land and the castle Bodenstein after the reunion.

 


18.6.17
  Border Castle and Forester's Lodge - The Altenstein at the Werra

There are several castles named Altenstein or Altenburg in Germany. The one I'm writing about here are a few ruins hidden in a forest near Bad Sooden-Allendorf, on a promontory 350 metres above a rivulet confluencing into the Werra, with no tourists around. But it was one of those border castles between Hessia and Thuringia which has played a role in history, albeit a small one.

The ruins of Castle Altenstein near Bad Sooden-Allendorf

Today, the castle belongs to Thuringia, but during history, it was part of the landgraviate of Hessia most of the time. The Altenstein is first mentioned in 1329 (see below), but it is well possible that the castle was part of the 'eight fortified places' which Duke Albrecht of Braunschweig gave to the margrave Heinrich of Meissen as ransom. The War of the Thuringian Succession (1) had attracted several nobles who wanted to bite off a chunk of the Thurigian possessions. It didn't go well for Albrecht who was captured by margrave Heinrich. Heinrich of Meissen gave the 'fortified places', which included Eschwege, Allendorf and Witzenhausen, to the young landgrave Heinrich of Hessia (the son of Sophie of Brabant) in 1264, in exchange for other lands and privileges.

Remains of the hall and nothern curtain wall

In 1329, Landgrave Heinrich II of Hessia pawned out the 'new castle' of Altenstein and some villages to the knight Berthold Eselskopf (no idea why the guy was called Donkey's Head) and Hugo from the Mark (2). The mention of the 'nuwe hus Aldensteyn' is interesting because it implies that there has been an old house or castle prior to 1329 which was in need of repair or rebuilding, a task which Berthold Eselskopf and Hugo obviously already had begun to undertake. Landgrave Heinrich promised to refund the expenses of further repairs and new buildings should he redeem the pawn.

How old was the castle at that point and why would Berthold and Hugo put money into its upkeep? As mentioned above, the Altenstein may have been part of Albrecht of Braunschweig's ransom and then would date back to prior to 1264. Another possibility is that the Altenstein was part of the lands of the counts of Bilstein which they sold to Landgrave Heinrich I of Hessia in 1301. Berthold Eselskopf and Hugo of the Mark in that case could have been vassals of the counts of Bilstein and transfered the feudal relationship to the landgrave of Hessia in 1301 (3). We will likely never find out for sure, but one can assume that both Berthold Eselskopf and Hugo (and his wife) regarded the Altenstein as quasi-allodial possession or they would not have invested their own money.

Interior of the ruins of the hall and chapel

It was not unusual for the landgrave of Hessia to pawn out land to trusted vassals because he needed a lot of money. Relations with the archbishop of Mainz, who held lands in the nearby Eichsfeld, were still more than a bit strained, and a place like the Altenstein would be of interest to both.

It looks like the Eselskopf family was busy trying to take advantage of those problems. There are several notes in chronicles and chartes from the 1340ies, all involving members of the Eselskopf and Weberstedt families (the Weberstedt obviously also held feudal rights to the Altenstein; maybe they were the family of Hugo of the Mark's wife Gertrud). Like so often, the chronicles don't specify the crimes, only mention things like 'he shall end the acts because of which he has been seperated from his lord', or 'the aforementioned acts'. No pity with modern historians, those chroncilers. But it seems clear that the Eselskopf and Weberstedt families got involved in quarrels between the landgrave of Hessia and the archbishop of Mainz, and were not always on the side to which they belonged by feudal obligations. They promised in November 1346 that they would not commit 'unjust robbery' but instead would bring the quarrels to the court of the landgrave, to name one example.

Hall and chapel seen from the west

In the following decennies one can trace several financial transactions among the local nobility which all include clauses about the rights of the landgraves to redeem the Altenstein and how do deal with the financial mess that would cause.

Different angle from the north-west

There was a feud between the counts of Hanstein - vassals of the archbishop of Mainz - and the Dalwigk family and the counts of Boyneburg who at that time held castle Altenstein for the landgraves of Hessia, which ended with a peace contract in 1377.

The Altenstein was captured by Braunschweigian forces during the Star Wars between Duke Otto of Braunschweig, the archbishop of Mainz and the landgraves of Hessia and Thuringia. The castle came back to Hessia in 1438 and was given to the Bischoffshausen family who held it until 1643.

The northern curtain wall

Times had changed and now the nobility, often in debt, pawned out their castles to the dukes and princes of the realm. In this case, the Bischoffshausen brothers pawned out the castle with several villages and forests to Landgravine Amalie Elisabeth of Hessia. Which is interesting insofar as for one, the landgraves must have redeemed the pawn at some point, and second, the Bischoffshausen probably held allodial rights to the castle, or it would have been difficult to pawn out the place without agreement of their lord.

The interior was not in a good shape. The booklet about the Altenstein (see footnotes) gives an old list of broken furniture (beds, chests, wardrobes, banks, but also doors and windows) which 'if it was to be used must be repaired'. We don't know if the reeve who was installed in the Altenstein kept the old stuff or brought his own. But such lists show that furniture in bad repair still had a value, or it would not have been mentioned at all and simply thrown out instead.

