My Illlustrated Travel Journal with Essays about Roman and Mediaeval History and some Geology


28.8.16
  From Paleolithic Cave to Mediaeval Church - The Steinkirche near Scharzfeld / Harz

The karst landscape in the southern Harz not only has some interesting rock formations and a castle that makes use of the limestone cliffs as curtain walls, but some caves as well. One of these can be found near the village of Scharzfeld. Excavations have shown that is was used as shelter since the Paleolithic time, but more unusual is its use as church in the Middle Ages.

Entrance of the cave

The cave is a fracture cave, formed by erosion of soluble material (gypsum) which left a cleft in the harder rock (dolomite) along natural fissures in the rock. The entrance had been much narrower; it was extended in the Middle Ages.

The way up to the cave (260 metres above NN) is rather steep and the 9 metres high cliff wall almost vertical. The dolomite rock continues above the cave for several more metres in the shape of a sort of ridge; it also forms a second wall on the side of the plateau. This defensible position may later have attracted an early Christian community.

The cliff seen from the way to the cave

Excavations on the plateau took place as early as 1925-28 under the supervision of Professor K.H. Jacob-Friesen, director of the Provincial Museum (today Lower Saxony State Museum, Hannover). He discovered a Mediaeval graveyard on the plateau which had been in use from the 8th until the 15th century, as well as some pieces of Gothic tracery and roof shingles near the cave entrance which point at some sort of man-made entrance hall to the cave church during that time. A number of pottery shards date to the 13th to 15th centuries. An excavation in 1937 was supposed prove that the cave had been a Germanic cultic site, but no finds could confirm that.

The way to the cave

Below the graveyeard, in a depth of 1.20 metres, is a layer of yellow dolomite sand, the weathering product of the dolomite rocks. It contains remains of the bones of Ice Age wildlife and flint tools dating to the late Paleolithic Magdalenian (BC 17,000 - 12,000), also known as the age of reindeer hunters. Interesting is layer of charcoal ash 2 cm thick and 80 cm in diamters within the dolomite sand in the middle of the plateau, surrounding a flat dolomite plate which is supposed to have served as some sort of Ice Age barbecue. The finds of flint tools and shards were most dense around this fireplace; even a bone needle survived - the people of the Magdalenian were known not only for their advanced flint technology (for example microlith arrow and harpoon points) but also for working bone, antler and ivory.

View into the valley

It would have been a good spot for the Paleolithic hunter-gatherers some 12,000 years ago: a nice cave with a plateau on a cliff that offers a good view over the Oder valley (1) and the Harz foothills. The valley would have been a steppe landscape at the time, populated by reindeer, bison, steppe horses, but also smaller animals like mountain hares and ptarmigan.

The cave, then much smaller in width, was likely not used as a permanent living place. The assumed scenario is that the Magdalenian hunter-gatherers followed the wandering of large herbivores, esp. reindeer and used the place during the hunting season as seasonal lodge.

Church and Hermit's Cave (to the left)

There are several legends about the beginnings of the use of the cave as church, involving a hermit and a miracle - in some versions ascribed to St. Boniface (about AD 732) - by which the cave was shaped. But there are no written sources about the early Middle Ages; the first mention of a church, the 'Chapel at the Knight's Stone', dates to the 15th century. The Gothic traceries and the pottery shards, as well as a dated coin, point at a use of the cave as church since the 13th century, and in case the door arch is indeed Romanesque, it would date the church back to the 12th century.

Closeup of the entrance

Though it is likely that a church existed there much earlier, esp. considering the fact that the site was used for burials since the 8th century. Else there would have been no reason why the surrounding villages would not simply have quarried the dolomite and gypsum kalk to build a stone church down in the valley which would have been easier to access, instead of expanding a natural cave. The cave was probably sacred already (2). It was also easier to defend and may have served as fortified church - in that function it may have played a role again in the 15th century when it appears in the chartes.

The cave church seen from the side

The importance of the church, or chapel, as family inheritance did not last long; after 1586 the cave church disappears from written documents. One can assume that it was no longer used as church after that time. We don't know if it was used for something else like storage - if that was the case it left no archaeological traces. It is also unknown since when the name Steinkirche (Stone Church) was used for the cave.

Interior of the cave

The interior of the cave is a hall of 28 metres length, and a bredth of 7 to 9 metres. The fracture cave had been to small for a church and was expanded sideways - one can see the difference of the new rock floor and the old floor which is a mix of clay and dolomite sand. The wall in the back of the cave is 6.60 metres high. There is a small cleft leading further into the bedrock. A vertical shaft in the ceiling gives some light. It once held a bell which has been transfered to the village church.

The chancel at the gate

The 6 metres wide entrance to the church had once been closed by a timber gate; one can still see the tongues and the wall plugs for the hinges. The rounded arch may have been a Romanesque feature but it can as well have been built that way because it fits the shape of the cave. At some time there must have been a Gothic entrance hall made of quarried and worked stones as the finds of tracework show. That way the chancel which has been hewn into a natural crack in the dolomite rock was inside the building. Today it is outside the gate. One female burial has been discovered directly below the chancel.

The Hermit's 'Cave

The side wall holds another small natural cave which has been extended. It forms a 3.50 metres wide chamber with a 'backdoor' leading up to the ridge. It is called the Hermit's Cave, though there is no proof that a hermit actually lived there. Maybe it had been a side altar like the ones you can find in the side chapels in Gothic churches.

The altar niche

Interest in the cave was renewed when Romantic painters like Ludwig Richter (1803-1884) traveled around in search for romantic and picturesque nature and ruins. Richter painted the cave in 1828 (complete with a shepherdess and some goats). The Steinkirche is one of the most important prehistoric monuments in Lower Saxony. Today the place is quite popular with neo-pagans.

View out of the cave (without goats and a shepherdess)

Footnotes
1) Not the more famous Oder at the border to Poland but a smaller river which springs in the Harz and confluences into the Rhume. Some of its seepage also feeds the Rhume springs.
2) Despite the lack of Germanic archaeological finds it is not impossible that the cave was used as sacred site by the local Germanic tribe; it's the sort of place that would have attracted a Christian missionary to turn into a church. But there is no proof that such a continuation in the use of the cave did indeed take place.

 


The Lost Fort is a travel journal and blog based on my travels in Germany, the UK, Scandinavia, Flanders, and the Baltic Coast. It includes essays on Roman and Mediaeval history, and some geology, which are illustrated with lots of photos of old castles and churches, Roman remains, and beautiful landscapes.

All texts (except comments by guests) and photos (if no other copyright is noted) on this blog are copyright of Gabriele Campbell.

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I'm a blogger from Germany with a MA in Literature and History which doesn't pay my bills, so I use it to research blogposts instead. I'm interested in everything Roman and Mediaeval, avid reader and sometimes writer, opera enthusiast, traveller with a liking for foreign languages and odd rocks, photographer, and tea aficionado. And an old-fashioned blogger who hasn't yet gotten an Instagram account. :-)


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