Hochdorf Princely Seat

Iron Age Home and Grave of a Celtic Chieftain

Greek Cauldron from the Celtic Chieftain Grave at Hochdorf
Greek Cauldron from the Celtic Chieftain Grave at Hochdorf, on display at Kunst der Kelten, Historisches Museum Bern. Xuan Che

Hochdorf is the name of the grave and rural residence of an Iron Age (Late Hallstatt period to early La Tène, ca 530–400 BCE) princely chieftain, whose seat of power (or fürstensitz) was at nearby Hohen Asperg. The three sites (grave, rural residence, and fürstensitz) are all located within about 15 kilometers (10 miles) of Stuttgart, on a small tributary stream to the middle ranges of the Neckar River of southwestern Germany.

Hochdorf Princely Residence

Early Celtic and Iron Age princely seats are found in several places in Germany north of the Alps, and they are typically considered evidence of the centralization of power during the early European Iron Age. The sites are rich fortified settlements, located on hilltops and with large and rich burial mounds in their vicinity, with imported goods, especially ceramics from the Mediterranean.

The Hochdorf residence (called locally "Gewann Reps" or "Hochdorf Reps") included an area of at least three hectares (seven acres). Researchers found traces of very large houses (up to 140 sqm or 1,500 sq ft), subterranean huts between 2–8 m (6.5–26 ft) long, storage pits and granaries, all surrounded by a (non-defensive) rectangular fence. The main residence was a large bow-sided house. Wheel-turned local pottery dominated the ceramic assemblage, although six Attic (Greek) sherds, dated to ~425 BCE, were identified.

A balance with a scale to tare, cast in bronze and 11.5 cm (4.5 in) long was probably used for weighing coins. Plant materials recovered from the site's numerous storage pits include barley, spelt wheat ( Triticum spelta), and millet (Panicum milliaceum).

Princely Grave at Hochdorf

The so-called wagon grave at Hochdorf is one of about 100 such graves known from the second half of the sixth century BCE in France, Switzerland and Germany. The grave is an enormous barrow mound, which was about 6 m (20 ft) high and 60 m (200 ft) in diameter when it was constructed. The entrance to the mound was to the north, and the mound was surrounded by a stone ring and oak posts.

Within the barrow was a central grave chamber, a rectangle about 4.7 m square and made of looped oak beams. Within the chamber was a man's skeleton lying on a platform. At his feet was a large bronze cauldron, filled with honey mead. On the opposite of the chamber was a wagon, with service for nine guests; along the walls were nine drinking horns made from the horn of an auroch. Opposite the man was a large four-wheeled wagon with harnesses for two horses; within the wagon was a drinking service and a dinner set of three serving bowls, nine bronze dishes and plates. The chamber was decorated with wall hangings, and carpets.

Two inner chambers surrounded the inner chamber. The second chamber measured 7.4 m square; the final external chamber 11 m square. Between the two chambers and atop the roof was a layer of 50 tons of stones: this multilayered zone is likely what protected the inner burial chamber from being looted in the past.

The Prince at Hochdorf

The man in the grave was about 40 years old and unusually tall for the Iron Ages, 1.85 m (just over 6 ft). He wore a flat cone-shaped hat made of birch bark adorned with circle patterns and punched decorations; his body was wrapped in colored cloth. He had a golden necklace and shoes. Near him was a toilet-kit holding a comb and a razor; a small iron knife, a quiver of arrows, and a small bag containing three fishing hooks were not weapons but rather hunting artifacts.

Eight of the drinking horns suspended from the southern chamber wall were made of auroch horn; the ninth is made of iron with inlaid strips of gold; each horn would have held up to five liters of beverage. These objects do not match other Hallstatt culture horns and were either imported from Eastern Europe or locally made using Eastern Europe artifacts as models.

The large bronze cauldron, probably made in Greece, was decorated with three lions on the rim and three handles with roll attachments. The cauldron could have held between 400–500 liters of local honey mead, dregs of which were found within it. A small golden cup was placed on the top of the cauldron. The bronze bench on which the occupant lies measures 2.75 m in length and is supported by eight female figurines cast in bronze and standing on wheels, so the bench could be rolled.

Beer Production

Hochdorf also contains evidence of what is clearly the organized mass production of barley beer. Features at Hochdorf associated with beer-making include six carefully constructed ditches (Feuerschlitze), each 5–6 m (16-30 ft) long, 60 cm (24 in) wide and up to 1.1 m (3.6 ft) deep. The ditches were straight with a U-shaped profile, straight walls, and floors; they were probably lined with boards. Botanical remains found within these ditches included almost only grains of some kind; two of the ditches included thousands of sprouted multi-row barley grains. These ditches are believed to have been used for drying the green malt and/or germinating the grains, and possibly as a kiln although a furnace has not been identified associated with the ditches.

Whether made in small quantities or large, barley beer must be consumed within a couple of days before it goes bad. A large party is documented at Hochdorf, in association with the burial of their chieftain, and it is tempting to connect the beer-making equipment at the rural residence with the large feasting ritual in evidence at the grave site.