Archaeological investigations have revealed the existence of Germanic and Slavic settlements in the Elbe valley on the Weinberg near Hitzacker and around the Höhbeck at Meetschow, Pevestorf, Restorf and Vietze. On the eastern bank, in Amt Neuhaus, traces have been found near Zeetze, Haar, Tripkau and Stixe.
These early habitations date from the Neolithic and Bronze ages over 3,000 years ago.
The various ancient settlements in the Elbe valley include fortifications, castles and defensive walls in varying degrees of preservation. The 7th century Slavic fort on the Weinberg near Hitzacker went into disuse around 1500 and has completely disappeared; the walls visible today have been reconstructed.
Some traces remain of fortifications called the Vietzer Schanze and the ‘Schwedenschanze’ – the ‘Swedish Redoubt’ – on the Höhbeck. The Vietzer Schanze was constructed around the year 800 and is attributed to Charlemagne.
Records show that there were castles in the 13th and 14th centuries near Kaarßen, Zeetze and Wehningen, but nothing is left of them, whereas the earthen wall of the moated castle at Neuhaus, which was built in 1355, is still in existence.
To this day, many settlement structures of the past have been preserved. One notable type is that of the Marschhufen-villages (see section on ‘Land Use in the Past’). In keeping with the typical form of the long, narrow plots of land known as the Marschhufen, the homesteads are strung out in a line, one per plot. The villages of Radegast and Brackede in the Lüneburger Elbmarsch are very good examples of this kind of settlement, as are Kapern and Holtorf in the Gartower Elbmarsch.
Also typical of the region are the so-called ‘Rundlingsdörfer’. The houses of these villages are arranged in a horseshoe-shape around a central area with their gable ends facing inwards. They are to be found in what is known as the Wendland, an area settled by a Slavic people called the Wenden in the 12th century. Several variations on this basic village form are to be found in the biosphere reserve.
Some villages such as Penkefitz, Wussegel, Grabau and Nienwedel in the Dannenberger Elbmarsch were built on natural hillocks. The houses were often situated in keeping with the local conditions, and some are reminiscent of Rundlingsdörfer. In contrast, the houses in the village of Neu Bleckede were built on artificially raised, individual mounds on the valley floor.
Many of the original buildings were built as Low German ‘Fachhallenhäuser’, regionally typical timber-framed farmhouses, which combine living quarters, byre and barn under one roof. These impressive homesteads were built in two, three or four sections called bays (‘Ständer’), some of which date from the 17th century.
The earthen wall of the moated castle at Neuhaus, which was built in 1355, is still in existence.