3400 BC: The oldest evidence for the use of the wheel and wagon originates from Northern Germany

A new publication documents Stone Age wheel tracks on a burial site near Flintbek.

One of the largest megalithic cemeteries is located in Flintbek near Kiel. Here, the world’s earliest evidence for the use of the wheel and wagon was discovered. The scientific documentation of this finding has recently been published by Prof. Dr. Doris Mischka in the volume “Das Neolithikum in Flintbek. Eine feinchronologische Studie zur Besiedlungsgeschichte anhand von Gräbern”. The book is part of a publication series coordinated by the Institute of Prehistoric and Protohistoric Archaeology of Kiel University, which presents the research results of the Priority Program (SPP) “Early Monumentality and Social Differentiation. On the Origin and Development of Neolithic Large-scale Buildings and the Emergence of Early Complex Societies in Northern Central Europe”, funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG).

The wagon tracks, which date to ca. 3400 BC, are found on a burial ground near Flintbek, where dozens of grave monuments from the Neolithic and the Bronze Age are lined up in a crescent (i.e. sickle) shape.

The largest prehistoric grave field in Europe

At this site, archaeologists excavated seven so-called long barrows, Stone Age megalithic graves as well as 14 burial mounds. With the help of radiocarbon dating, they could verify that the site, due to its shape known as the “Flintbek Sickle”, was already used for the first burials as early as ca. 5800 years ago.
At this time, people first built long barrows, which they steadily enlarged through successive additions. During the early phase, they also constructed burial mounds with small stone chambers, so-called dolmens.

500 years later, around 3300 BC, the architecture changed. People began to bury the deceased in passage graves – large stone chambers with entrances also made of stone – which served from then on for many centuries as collective burials. Mischka assumes that families from different areas each had their own burial place here. Thus, the “Flintbek Sickle” would have been the ritual centre for the entire region.

The world’s oldest wheel tracks

In addition to the numerous graves, two initially inconspicuous brown lines in the soil particularly attracted attention during the archaeological fieldwork. The scientists found that the width of these discolorations coincides exactly with the width of Neolithic wooden wheels, which are found, for example, in bogs of Northern Germany. Furthermore, the distance between both grooves corresponds exactly to the width of Neolithic wagon axles. The researchers see this as clear evidence that the new technology of wheel and wagon at that time was implemented for the construction of the structures in the “Flintbek Sickle” – and this as early as 3400 BC.

Thus, the earliest evidence of this innovation is found in Flintbek, which first appeared in other regions of Europe and Southwest Asia in the late fourth millennium BC. The technology was therefore probably not invented in the Near East as previously assumed.

The Kiel archaeologist, Prof. Dr. Johannes Müller, speaker of the SPP and editor of the publication series, is impressed by the results: “It is clear that the people of Central Europe were highly technologised as early as those in the Near East,” he explains. “The results place Flintbek at the centre of one of the most decisive innovations of humanity.”

Mischka, now a professor at the Institute of Prehistory and Early History at Friedrich-Alexander University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, habilitated in 2012 at Kiel University with the newly published volume. In the book, she documents the entire genesis and development of the “Flintbek Sickle”. Using so-called 14C analyses, with which the age of organic material can be determined, the temporal relationship between the individual monuments, diverse reconstructions, extensions, and individual burials could be dated to within a few decades.

Original publication:

Mischka, Doris, 2022. Das Neolithikum in Flintbek. Eine feinchronologische Studie zur Besiedlungsgeschichte anhand von Gräbern. Frühe Monumentalität und soziale Differenzierung 20. Verlag Dr. Rudolf Habelt GmbH (Bonn 2022).

 

About the priority program

The DFG Priority Program SPP 1400 ““Early Monumentality and Social Differentiation. On the Origin and Development of Neolithic Large-scale Buildings and the Emergence of Early Complex Societies in Northern Central Europe” began work in 2009. Coordinated by Prof. Dr. Johannes Müller of the Institute of Prehistoric and Protohistoric Archaeology, Kiel University, a total of 22 university institutes together with research institutions and monument preservation offices examined the Neolithic on the North European Plain in 16 sub-projects with regard to the complex question: How do the early monumental structures relate to the development of social conditions following sedentism around 4100 BC?

 more information
 

Photo of a ground with two grooves.
© Dieter Stoltenberg

Both dark linear discolorations are the wagon tracks that the researchers discovered in one of the long barrows (LA3) of the Flintbek Sickle.

View over an excavation site with stones.
© Dieter Stoltenberg

View of the Flintbek LA3 long barrow from the southwest. It consists of a collection of several dolmens and single graves. In the foreground, a single grave can be seen. The floor pavement is constructed with flat stone slabs and the edge is composed of many stones, between which a tent-like structure was originally based. This specific architecture is named after a site in Denmark – Konens Høj.

Graphic design of a book title.
© Illustration: Susanne Beyer

The wagon that was pulled by cattle, which left the tracks on the Flintbek burial site, might have looked like the cover picture of the publication, which depicts the work during the construction of the grave.

Scientific contact:

Prof. Dr. Johannes Müller
Institute for Pre- and Protohistory / Prehistoric Archaeology
Kiel University
+49 431 880 3391
 johannes.mueller@ufg.uni-kiel.de

 

Prof. Dr. Doris Mischka
Institut für Ur- und Frühgeschichte
FAU Erlangen-Nürnberg
 + 49 9131 85 22408
doris.mischka@fau.de

 

Press contact:
Angelika Hoffmann
Research focus officer SECC/JMA