Shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1991, aerial photographers identified a so-called “German Stonehenge” southwest of Berlin. Now, reports Michael Price at Science, a new study of the site at the Pömmelte enclosure suggests it shares similarities to its famed cousin in Britain, and its builders performed many of the same rituals, though they added a new twist: human sacrifice.
The henge-like enclosures at Pömmelte consist of seven concentric rings made of ditches and banks, the largest stretching about 380 feet in diameter. Between 2005 and 2008, excavations took place, revealing post holes where wooden poles would have been placed, earning the site the nickname “Woodhenge.”
In the new study published in the journal Antiquity, researchers looked at items collected from 29 shafts also found at Woodhenge during the estimated 300 years it was in consecutive use. What they found was that the site went through several periods of use by different cultures. In the oldest layers, from around 2321 to 2211 BCE, they discovered broken pots, stone axes and animal bones, all smashed to pieces, suggesting they were placed there as part of a ritual by the Bell-Beaker Culture, who lived throughout much of Europe at the time.
They also found something unexpected during: the dismembered bodies of 1o children, juveniles and women found in positions that suggested they were tossed into the shafts. Four of the women exhibited skull and rib fractures suffered before death. Study leader André Spatzier tells Laura Geggel at LiveScience that one of the skeletons, a teenager, had their hands bound before being tossed in the pit. “It remains unclear whether these individuals were ritually killed or if their death resulted from intergroup conflict, such as raiding,” the team writes in the study.
That find stands in contrast to the discovery of the graves of 13 men found in the east side of the rings, which were buried in a dignified manner with no signs of trauma. The orientation of these bodies suggest an association with death and sunrise, the team writes in the study, which could signify the culture that buried them had ideas of reincarnation or an afterlife.
The reason behind the disconnect between the burials can’t be known for certain, but the press release writes that “the gender-specific nature of the adult victims and the ritual nature of the other deposits make [ritual sacrifice] a likely scenario.”
Geggel reports that researchers had a hard time even finding the site because it was more or less decommissioned by the people who used it. “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," Spatzier explains. “So, they closed all the features. It was still visible above ground, but only as a shovel depression.”
The ritual use of the site and its dates connect it to Stonehenge and other Neolithic circles in Britain, like the country’s own Woodhenge. It raises the possibility that building of circular henges was not limited to the British Isles, but may have spread across Europe before crossing the English Channel. “I would say it is certainly appropriate to reconsider the idea that Britain at this time was entirely a special case,” archaeologist Daniela Hofmann of the University of Hamburg tells Price.
But there are differences. Unlike the Pömmelte enclosure, there is currently no evidence that human sacrifice took place at Stonehenge, at least by its original builders, though there is one male skeleton that may show signs of ritual death. And Stonehenge was significant enough to draw people from far away to its rituals. Researchers have found that people — and food — from all over Britain and the farthest reaches of Scotland came to the site, and the remains of a man that came from the Alps, as well as trade goods from France, central Europe and even Turkey have been found at the Henge.