Sunday, April 23, 2006

Move over Heinrich Schliemann

The week belonged to the army, but usually the weekend was ours and we made the most of it. We had a fantastic road atlas, produced by Zurich Insurance. It says 'Road Atlas Europe' which means the important bits - West Germany - were covered in loving detail while the rest of Europe got a cursory few pages, mostly to show where they joined up with Germany.

The really important thing about this atlas was the key - or in the mellifluous German, the zeichenerklarung. Roads were neatly picked out according to importance (autobahn mit anschlusstelle, zweibahnige schnellstrasse, kraftfahrstrasse... down to sonstige strasse - 'other road' which usually meant 'completely impassable, often unfindable track'), mountains, forest, boundaries were all carefully detailed, and along with symbols for airports, camping places, and ski jumping hills were tiny icons that indicated: burg, schloss, festung (castle, palace, fort) Romisches kastell (Roman castle), and Romischer wachturm (Roman watch tower).

Most free days we would haul out the atlas and pick a likely looking symbol to track down. The fun of it was we never knew what we would actually see when we got there - the atlas didn't indicate much. A hollow icon was supposed to mean 'ruin,' but that could be anything from a fairly substantial place with standing walls and discernible motte to an overgrown lump that might possibly be the remains of a tower or could be an old shed someone hadn't bothered to clear up. Even the buildings that weren't ruins were a mystery. We found one fantastic schloss from about 1650 that had been turned into a government building: huge thick stone walls outside, linoleum and flickering strip lighting inside. But it was not knowing what we would find, and the fun of tracking the things down using only a general atlas that we liked.

On one trip we had managed to locate three ruined forts in a fairly short time. They weren't very big or impressive - just a set of half-decayed towers on top of hills. It had taken less time than usual to find them because none of them were in a town, and we still had a few hours before dark. Kirk suggested we find the last one and then track down an imbiss stand for dinner, but there wasn't another festung marked on the atlas. Nonsense, he insisted, there must be. These three were clearly part of a frontier, and there was one other hill that would have logically been included - but nothing was marked on the map. With nothing better to do, we drove out and found the last hill. We parked the car and the foot and hiked up through the undergrowth. Sure enough at the top was a suspicious mound, and with a bit of careful digging we found what seemed to be a stone wall.

Excellent. We had found an unknown, very small and insignificant fort. Obviously we needed to inform the local authorities. We tracked him down too, and the man listened quite patiently to the over-excited Americans who burst into his office. He looked through his records and confirmed that no, no one knew about anything of interest on top of that hill. He would make a note of it, and thank you for not digging around and treasure hunting. We assured him we would do no such thing and, quite proud of ourselves, left the poor man to his thankless task of logging in yet another piece of archaeological trivia.

No comments: