Pagans In Tirol: Goldbichl

>Thanks to a recent post by a fellow local blogger, I was diverted from my studies by a desire to see a nearby ancient sacrificial burning site, just minutes up the road from town.

Sacrificial burning was, in the Bronze and Iron Ages and into antiquity, a fairly common pratice. The ancient Hebrews did it, and the Greeks, and so did the people of Tirol. Just as the funeral pyre allowed the deceased to leave his or her earthly shell and head off for the great beyond, the ritual sacrifice operated on the same premise; that the sacrificed animal — or object — would lose its material composition and rise as smoke for the gods to receive.
The oldest ritual sacrificial burnings found on the Goldbichl (Bichl is an old alpine word for hill) date back to 2000-1500 B.C. The first altars were clay/mud platforms ringed by stone blocks. Later, a high stone altar was built over the platforms. As clay was necessary to ritual cleansing of the fires, more was applied each time. In this way, the altar grew in height over time.
In the photo above, the level at which the metal signs are found is the natural height of the hill. The mound beyond it is the altar site.

At some point the site fell out of use — possibly its people moved on or were forced away. After a few centuries of disuse, the Raeti crossed the Brenner Pass and settled in. They revived the ritual fires on the Goldbichl, and did some work on the place — they added ramparts, and rose the altar site to a 7-meter-high pyramid. To this height they added a 40-meter-long ramp up the side, which was used as a processional path to the top and led directly to the altar. The ramp lines up exactly with the point at which the sun rises on the summer solstice. Cool, no? I imagine a dawn procession, where the sun rose right up over the fire. Very theatrical.

Archaeologists discovered one Bronze-Age grave within the walls of the site. It contained the burnt remains of a young woman, along with broken pot shards and an intentionally smashed stone loom weight. Beyond its use in looms, which was to keep the vertical threads taut, the loom weight had symbolic value. In Greek mythology, spinning and weaving were analogous to the unfolding of destiny. Zeus’ daughter spun the thread of each human’s life. With this in mind, it is possible to imagine that the woman here was perhaps a priestess.

This is a rock which was covered with molten slag. The fire on the Goldbichl reached 1200°C (over 2000°F) which melted nearby rocks. It really must have been quite a show.

The site was destroyed around the time when the Romans pulled in. Drusus and Tiberius, stepsons of Caesar Augustus, led their legions through here on their way to the upper Danube in 15 B.C. It seems that the Raeti, like their Celtic neighbors just to the north, lived on as a subjects, and sent men to fight as soldiers in the Roman army. What happened to them after that, I don’t know. They mingled with everyone else in the Dark Ages and came out as Swiss, and probably there’s some Raeti in modern day Tiroleans as well.
Just up the road toward Patsch we lunched at the oh-so-nice Hotel Grünwalderhof, which has a pretty impressive view. I’m pretty sure we’re looking at the Stubaier Glacier, right above the sails.

More information about the Goldbichl, as well as archaeological finds on display, can be found at the tourist office in Igls.

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