A reconstruction of Germany's Pömmelte. 

Mattis Kaminer/Alamy Stock Photo

Rituals performed at this German ‘Stonehenge’ may link mysterious monument to its U.K. counterpart

The monumental rings of Stonehenge and similar sites were long thought unique to the British Isles, where Bronze Age priests and worshippers marked astronomical events, celebrated the passing of seasons, and buried their elites. Now, a new study suggests they weren’t alone: 4300 years ago, people in what is now northeastern Germany performed similar rituals at Pömmelte, a sanctuary ringed in earth mounds, ditches, and wooden posts. And given the site’s age—it was built around the same time as Stonehenge—some researchers say it could tie the British Isles’s famous monuments to similar, smaller sites scattered across mainland Europe.

Since the 1980s, archaeologists have been aware of ancient circular ceremonial monuments in mainland northern Europe—some even older than Stonehenge—says archaeologist and Stonehenge expert Timothy Darvill of Bournemouth University in the United Kingdom, who wasn’t involved in the study. But they were less grand in scale, and it was unclear whether they were related to the British Isles' henges. Now, it looks like they probably were, Darvill notes. “Pömmelte suggests that, yes, they are at the head of a long-lived tradition.”

Pömmelte was discovered by aerial photographers southwest of Berlin in 1991. The site consists of a series of seven concentric rings—the largest of which is about 115 meters in diameter—of ditches and raised banks. From 2005 to 2008, excavations led by archaeologists André Spatzier of the State Office for Cultural Heritage Management in Baden-Württemberg, Germany, and François Bertemes at Martin Luther University in Halle-Wittenberg, Germany, uncovered pits and post holes where wooden fences or poles once stood in some of the rings, giving the site its nickname, Woodhenge.

In the new study, the pair of researchers analyzed items deposited into these pits during Pömmelte’s roughly 300 consecutive years of use, which happened at the transition between the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze ages. During the earliest phase, radiocarbon-dated to around 2300 B.C.E., the pits were filled with broken bits of ceramic drinking vessels, stone axs, millstones, and butchered animal bones. Their uniform sizes suggest they were ritually destroyed before being thrown in the pits.

There were grislier finds from the period, as well: the dismembered bodies of 10 children and women, four of whom sustained severe skull trauma and rib fractures near the time of their deaths. Compared to the carefully arranged burials of several men in one of Pömmelte’s earthen rings, the women and children were cast haphazardly into the pits. The reason for their death remains a mystery, though ritual sacrifice is one possible explanation, researchers say. The remainder of the items, buried in a similar fashion between 2200 B.C.E. and 2000 B.C.E., included more millstones, grinding stones, and animal bones, along with a handful of disembodied human bones. That points to a long, multigenerational usage of the shrine.

There’s no evidence anyone lived at Pömmelte. Like Stonehenge, it was likely a place of ritual, used to commemorate religious events, seasonal harvests, and important deaths, the researchers report in Antiquity. And because of the sites’ similarities, Pömmelte might serve as a critical link between the British henges and hundreds of older circular monuments found across continental central Europe, such as Germany’s 7000-year-old Goseck circle, which also had ringed ditches and wooden palisades. That suggests this type of symbolic architecture may have spread as human populations scattered throughout Europe during the Neolithic and Bronze Ages. That would be a blow to the notion that henges were a uniquely British invention and a sign that early Europeans were even more culturally connected than previously thought.

Daniela Hofmann, an archaeologist at the University of Hamburg in Germany who studies Neolithic architecture, agrees. “I would say it is certainly appropriate to reconsider the idea that Britain at this time was entirely a special case.”