Information: It’s a beautiful autumn day in Schöningen in Lower Saxony: the wind blows gently through the dense reeds on the banks of a lake, next to which a herd of around twenty horses is grazing with their foals. Suddenly, one of the animals raises its head and sniffs the air attentively: what was that? Just a moment later, loud cries erupt from the thicket. Spears fly through the air. The horses are trapped. Hunters attack from the front, the impassable lake lies behind them. The next spears soon find their target...
Sensational discovery in an open pit mine
Admittedly, Lower Saxony and Schöningen didn’t exist when this hunting scene took place. But otherwise it could have been just like that, in a steppe landscape next to a lake 300,000 years ago in the Stone Age. The horses back then naturally weren’t domesticated like they are today, but were rather wild horses with the scientific name Equus mosbachensis. And the hunters were Stone Age people known as Homo heidelbergensis. But the dramatic events in the Palaeolithic have left traces that remain in the 21st century.
Let’s take a leap in time to the same place, 300,000 years later: Schöningen, 1994. Archaeologist Hartmut Thieme is standing at the edge of a large lignite open pit mine. As an employee of the Lower Saxony State Office for Heritage, part of his job is to look for prehistoric finds in the layers of earth dug up by bucket excavators in the lignite fields near Helmstedt. He has conducted his excavation on precisely the spot where the prehistoric hunters had their campsite in the Stone Age. He comes upon eight completely preserved wooden speers – the oldest known weapons in human history, a scientific sensation! Over the course of further excavations, the researchers found the remains of stone tools and 12,000 animal bones, mostly from wild horses. Their condition suggests that the animals were hunted and dismembered here. The knowledge gleaned from this lets us look at early human history with very different eyes today.
The Stone Age in the museum of the future
We take a further leap in time, but this time only by twenty years: the paläon opens on 24th June 2013. Its full name, paläon – Research and Experience Centre Schöningen Spears, already reveals that the centre places great importance on conveying knowledge relating to the sensational Stone Age find in an interactive manner. And the innovative exhibition concept means that acquiring knowledge can definitely be fun as well!
The witnesses of the Stone Age are presented in a truly futuristic-looking building, which reflects the Lower Saxon sky and the surrounding landscape. It almost appears to be a Fata Morgana that makes it possible to look back in time.
A herd of wild horses lives in an extensive park area in front of the paläon. The landscape is a replica of the Palaeolithic. The vegetation is based on what was typical in the Stone Age. Different types of landscape, such as steppes and forests, make you feel like you have journeyed back in time.
The Schöningen spears naturally take centre stage in the museum area of the Research and Experience Centre. The wood, which had weakened over the millennia, has been stabilised thanks to a laborious process using a special artificial resin. It really gives you goose bumps: here in a display cabinet, you can now view the weapons that Stone Age people hurled at their prey on this precise spot. The paläon has even more to offer besides these spectacular finds, including various hands-on and experience stations that are part of the innovative exhibition concept and let you become a prehistoric researcher yourself. One great place to do this is the interactive visitor lab, where you can look through a microscope at the earliest evidence of collective human intelligence. Or you can witness the prehistoric hunting scene that is presented down to the details in the exhibition. However, you can also take a look back at climate history and put yourself directly in the period between two ice ages. Experience how early man had to adapt to the changing environmental conditions. And all of the exhibits are up-to-date and presented at the highest level of museum education.
Science live – for everyone
In the transparent laboratory, you can even watch ‘real’ scientists conducting their research work. After all, the paläon isn’t just an experience centre, but also a research centre with an international reputation. Archaeologists from around the world make the most of the opportunity to gain insights into the Stone Age. New finds constantly come to light during this process. For instance, the remains of a forest elephant were recently recovered – a further global sensation as the bones provide evidence that early man stopped at nothing, even when faced with this physically far superior giant.
Special exhibitions let you discover further aspects of the Stone Age world: at the centre, you will currently encounter the terrifying saber-toothed cats, by far the most powerful opponent that prehistoric man had to face. This exhibition lets you experience what it means to come eye to eye with an approximately 200-kilo cat with huge teeth, up close and in person.
Or you can attend special events, where you’ll be amazed by expeditions through the array of Stone Age species in the park, public lectures or hands-on tours for families, which are held every weekend and in the school holidays. If you still have enough energy afterwards, simply hire one of the electric bikes and explore the larger surrounding area between the open pit mine and excavation sites.
Learning outside of school
History lessons are often considered quite boring. This couldn’t be farther from the case at the paläon, which was intentionally designed as an off-campus learning centre. Here, children of all ages have the opportunity to experience human history. School classes can take part in subject-based as well as interdisciplinary learning opportunities and experience events for all types of education while familiarising themselves with a wide range of topics. These range from the development of humans to forward-looking issues such climate change. Specially trained museum teachers are also on hand to assist them.
There are also events providing further training for teachers, programmes for nursery schools, and holiday and experimental workshops on topics such as ‘How do archaeologists actually do their work?’ or ‘Survival training: carving spears and hunting as in the Palaeolithic’.