The Goseck circle (German: Sonnenobservatorium Goseck) is a Neolithic structure in Goseck in the Burgenlandkreis district in Saxony-Anhalt, Germany.
Its construction is dated to approximately the 49th century BC, and it seems to have remained in use until about the 47th century BC. It may thus be the oldest and best known of the circular enclosures associated with the Central European Neolithic. More controversially, it also may be one of the oldest Solar observatories in the world. However, the site is currently officially presented by the state archaeologists and the local association that looks after it as a ritual or cult structure. Its scientific use is purely speculative.
The circle consists of a concentric ditch 75 metres (246 feet) across and two palisade rings containing entrances in places aligned with sunrise and sunset on the solstice days.
The existence of the site was made public in August 2003, and it was opened for visitors in December 2005.
The site is located on farmland near Goseck, in the Burgenlandkreis of Saxony-Anhalt, between Naumburg and Weißenfels. The circle sits on a piece of land that gradually rises towards the south, not far from where the Unstrut flows into the Saale, at the border of the region known as Leipzig Bay.
The circle was discovered in 1991 by Otto Braasch on an aerial survey photograph that showed circular ridges under a wheat field. The cropmarks were easy to see in a season of drought. The structure's visibility also indicated an advanced state of erosion.
To preserve the endangered remains, the Landesamt für Denkmalpflege und Archäologie Sachsen-Anhalt decided on an excavation. It cooperated with the Institute for Prehistocric Archaeology of the University of Halle-Wittenberg.
François Bertemes and Peter Biehl began a major excavation of the site in 2002. When archaeologists combined the evidence with GPS observations, they noticed that the two southern openings marked the sunrise and sunset of the winter and summer solstices.
Radiocarbon dating places the construction of the site close to 4900 BC, while the style of the pottery shards associate it with the stroke-ornamented ware culture of ca. 4700 BC, suggesting that the site remained in use over two or three centuries.
Excavators also found the remains of what may have been ritual fires, animal and human bones, and a headless skeleton near the southeastern gate, that could be interpreted as traces of human sacrifice or specific burial ritual.
Bertemes and Biehl have continued the excavation for a few weeks each year. In 2004 a group from the University of California, Berkeley, joined the ongoing dig.
Since the end of the excavation, the site has been reconstructed. Archaeologists and state officials have rebuilt the wooden palisade of the circle using 1,675 oak poles with a height of 2.5 m. Woodworkers worked with hand tools so that the wooden posts would look more authentic. The site was opened to the public on 21 December 2005, the day of the winter solstice.
The site is surrounded by a circular v-shaped moat of up to 1.8 m depth. The soil was used to create a rampart on the outside. The diameter of the moat is 75 m measured from its external border. A double wooden palisade stood inside the moat. No traces of internal buildings were found. Entry to the site was via three symmetrical main entrances to the north, southwest and southeast. In addition there were small gaps in the palisades allowing access. The moat followed the three main entries outwards (see diagram). The entrances in the inner palisade were narrower than those in the outer which in turn were narrower than the gap in the moat.
The southwestern and southeastern entrances face the direction of sunset and sunrise around the date of the winter solstice. Two of the smaller breaks in the wall face towards the equivalent direction on the summer solstice.
There is no sign of fire or of other destruction, so why the site was abandoned is unknown. Later villagers built a defensive moat following the ditches of the old enclosure.
The Goseck ring is one of the best preserved and extensively investigated of the many similar structures built at around the same time. Around 140 of these structures, known as circular enclosures, have been found. Although they all have unique features, they follow a basic architectural principle. Few of them have been excavated.
In the first opening of the site, state archaeologist Harald Meller called it "a milestone in archaeological research".
Its construction is dated to approximately the 49th century BC, and it seems to have remained in use until about the 47th century BC. This corresponds to the transitional phase between the Neolithic Linear Pottery and Stroke-ornamented ware cultures. It is one of a larger group of circular enclosures in the Elbe and Danube region, most of which show similar alignments.
The astronomical alignment has given rise to the use of the name Observatorium (observatory) by excavators and media, although it is likely that the site did not actually serve as a place for scientific observation of the sun over the course of the solar year. Nevertheless the name Sonnenobservatorium was retained, not least for marketing purposes.
Some maintain that it was in fact used as a Neolithic solar observatory. Together with calendar calculations, it did allow coordinating an easily judged lunar calendar with the more demanding measurements of a solar calendar.
However, recent research based on the findings of the excavation and represented at the Sonnenobservatorium today (see below) describes the place as a site of assembly for ritual or sacred activities in which the sun and its annual calendar played a key role.
The reconstructed site is open to the public. An info point has been opened at nearby Schloss Goseck featuring an exhibit and information on the excavations. The site is maintained by the Verein Gosecker Sonnenobservatorium e.V..
Goseck is a stop on the tourist route Himmelswege, linking archaeological sites in Saxony-Anhalt.