Many questions about ancient civilizations remain unanswered, but perhaps the most perplexing of these questions are these: how well did the ancients understand the world they lived in, and how did they express that understanding, if they understood anything at all? More to the point, though, are we, from our lofty intellectual perspective, not assuming too much when we declare that some of the monuments the ancients left behind are observatories in the same sense that we understand the meaning of the word “observatory” today?
Who Built the Goseck Circle?
The picture below shows a “floor plan” of the Goseck Circle, an ancient ring structure that was discovered in Germany in 1991. In this image, the thick yellow lines represent the directions in which the Sun rises and sets at the winter solstice, while the thin white line marks the astronomical meridian, which is an imaginary line that joins the observers’ zenith with the celestial north and south poles.
Also known as the German Stonehenge, Goseck Circle is just one of about 250 similar structures that were constructed throughout Germany, the Czech Republic, Austria, Slovenia, and Croatia in the period from about 4,900 BC to around 4,700 BC. However, nothing is known about the culture that had constructed this monument, beyond the fact that this particular structure was built by a people or culture that is now known as the “Stroke-Ornamented Ware Culture”, after the manner in which they had decorated their pottery. Based on studies of recovered pottery shards, it turns out that the Goseck Circle site was in use for only about 200 years, and nothing is known about why this and other similar sites were abandoned, seemingly overnight.
Was Goseck Circle an Observatory?
In terms of its construction, Goseck Circle is no different from the hundreds of other similar structures throughout Europe. Basically, Goseck Circle consists of a 75-meter (246 feet) wide ditch that enclosed two concentric wooden palisades, and a series of four concentric ditches. Three openings pierced the wooden palisades: two that faced southeast, and southwest, respectively, through which the Sun can be seen rising and setting at the winter solstice. One other gate faced just east of north, but the purpose of this gate remains unknown.
To many commentators, this configuration automatically turns Goseck Circle into the oldest known solar observatory or solar calendar in the world, and while this might be the case, nothing is known about the language, culture, and religious beliefs and imperatives of the culture that built the structure. While these facts make it difficult to say that the builders of Goseck Circle were accomplished astronomers, it is worth noting that in terms of its latitude, Goseck Circle is located within 1,000 meters (1 600 feet) of Stonehenge. In practice, this means that both structures are sited on the exact latitude where sunrise and sunset at midsummer happen at right angles to the Moons’ northernmost setting and southernmost rising.
This particular phenomenon can only be observed in a band that is less than one degree wide, and both Goseck Circle and Stonehenge are located in the middle third of this band. Moreover, Goseck Circle is also built on one of only two latitudes in the world above which the Moon passes directly overhead on the times it reaches its maximum zenith.
So, is Goseck Circle an Observatory, Shrine, or Temple?
To argue that the exact location of Goseck Circle is mere coincidence is perhaps going too far, but one important question remains unanswered, and it is this; why do two of the gates in the Goseck Circle structure mark the position of sunrise and sunset at the winter solstice?
It should be remembered that the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere falls in late December, which hardly seems the right time to start counting the days before the planting of new crops could commence. In practical terms and from a purely calendric point of view, there is no earthly reason to mark the winter solstice, if the intention of the builders was to mark the seasons to plan the planting and harvesting of crops. Put simply, marking the equinoxes would have made far more sense if agricultural concerns were the main driving force behind building the structure.
Nonetheless, there is no denying the precise location of the Goseck Circle site relative to sunrise/sunset at a particular time of the year. However, the discovery of headless human and bovine skeletons in the immediate environs of the Circle which show the distinct markings of having been sacrificed, makes it far more likely that Goseck Circle was in fact a shrine, or perhaps a temple of sorts, rather than a solar observatory.
As stated elsewhere, nothing is known about the cultural and religious beliefs of the Circles’ builders. Since the Goseck Circle was built to mark the winter solstice, though, some commentators believe that it is entirely possible that the arrival of the Sun at a particular point in the sky indicated an auspicious moment to commence a religious ceremony (that could have included human and animal sacrifices), as opposed to marking a propitious time to start planting crops.
Goseck Circle Today
The image below shows Goseck Circle during restoration. In this view, north is to the upper left, and the two gates through which the winter solstice can be observed is to the right.
Goseck Circle represents a major archaeological discovery, and while it may be tempting to ascribe a particular purpose to the site, it must be borne in mind that we have no idea how the ancient farmers of Europe viewed their world. It may be that the average person in those far off times was more concerned with surviving each day than with trying to figure out his place in the Universe. Nevertheless, the fact remains that this, and other structures like it, very likely played a pivotal role in defining how their builders viewed nature, and the wider world around them even though there is no evidence that the builders of these structures were ever in direct contact with each other.
We will likely never know the exact role this structure played in the lives of the people that built it, just as we will almost certainly never know why the cultures that built them disappeared after only about two centuries, which is perhaps the most important unanswered question relating to this, and similar structures.
Today, Goseck Circle is open to the public, and forms an important link in a chain of “Sky Way” attractions across Europe that is all related to the study of how astronomy was practiced in ancient times.