The Externsteine [ˈɛkstɐnʃtaɪnə] are a distinctive rock formation located in the district of Lippe within the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, not far from the city of Detmold at Horn-Bad Meinberg. The formation is a tor consisting of several tall, narrow columns of rock which rise abruptly from the surrounding wooded hills. The name probably means "star stones of the Egge", stern meaning star, steine meaning stones, and Egge meaning ridge.
The Externsteine are located in the Teutoburger Wald and are a natural outcropping of five sandstone pillars, the tallest of which is 37.5 m (123 ft) high and form a wall of several hundred metres in length, in a region that is otherwise largely devoid of rocks. The pillars have been modified and decorated by humans over the centuries.
The geological formation consists of a hard, erosion-resistant sandstone, laid down during the early Cretaceous era about 120 million years ago, near the edge of a large shallow sea that covered large parts of Northern Europe at the time. About 70 million years ago, these originally horizontal layers were folded to an almost vertical position; this was followed by various forms of weathering.
The Externsteine may or may not have been a centre of religious activity for the Teutonic peoples and their predecessors prior to the arrival of Christianity in northern Europe. Research into this area was carried out as early as 1564 by Hermann Hamelmann.
However, archaeological excavations did not produce any pre-historic findings other than some Paleolithic and Mesolithic stone tools dating to before about 10,000 BC. As such, the precise date when people first used the rocks for rituals has not yet been established and it is not proven whether it actually predates Christianity.
The last pre-Christian inhabitants of the region were Saxons until their defeat and conversion by Charlemagne. After conquering Eresburg in 772, Charlemagne is reported to have ordered the destruction of the Saxon Irminsul. There is also evidence of an early monastery, which might have been founded as early as 815. The findings, however, are not conclusive, though the dating of 1093 has been questioned by art historians, who date the relief to the early 9th century. An inscription seems to indicate that the Bishop of Paderborn consecrated the grotto in the north-western columns as a Christian chapel in the early 12th century.
During the period of Nazi rule, the Externsteine became a focus of nationalistic propaganda. In 1933, the "Externsteine Foundation" was established and Heinrich Himmler became its president. Interest in the location was furthered by the Ahnenerbe division within the SS, who studied the stones for their value to Germanic folklore and history.
Wilhelm Teudt was particularly interested in the Externsteine, which he suggested was the location of a central Saxon shrine, the location of Irminsul and an ancient sun observatory. Since the mid-1920s he had popularized them by calling them the "Germanic Stonehenge". He assumed that the Germanic buildings there had been made from wood and thus left no traces. In 1932, the area was excavated (for the third time) by August Stieren (de) and no "cultural remains" were discovered. After the Nazis came to power, Teudt was put in charge of additional excavations at the site and appointed Julius Andree (de) to head the work done there by the Reichsarbeitsdienst in 1934/35. Teudt thought that the Externsteine had served as an observatory until its destruction by Charlemagne. He initiated the demolishing of touristical infrastructure (tramway, hotels) and the creation of a "sacred grove" nearby. The SS used Serbian prisoners of war to redesign the area and turned it into a Heiligtum (sacred site) to be used in their propaganda. In the 1990s, the artefacts found in the excavation conducted by Andree were analyzed. There were no objects dating back longer than to 800. All the ceramic and metal items were younger. Only some stone artefacts were attributed to members of the Ahrensburg culture, i.e. hunters and gatherers who had frequented the place in the late paleolithic period.
Ongoing controversy over pre-historic use
The site remains of high archaeological interest and a source of controversy. At the top of the tallest stone is a chamber, now open. There is some kind of altar stone, which may have been once used for sacrifices, later it may have been Christianized. Directly above the altar stone a circular hole is cut into the wall, facing the direction of sunrise at the time of summer solstice. Further astroarchaeological studies of Prof.Schlosser from Bochum university have shown that this orientation has been established around the year 0±50.
Some Neo-Pagans continue to believe that the Irminsul was located at the Externsteine and identify a bent tree depicted beneath the cross in a 12th-century Christian carving with it. The site has also been of interest to various German nationalist movements over the years.
As early as 1926, the Externsteine were known as "one of the oldest and most important nature reserves in Lippe" and were placed under protection. Today it is approximately 27 acres (0.11 km2; 0.042 sq mi), and forms part of the ‘Teutoburg Forest’ nature reserve, Externsteine
The Externsteine are a popular tourist destination. In 1958, visitor numbers were around 224,000 people annually. Today, between a half to one million people annually visit the stones, making the Externsteine one of the most frequently visited nature reserves in Westphalia.
- This article incorporates information from the German Wikipedia.
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- Wolfhard Schlosser / Jan Cierny. Sterne und Steine. Eine praktische Astronomie der Vorzeit. Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft. Darmstadt. 1996. p.93-95.
- bezreg-detmold.nrw.de - "Nature Extersteine"
- reserve LIP-007 "Externsteine"
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