When you think of Stonehenge what do you think of? England? Druids? Partygoers celebrating the solstice? A unique piece of ancient heritage? Chances are that you don’t think of Germany. As it turns out, however, Saxony-Anhalt has its own Early Bronze Age wooden henge—Ringheiligtum Pömmelter—and recent excavations have added more detail to its dark and distinctive history.
The reason that you might not have heard of Ringheiligtum Pömmelter is that it was only discovered in 1991. The monument, which is located near the village of Pömmelte, in the district of Salzlandkreis, was discovered when aerial photography of the region revealed the outline of the structure. Like Wiltshire’s Stonehenge, it is concentric and is made up of seven rings of raised banks, ditches, and palisades in which wooden posts were positioned. If you visit the 380-feet-wide circle today you can see the attractive reconstructed monument. The painted wooden posts erected at the site give tourists a sense of what it was like in its heyday.
Like Stonehenge the orientation of the site appears to have been determined by the summer and winter solstices. Thus, until recently, archaeologists assumed that Ringheiligtum was a ritual site that was used for religious purposes, stargazing, and the celebration of seasonal festivals. It was essentially a sacred flex space. Now excavations begun last month and reported this week by Heritage Daily, have revealed that people actually lived there. During the course of the May 2021 excavations scientists have discovered 130 dwellings (80 of which are complete), 20 ditches, and two burials. The newly discovered structures were built between 2800 BCE and 2200 BCE, with most of the houses dating to the latter period.
What makes the presence of homes especially noteworthy is the character of the religious rituals performed at Ringheiligtum. Between 2005 and 2008 excavations sponsored by the State Office for Cultural Heritage Management in Baden-Württemberg and the Martin Luther University in Halle-Wittenberg (both in Germany) probed the secrets of the site. It was these excavations that discovered the three-hundred-year period of use and the post holes for the wooden fences and poles that have since been rebuilt. Other objects—including, grinding stones, millstones, stone axes, ceramic vessels, and animal bones were found in the pits.
The researchers also uncovered more macabre finds, in particular the dismembered remains of ten children and women. Osteoarcheological analysis of the remains revealed that four of those buried there had suffered trauma to their skulls and ribs close to the time of their deaths, suggesting that they had died violently. While archaeologists uncovered more formal burials of thirteen male adults within the east side of the rings of the Ringheiligtum, the internment of the women and children was different. Their bodies were thrown indiscriminately into the pits leading some to suggest that they had been ritually sacrificed as a part of the rituals that took place there.
André Spatzier, one of the lead excavators on the study, told LiveScience that one of individuals had had their hands tied before they were thrown in the pit. In the study itself the team wrote that it remained “unclear whether these individuals were ritually killed or if their death resulted from intergroup conflict, such as raiding.” But the difference between the male and female burials were suggestive: “the gender-specific nature of the adult victims and the ritual nature of the other deposits,” said the press release, “make [ritual sacrifice] a likely scenario.” Regardless of how you read the evidence, there was a clear disjuncture between the respectful burial afforded the men who were buried there, and the more dismissive and traumatic deaths of the women and children who may have been sacrificed (or executed). What the new excavation reveal is that whatever happened at Pömmelte, however violent, took place in close proximity to people’s homes. That the ritual sacrifice of women and children may have been taking place so close to domestic space (which is traditionally conceived of as the domain of women), is thought-provoking and suggestive. It’s easy to imagine the implicit threat that the memory of these violent rituals posed to the women who lived nearby.
What remains unknown, however, is the relationship between the Ringheiligtum at Pömmelte and the Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England. If (like me) you grew up thinking that Stonehenge was special, you were wrong. Stonehenge was important and drew visitors from all across Britain, but it was far from unique. Though there are clear differences between the German and British examples the similarities are also apparent: concentric circles, monumental structures, religious rituals, and human remains buried in the system of pits and posts. The larger question of the relationship between and emergence of this symbolic sacred architecture remains unresolved. Stonehenge and the Woodenhenge at Pömmelte are not alone either. There are other circular monuments in the UK (the UK has its own Woodenhenge) and there is the 7000-year-old Goseck circle in Germany, which also has ringed ditches and wooden palisades and has a strong claim to being the oldest of the Neolithic circles.
In sum, symbolic architecture and Neolithic solar observatories aren’t particular to the British Isles and seem to have originated in mainland Europe. The existence of other henges suggests that Neolithic and Bronze Age Europe was more interconnected than previously realized. As people migrated, they took their symbolic architecture and astrological-religious thought with them to new sites. And at some of those sites people—mostly vulnerable members of the community or outsiders—met grizzly ends.
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