A series of huge columns jutting out of the earth and soaring into the sky: the Externsteine rock formation is undoubtedly one of the most impressive natural monuments in the Teutoburg Forest region. Millions of years ago, these originally horizontal layers of rock were shifted into a vertical position and presumably owe their current extraordinary form to the action of water over millions of years and the friction of ice during the Ice Age. An impressive display of the geological forces that have shaped our world. The stones appear other-worldly to some of the 500,000 or so people who visit the attraction each year, and some even say that they have magical powers...
Closer examination of the five sandstone columns reveals that they had fascinated our very early ancestors in a similar fashion. They are marked not just by water erosion, but also by the hands of men. The people who lived in this area in the Middle Ages appear to have established a place of Christian worship here, with a grotto, a grave and a relief showing biblical scenes all visible today. The relief depicting Christ’s descent from the cross is regarded as a work of art of European importance. In the 19th century, some rather more secular features were chiselled in to the rock: a stairway leading up to a viewing platform.
The Externsteine: What legends are made of
It is no surprise that these rocks have inspired countless folk legends. Even today, there are some aspects of the gigantic sandstone pillars which are not fully understood. The origin of their name, for starters. The medieval “Elsternsteine” (magpie rocks) is probably a corruption of an earlier name. In any case, everything we do know about the stones can be discovered at the information centre, which is the recommended first port of call for visitors to this extraordinary attraction. The exhibition is divided into ten sections, which provide an overview of the archaeological, cultural and natural history of the Externsteine. There is also an interactive section with videos and animations of the rocks and their natural environment.
Today, the area around the Externsteine is protected by law. This decision was not just based on the stones themselves, but also with a view to protecting the surrounding habitats. These include dry mountain heaths, alder, ash and softwood forests, and moors. The conservation area was also set up to protect fauna like the hermit beetle, which is threatened with extinction, and the rare stag beetle. Nearby, the small lakes of the Wiembeck valley provide exceptionally pretty vistas, especially the main body of water, which produces beautiful reflections of the jagged Externsteine cliffs.