Holland’s Heaven on Earth

Mike Haigh

Muggenberg is a modern suburb of the old town of Schagen, some 50 km north of Amsterdam. About ten years ago, before the new houses there were constructed, the area was excavated by a team of archaeologists led by Linda Therkorn of the Institute of Prehistory and Protohistory at the University of Amsterdam. During their investigations, they found some remarkable remnants of astronomical knowledge dating back to around 300 CE. At that time, the area was characterised by a sparsely populated agricultural field system; remains were found of isolated farmsteads, field boundaries, broken pots and animal remains. Also, near one old farm and scattered over an extent of about half a hectare was found a series of 57 pits, each about one metre wide and one metre deep. They appear to have been dug in sets of three, each one at a different time of year, and refilled shortly afterwards. Many contained the remains of young animals, which led the archaeologists to think that they probably had some religious significance. It was suggested that pits were dug to receive a ritual sacrifice offered at the beginning of spring, the end of summer and the middle of winter. This reflects the practice of the early Germanic people of dividing the year into three.

The most remarkable aspect of these pits was not noticed until later, when Therkorn studied their distribution. She noticed that she could join up the pit locations in such a way that they traced out four traditional constellations: Taurus (Bull), Canis Major (Dog), Pegasus (winged horse) and Hercules (giant hero). More surprises were in store.

When she examined the finds from the pits, all those comprising Taurus contained cattle bones. Similarly, the Canis Major pits contained the jawbones and skeletons of dogs, while those of Pegasus contained the bones and teeth of horses. The only exception were the pits for Hercules, which did not contain human bones, but hammers and whetstones – these were perhaps seen as essential accoutrements for giant heroes, but it must also be remembered that they are the attributes of the skygod Thor.

Therkorn then turned her attention to another farmstead about 500m. from the other site and dated fifty years later, to c.350 CE. Here she located a series of pits containing cattle bones, marking out again the constellation of Taurus.

Since the original excavations, two more pit constellation groups have been located. Taurus and Pegasus patterns exist at Uitgeest, 30 km SW of Muggenberg. These have been dated to the first century CE. Another group was found at Velserbroek, 10 km south of Uitgeest. Here the hypothesis was tested. When, during the excavations, a similar series of pits turned up, Therkorn observed that they formed part of the constellations of Taurus and Pegasus. She was able to use her acquired knowledge of star maps to predict where other pits would be found, and was proved right. As before, these pits were associated with a nearby farmstead, but dated to the sixth century BC. This indicates that the practice was known for at least 900 years.

All the star-pits discovered so far lie within the coastal area of the province known as North Holland. ,) The waterlogged conditions mean that organic materials such as wood and bone are preserved, an unusual luxury on archaeological sites, and Therkorn has as yet been unable to check her ideas elsewhere.

One problem with her findings is that the constellations as we know them today – whose identification with certain animals would seem from our perspective rather arbitrary – originated in the cultures of Greece and Persia, raising the question of how Germanic farmers knew of the correspondences. Therkorn herself feels that the constellations had a much earlier origin and that ancient cultures adapted the stories to fit their own mythologies. Thus, the Greeks saw Pegasus in terms of the winged horse, while northern European farmers may have related it to Woden’s horse, Sleipnir.

[Adapted by Mike Haigh from ‘Stars Fell on Muggenberg’, Govert Schilling, in New Scientist 148, No.2008, 16-12-95]

Published in NE65 (Spring 1996), pp.18-20

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