A stone wall winds through the forest for several kilometres close to Bad Dürkheim. This is the place where the oldest town of the Palatinate might have been located in Celtic times – on top of the Kastanienberg hill, more than 170 metres above the valley of the Isenach. But who lived here? And why was the settlement abandoned again so suddenly? A search for traces in the Palatinate Forest with the archaeologist Thomas Kreckel begins.  

Often it is only small hints and little fragments that bring Thomas Kreckel on his track, like the changes in colour – dark stripes in the sand. “I have been at excavations where these stripes were much more noticeable,” the archaeologist tells us. “The soil in the Palatinate Forest, especially here on the Kastanienberg, is deficient in lime; it doesn’t conserve traces really well.” Then, however, just as the setting sun was sending its last slanting rays through the trees, he was certain – this discolouration was caused by a wooden post that once stood at this exact spot as part of a wooden construction stabilising a gigantic wall, a Celtic ring wall, more than two kilometres in length and measuring more than 26 hectares – which is about the size of the neighbouring town of Wachenheim. A town was situated here 170 metres above the present-day town of Bad Dürkheim atop the Kastanienberg back in the year 500 BC.


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A search for traces in the Palatinate Forest with the archaeologist Thomas Kreckel. Music: Emit Fenn – Alone

“It must have been an impressive sight,” Thomas says. The ring wall was presumably 2.5 to four metres in height. The stones are all you can still see today – and a good many of them. Some of them are clearly noticeable as a bumpy trail through the forest, some of them are overgrown and covered by moss and trees. Who lived here, however, and why the settlement was abandoned again – has been a mystery for long. The wall is often referred to as the Heidenmauer (“heathen wall”) – “for the simple reason that all findings dating from pre-Christian times were sweepingly considered ‘heathen,’” Thomas explains. 

Even as a little boy Thomas Kreckel wanted to become an archaeologist. The search for traces back in history fascinates him.

The man from the Palatinate wears thin frame glasses, has shoulder-length hair and a full beard. Over his T-shirt he pulled on a shirt with black and white ethnic patterns and a brown waistcoat. He does not walk through the forest; he marches. Accompanied by Taranis who is constantly at his side, a border collie named after the Celtic god of weather and thunder. “Even as a boy”, Thomas wanted to become an archaeologist as he tells us. His grandfather had a keen interest in culture and history. “Unfortunately, he died young – when I was only three years old. I got to know him through his books, though.” As soon as he was able to read, he worked his way through his grandfather’s impressive library. “Gods, Graves and Scholars: A Story of Archaeology” by C.W. Ceram was one of the books that could be found there. “It was a book that captivated me. After reading it, it was clear to me what I wanted to become.” It is the search for traces, the detective work as an archaeologist, that fascinates him. “History actually is often told from the perspective of the ones in power. I am much more interested, however, in how the ordinary people lived, how they led their everyday lives.”    

Right now, he is standing at a spot with ditches and parts of a wall forming several rectangles. “This used to be a gate system, the entrance area to the town,” the archaeologist explains. The construction was solidly built, but not to such an extent that it could have withstood attacks for a long time. “The wall must rather have had representative functions. It was there to say, ‘People live here, you do not want to get into trouble with them. But they are also fellow people, you can trade with them well.’” Thomas led the excavations carried out by the Archaeological Heritage Preservation Authorities of Speyer (Archäologische Denkmalpflege Speyer) on the Kastanienberg from 2004 to 2006. In the course of the programme “Early Celtic Princely Seats” (Frühkeltische Fürstensitze) financed by the German Research Foundation (DFG), the researchers wanted to find out more about the inhabitants of the settlement. And provide answers to questions unsolved for centuries. 

