Discovered in 1991, the Neolithic circle at Pömmelte in Germany was once a mighty structure known as a henge — a circular monument dating back to the Stone Age and, in this particular case, made out of wood pillars, just like the famous Woodhenge in the U.K.
Destroyed long ago in what seems to be an intentional, ritualistic act, this prehistoric monument now consists of a series of mounds and ditches, aligned in seven concentric rings and which still bear the marks of ancient wooden posts that stood inside the rings when the henge was first created.
While we’ve known about the Pömmelte henge for quite some time — it was first spotted shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, notes Smithsonian Magazine — archaeologists have only recently begun to excavate the area and study the Neolithic site in depth.
Found by aerial photographers near the German town of Pömmelte, located some 85 miles (136 kilometers) southwest of Berlin, the Pömmelte henge was never inhabited but served as a gathering place for communities of different cultures, reveals a new study published in the journal Antiquity.
Based on excavations conducted at the Pömmelte site between 2005 and 2008, the new research argues that the Neolithic monument, also known as the “German Stonehenge,” was used by different cultures over a period of three centuries, from about 2300 B.C. until 2050 B.C., for community events and rituals.
Within the seven-ring structure, the largest of which is about 115 meters (or nearly 380 feet) wide, the archaeologists found various layers of pits and ditches that still captured the evidence of bustling human activity.
For instance, the team found broken pieces of ceramic pots and cups, stone axes, and animal bones, which had all been smashed into pieces and buried inside the pits, suggesting a ritualistic practice.
Similar artifacts were found inside the now empty post holes, and one of the concentric pits was discovered filled with ash. According to Live Science, the ash was dated to the same period as the broken artifacts and likely comes from the missing wooden posts, which seem to have been burnt in some sort of ceremonial decommissioning.
Study co-author André Spatzier, who led the digging expedition at the Pömmelte site, told the media outlet that “German Stonehenge” probably met with a ritualistic end.
“It looks like at the end of the main occupation, around [2050 BCE], they extracted the posts, put offerings into the postholes and probably burned all the wood and back-shoveled it into the ditch. So, they closed all the features. It was still visible above ground, but only as a shovel depression.”
Spatzier, who is an archaeologist at the State Office for Cultural Heritage Management in Baden-Württemberg, Germany, is convinced that the 4,300-year-old Pömmelte henge was a ceremonial sanctuary and served for a plethora of rituals.
Just like the famous Stonehenge, the German Neolithic monument is arranged in a way that marks the solstice and equinox. Its four entrances were aligned with important dates for planting and harvesting that occurred halfway between the solstices and equinoxes, reports News.com.au. Additionally, both monuments date back to the same period, which marked the transition between the Neolithic Stone Age to the early Bronze Age.
“The henge monuments of the British Isles are generally considered to represent a uniquely British phenomenon, unrelated to Continental Europe; this position should now be reconsidered,” Spatzier and colleague François Bertemes, from the Martin Luther University in Halle-Wittenberg, Germany, wrote in their study.
Possible Human Sacrifices
But the excavations at the ancient Neolithic site yielded more than just broken pots and animal bones. Inside the pits at Pömmelte henge, the archaeologists found evidence of what seems to be human sacrifice.
Buried together with more artifacts that looked to be ceremonially broken to pieces, the team unearthed the remains of 10 sacrificial victims — all women, teenagers, and children, who appear to have met a gruesome end.
Science Magazine reports that the bodies were found dismembered and looked like they had been pushed into the pits. In addition, the remains of four of the women had signs of severe skull trauma and rib fractures, which scientists established occurred near the time of the victims’ deaths.
These disembodied bones were not the only ones to be entombed at Pömmelte henge over the years, but they’re the first ones to have been discovered buried in a manner that hints at a violent death.
“It remains unclear whether these individuals were ritually killed or if their death resulted from intergroup conflict, such as raiding,” the study authors wrote in their paper.
But most of the clues point to a possible sacrificial killing, especially since at least one of the teenagers seems to have been shoved in the pit with their hands bound together.
“The gender-specific nature of the adult victims and the ritual nature of the other deposits make [ritual sacrifice] a likely scenario,” states Smithsonian Magazine, citing a news release on the grizzly discovery.
Another reason why the archaeologists suspect that these women and children were sacrificed in a macabre ritual is the finding of another set of bodies, this time all male and interred with proper ceremony and dignity.
These people, 13 in number, seem to have been privileged men and were buried in the east side of the Pömmelte rings. Their bodies showed no signs of trauma and were laid to rest facing east, which could reflect “the association of death and sunrise, symbolizing belief in reincarnation or an afterlife,” the two archeologists wrote in their study.