Remains of the northern dike

The castle was badly damaged during the Thirty Years War. I suppose the forests and fields were the true value of the deal at the time; the Altenstein became the lodging of a forester. At first, the mayor (Schultheiss) also lived on the Altenstein and court of justice was held there, but the court was moved to Allendorf and the mayor got himself a pretty house in town.

The inner bailey

We can catch another glimpse of the life on the Altenstein in about 1800. At that time, the remaining buildings of the castle were in dire need of an Extreme House Makeover. The forester Wiegand spent years writing letters to the revenue of Hessia, listing the damage and asking for repair and finances to order repair work himself, but as so often, money was slow in coming.

1799: There were holes in the floor and planks rotten, several parts of the half timbered walls (Gefache) in the second floor had fallen out, windows were missing (those got replaced pretty fast which was the exception), the well was blocked, the stone water trough broken, the oven in the living room smoked so badly that it was impossible to stay there for long, and one of the gables was on the verge of falling off and taking most of the roof with it. The stable and granary were unusable. In spring 1801, his maid broke through the floor and injured herself badly.

Well, the floor was at least completely renewed with planks after that and Wiegand got a new stone water trough. The smoking oven continued to be an issue, though. It took until 1806 before most of the mess was repaired except for a leaky roof, and that was at least on the to do list. Wiegand got an annual salary of 200 thaler; the repair stuff cost more than 150 thaler, so he could not have paid it off his salary.

The chapel seen from the west

It looks like the forester's lodge got a better upkeep in the 20th century. One can see the main building, the former eastern palas of the castle, on some old photos from the 1930ies. The rest of the castle were but ruins. The Altenstein became popular as hiking destination, and the forester's wife sold beverages and rented out some rooms.

The remains of the hall seen from the inner bailey

Castle Altenstein belonged to Hessia, but after the exchange of territories in September 1945 between the Sovjet and American zones of occupation, it came to Thuringia in the former GDR. A forester still lived there until 1955; then the building was used as children's holiday home, but lack of money for the upkeep of the house soon led to the first traces of decay, and in 1961, the castle and forester's lodge were abandoned. Since the area belonged to the restricted zone, no one could hike up to the Altenstein any longer. The remaining buildings were torn down in 1973 (there are no traces left today), though the ruins of the castle proper were left alone and only crumbled a bit further, until a group of dedicated people did some renovation work in 2001. Today, the Altenstein is again a fine hiking destination.

Walls among trees and leaves

The promontory on which castle Altenstein sits has steep slopes on three sides, only to the north a dike was dug out; remains of it can still be seen. The castle had a rectangular shape with a palas building and a gate house to the east (which no longer exists) and another hall - sometimes described as keep (4) - with a chapel to the west. The other walls were framed with stables, granaries and other timber buildings which have long since disappeared.

Two main buildings may have been necessary because the castle often was divided between two families (f.e. the Eselskopf and Weberstedt in the 14th century). What can still be seen is a part of the northern curtain wall with remains of the western the hall and the chapel. Not a spectacular ruin, but a charming one.

View from the castle into the valley

Footnotes
1) After the last Ludowing landgrave Heinrich Raspe died without offspring in 1247, the cousins came out of the woodworks. His father, landgrave Hermann I, had been married twice. The daughter of the first marriage, Jutta, wed Dietrich Margrave of Meissen from the Wettin family ; their son was Heinrich of Meissen. A daughter from his second marriage (and sister to Heinrich Raspe) was Sophia, who in turn married Hendrik II Duke of Brabant and became known as Sophia of Brabant. She claimed Thuringia for her son. Her daughter was married to Duke Albrecht of Braunschweig, a reason for him to join the fun. The archbishop of Mainz had interests in the lands as well, which should not come as a surprise.
2) Wikipedia says that Hugo was Eberhard's squire, but the book about the Altenstein doesn't mention that detail. It seems unlikely to me that a lord and his squire would hold equal shares in a transaction. Moreover, Kuno was married, which was unusual for a squire.
3) The book about the Altenstein states this as fact, but cannot offer proof.
4) The walls of the building are only 1,20 metres thick which would be unusually fragile for a keep.

Literature
York-Egbert König, Karl Kollmann, Erna Ursel Lange: Der Altenstein 1329-2004 ­– 675 Jahre im hessisch-eichsfeldischen Grenzland. Eschwege/Heiligenstadt 2004
Wilfried Warsitzka: Die Thüringer Landgrafen. 2nd revised edition, Erfurt, 2009
 


The Lost Fort is a travel journal and history blog based on my travels in Germany, the UK, Scandinavia, and other places. It includes essays on Roman and Mediaeval history, as well as some geology, illustrated with photos of old castles and churches, Roman remains, and beautiful landscapes.

All texts (except comments by guests) and photos (if no other copyright is noted) on this blog are copyright of Gabriele Campbell.

My Photo
Name:
Location: Germany

I'm a blogger from Germany with a MA in Literature and History which doesn't pay my bills, so I use it to research blogposts instead. I'm interested in everything Roman and Mediaeval, avid reader and sometimes writer, opera enthusiast, traveller with a liking for foreign languages and odd rocks, photographer, and tea aficionado. And an old-fashioned blogger who hasn't yet gotten an Instagram account. :-)


e-mail


    Featured Posts


A Virtual Tour Through the Wartburg



Dunstaffnage Castle



The Limes Fort Osterburken



The Vasa Museum in Stockholm



The Raised Bog Mecklenbruch in the Solling