History actually is often told from the perspective of the ones in power. I am much more interested, however, in how the ordinary people lived, how they led their everyday lives

Thomas Kreckel

The reason for this is simple – the existence of the wall was a known fact, but the significance of the settlement, which might even be the earliest town in the Palatinate, has been obscure for a long time. As early as in 1864, construction workers discovered a grave while working on the construction of the railway line east of Bad Dürkheim. At first, however, the construction work was carried on. “Later, only the remnants of the burial equipment could be rescued.” Even these, however, were impressive: a jug made of bronze, a golden bangle, a rod tripod that served as a rack for vessels – clearly Etruscan. An imported article from Italy, that is. An early Celtic princely grave, so whoever was buried here was clearly powerful, rich and enjoyed good trading relations. And from the small diameter of the bangle we conclude that it must be a woman’s burial site,” Thomas explains.  

A replication of the princess’s grave can be seen in the town museum of Bad-Dürkheim.

The question now is, where did this lady once live? Where was the princely seat located? “And when it comes to answering these questions, we have a problem in Bad Dürkheim that is actually nice to have. There are even two possibilities. One is the plateau on which in modern times the remains of Limburg Abbey are situated, the other one is the mysterious settlement within the ring wall.” For a long time, it was assumed that the town on the Kastanienberg was the princely seat. By now, Thomas is quite sure: “The princes lived on the site belonging to Limburg Abbey.” The reason for this is that all traces that he and his colleagues found within the ring wall point to the fact that the settlement did not exist for a long time. “The ring wall shows only few modifications, and the cultural layer exhibits a thickness of 30 centimetres maximum,” Thomas explains. If several generations would have lived here, there would have been considerably more modifications as well as several cultural layers and layers of soil on top of each other.”    

A Celtic princely seat once was where the ruins of Limburg Abbey are situated today.

Presumably, only one or two generations lived here. After that, the inhabitants abandoned the settlement, plucked out the wooden posts of the ring wall and thus brought it down. But – why? “Since the soil up here isn’t really fertile, the settlement was probably built primarily for one purpose – trading.” After all, the Celts loved Italian wine and Etruscan handcraft. “Just at this point in time, however, trading declined sharply because the Etruscans were busy fighting with the Greeks over the supremacy on the Mediterranean Sea,” Thomas reports. The settlement did not meet the expectations related with its foundation.      

Presumably the oldest town of the Palatinate – but only for a short time.

The ring wall tapers off in the south. From here to the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Höhe, it is only a few metres. Thomas climbs the steps; Taranis jumps right behind him. From the top of the vantage point, you can directly view the Limburg, the former Celtic princely seat – an impressive panorama. Thomas takes a deep breath. “Quite beautiful up here, isn’t it?” He has participated in excavations in Turkey and all over Germany. But to lead an excavation here in his home region was very special to him. The more so, since on the Kastanienberg, there is even more just waiting to be discovered. Not far away from the gate system of the early Celtic settlement, the Romans ran a quarry several centuries later, the Kriemhildenstuhl, the preservation of which the Drachenfels society takes care of. Signs and inscriptions of Roman legionaries are still discernible in the vertical walls and almost rectangular terraces. Many hiking trails invite visitors to explore this area, like the Drachenfels society’s panoramic hiking trail (Panoramarundwanderweg) or the Roman circular route (Römer-Rundwanderweg).        

The Romans probably carried the stones from the Kriemhildenstuhl over the Rhine to Mainz.

Today, Thomas works at the archive and museum of the town of Bad Dürkheim. Here, amongst other things, he guides visitors through the exhibition, which was extended and modernised in 2010. A reconstruction of the princess’s burial mound is on display here, as well as findings from the surrounding area, like the massive signal horn. A 3D-view on a screen shows the visitors what the gate system might have looked like back then. On the left and on the right side, you can see the stone wall kept in place by countless wooden posts. The way through it is roofed by a kind of wooden house on piles. The animation clearly demonstrates how impressive the settlement must once have been. Thomas is committed to make this perceivable on-site soon, too. The gate system is first to be cleared of the vegetation to visualise its dimensions and protect it from further deterioration. In a second step Thomas would like to reconstruct a section of the wall – to make the story of the Celtic town with all its mysteries visible and thus make it a tangible experience for visitors.



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