Only the outpost of a fortress

The Plytenberg at Leer - a puzzling monument

The most mysterious monument of human origin in East-Frisia (Germany) is the Plytenberg, an arteficial hill at the western outskirts of Leer. It is about nine metres high and has a diameter of approximately 62 meters. Situated at the border of the extremly flat marsh land along the river Ems, it once was a striking formation. Today it's integrated in the developed areas of the town and has lost a lot of its fascination. However, it's unique and still puzzling. Nobody knows its origin and its original function.

Was it a monument of paganism, the grave of ancient soldiers, the burial mound of a viking chief, an observation place, a dancing place for witches or simply a heap of building material, originally needed for the dike which protects the land from the river's high tide? Many suggestions had been made throughout the centuries, some were meant seriously others seemed to be jokes or just trivial.

The Plytenberg was first mentioned in a book called "Cronica der Fresen" which Eggerik Beninga wrote about 1550. It was the first Frisian history ever written. Therein Beninga described how in 1514 the enemies of the East-Frisian count Edzard the Great were marching up at the "plitenberch" to conquer the nearby fortress of Leerort. The conquest failed: The leader of the hostile troops, a coalition of several counties, was killed by the first canon shot fired from the fortress.

Beninga didn't write anything about the Plytenberg. He either knew its original function or didn't care about it. However, a generation later at the end of the century, when Ubbo Emmius wrote his important "Rerum Frisicarum historia", the Frisian history in Latin language, nobody knew anything about the hill. It had become a mystery. Emmius suspected it was a pre-christian worship place devoted to the ancient Roman god Pluto. Emmius was also a famous cartographer, but on his excellent map of 1595 the Plytenberg was not shown.

In the early 18th century, when people began to get interested in local history, curious people, mostly priests, focused their interests also on the Plytenberg. The book with the longest lasting influence was issued in 1723 by a Dutch priest, Jakobus Isebrandus Harkenroht. It came up with three suggestions: The Plytenberg could be a burial mound for soldiers, a pre-christian worship-place or a courtyard. His suggestions and all the following were speculations. Harkenroht and the others didn't had no other proof but the pure existance of the hill.

It's not worth to discuss all the suggestions which were made during the last 270 years. Most of them based on Harkenroht's three suggestions. Many creativity was also shown by explaining the meaning of the name Plytenberg. The name consists of two elements: one is "berg" which simply means "hill". But the word "plyten", sometimes also written "pliten", gives room for interpretations. Today we suppose that it is a Saxon word with the meaning "flat" because the top of the hill once was flattend to carry a platform.

Two hundred years after Harkenroht another scholar, Peter Zylmann, got interested in the Plytenberg. Zylmann was founder of the local museum at Leer and the most important prehistorian of East-Frisa in his time. It was his idea that under the Plytenberg might be hidden a viking ship. This became the most known presumption and many people still take it for a fact. You can also find it in several books about Leer.

Like Harkenroht Zylmann didn't had a proof. It is obvious from his publications that his fantasy was influenced by the viking ship which was excavated at Oseberg in Norway a couple of years earlier. During the following years Zylmann tried to collect money to pay an excavation at the Plytenberg. But he wasn't successful. When he left Leer in the 1930s he gave up the plans for many years.

A very important year in the history of the Plytenberg was 1951. Zylmann at last had successfully convinced an archaeologist, Werner Haarnagel, to bring down some drillings at the hill. These were the first examinations with scientifical methods. The results showed that the hill covered a second, smaller hill which was not exactly in the center. Both parts were built with different materials. More important, especially for the public, was that the driller went trough a wooden plank, possibly a part of a ship. Zylmann's theory seemed to be confirmed. But this wasn't really a proof because neither the hill nor the peace of wood could be dated.

40 years passed until another attempt was undertaken to find the explanation for this puzzling monument. In 1991 a study group was established by the archaeologist Rolf Bärenfänger. It first collected and studied the existing literature about the Plytenberg. Very soon it became clear that other sources had to be made accessible. An excavation was impossible, because the hill was a protected monument. Some more drillings on the hill and in its surroundings were carried out to supply the older ones.

In details the results were suprising, but in general they confirmed the results from 1951, results which had not been analysed properly. The hill was in a state which made it impossible that it's much older than 500 years. This result coincides with the ethymological research: "plyten" is a word from the Saxon language which wasn't used in East-Frisia before the early 15th century. So there was only a little periode left - between 1400 and 1514 - in which the hill could have been built. Therefore many of the older suggestions could be excluded, others could be explained as secondary use.

The study group arrived a the hypothesis that the Plytenberg has to be seen in relation to the fortress of Leerort which was founded in 1435. The fortress lay at the confluence of the rivers Ems and Leda from which certain parts of the Ems which leads to the North Sea could not be seen. The main function of the Plytenberg was to serve as an outpost and observatory, at least in the first few years. Later when the fortress was enlarged and had own observatory towers the Plytenberg became useless.

All about the Plytenberg you can find in a book written by members of the study group:
Dr. Rolf Bärenfänger/Norbert Fiks (editors):
Der Plytenberg in Leer. Ein rätselhaftes Denkmal
Verlag Schuster Leer, 104 p., ISBN 3-7963-0316-1

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