Mention the word “Stonehenge” and the images it conjures are stately rocks standing in a sacred circle in Wiltshire, or a solstice celebration at the break of dawn with dancing, sky gazing and the imbibing of suitable substances. Its history is stories of religious ceremonies, solemn burials and small settlement. Mention the words “German Stonehenge” and similar visions might appear, only with beer and Neolithic lederhosen. Those visions would be wrong. Dead wrong.
In their cleverly named study, “The ring sanctuary of Pömmelte, Germany: a monumental, multi-layered metaphor of the late third millennium BC,” published this week in the journal Antiquity, archaeologists André Spatzier of the State Office for Cultural Heritage Management in Baden-Württemberg, Germany, and François Bertemes from the Martin Luther University in Halle-Wittenberg, Germany, reveal the evidence they found that Pömmelte, a wooden henge southwest of Berlin discovered in 1991, was used for human sacrifices. And not the gruesomely-stylized, equal-opportunity sacrifices and burials of well-trained Aztec priests either – the remains found at Pömmelte were from women and children whose skulls and ribs were fractured before their bodies were tossed without any appearance of reverence into the pit found inside one of the rings.
Prior research shows that Pömmelte, now a part of the town Barby, was a henge made of wooden structures, ditches and banks forming seven concentric rings, with the outermost measuring 115 feet (35 meters) in diameter. Radiocarbon dating of the broken ceramic drinking vessels, stone axes, millstones and animal bones found there puts the original construction date at around 2300 BCE between the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze ages. That puts it at roughly the same age as Stonehenge but much later than Germany’s 7000-year-old Goseck Circle, a more primitive circular structure also used for astronomical observations and possibly human sacrifices.
“The victims' last moments were gruesome; it appears they were thrown or pushed into the pit, and that at least one of the teenagers had their hands bound together.”
In an interview with LiveScience, André Spatzier described the brutal deaths of the women and children and contrasts them to the ceremonial but still unusual burials of the adult men (ages 17 to 30) found within an outer circle. Those remains showed no evidence of violence and, rather than being tossed into a pit, were buried facing east, indicating a religious ritual and possibly their stature in the society. The henge itself was designed with its openings facing points halfway between the equinoxes and the solstices, possibly symbolizing important days for farmers rather than astronomers.
Being wooden, nothing remains standing at Pömmelte. In fact, it appears that the structure was intentionally destroyed somewhere around 2050 BCE – the postholes were used as shafts to store broken artifacts, an inner circle was filled with the ashes of burnt poles and dirt was used to cover the ditches. The site still had some meaning to the locals – one male skeleton found there appears to have been moved from another site and buried in 1900 BCE.
“It remains unclear whether these individuals were ritually killed or if their death resulted from intergroup conflict, such as raiding.”
Why were the women and children brutally sacrificed and their bodies dumped into shafts? More research is needed, especially since there were also strange burials found at other German henge sites. Also up for more study is the historical link between the wooden German henges and the British stone rings, which were once thought to be unique.
The more we learn about these ancient henges, the more we may learn about our modern selves. The answers aren’t always pretty.