The German archaeomagnetic data set was supplemented with 35 new directions from German sites mainly dating from the past 3000 yr. Together with archaeomagnetic data from the neighbouring countries of Germany a database of 166 reliable archaeomagnetic directions has been compiled for the reference area, which is defined by a 500-km-radius circle around Göttingen. The retrieved directions come from well-dated archaeological structures and about 40 per cent of the dating relay on natural science methods such as radiocarbon, thermoluminescence, dendrochronology dating or historical documents. From this data set a secular variation (SV) reference curve has been calculated using a bivariate algorithm, which fits a natural cubic spline based on roughness penalty to declination, inclination and time, simultaneously. The error tube surrounding this curve was obtained from Bayesian modelling of the experimental errors, which can also take stratigraphic information into account. The obtained SV reference curve for the past 2500 yr is similar to that from France, but also significant differences are seen. Comparison of the curves does not show a simple westward drift of the SV pattern. The German reference curve allows archaeomagnetic dating in the reference area and extends this dating technique to sites situated in middle Europe.