Scientists think an ancient astronomical observatory in Pömmelte, Germany will overshadow England’s famous Stonehenge in terms of archaeological data and the number of human burials. Over 4,000 years old, an Early Bronze Age German settlement near the town of Pömmelte is known to be vastly more expansive than contemporary structures like Stonehenge in the British Isles.
Just to give you an idea, from the time when excavations started up again in May this year until now, a team of archaeologists from Germany’s state office for Monument Conservation and Archaeology and the University of Halle have already unearthed a total of 130 dwellings, 20 ditches, and two more human burials at the site. Excavations will continue until October 2021, with hopes of gaining more insight on the relationship between the ritual and residential spaces.
The ring sanctuary at Pömmelte excavation. ( georgfotoart / Adobe stock)
A Vast Agri-Ritualistic Centre
Pömmelte is a village and a former municipality in the Salzlandkreis district of Saxony-Anhalt in Germany, which was first settled by Sorbian settlers and is first documented in 1292 AD. During the Bronze Age , around the late third millennium BC, an enormous wooden astronomical observatory that functioned similarly to England’s Stonehenge had become a ritualistic center within a thriving agricultural environment, and radiocarbon dating determines it was used by the Unetice culture between 2300 and 1600 BC.
In 2018, Science Mag published a research article by archaeologist and Stonehenge expert Timothy Darvill of Bournemouth University in the United Kingdom, who claimed rituals performed at this “German Stonehenge” may link the mysterious monument with its UK counterpart.
A full shot of the German Stonehenge at night in Pömmelte. ( Uwe Graf / Adobe stock)
Dr. Franziska Knoll, an archaeologist at the Institute for Art History and Archaeology of Europe at the University of Halle, explained to German daily newspaper Deutsche Welle that excavations have covered an area of around “29,000 square meters (34,684 square yards).” Knoll added that “thirty-seven ancient longhouses” had already been found in the area by 2020 and the team of archaeologists are sure the next dig would identify more longhouses “in the jumble” of the ancient observatory’s wooden pillars.
Investigating Satellite Astronomical Sites
Another of the excavation goals has been to reveal unknown truths about the social and religious environment of the Early Bronze Age “ Unetice culture ,” whose priestly astronomers designed, created, and used the famous astronomical Nebra Sky Disk depicting gold representations of the Sun, Moon, and stars.
The Nebra Sky Disk. (Dbachmann, Theway / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
And to broaden their cultural understanding of the Pömmelte sanctuary, archaeologists have also planned to investigate an ancient circular moat located about a kilometer (0.6 mi) away from the ring shrine, and a 6,000-year-old grave complex from the so-called Baalberge culture south of Pömmelte near the town of Schonebeck.
The Pömmelte settlement was built at the end of the Neolithic Age and enhanced up to the Early Bronze Age, and it was occupied by different cultural groups for more than 300 years. The oldest longhouse foundations are associated with the Bell Beaker culture (ca. 2500-2050 B.C.) who emerged at the end of the Neolithic Age and Dr. Knoll says these longhouses and the ceramics discovered inside them show how the Unetice culture developed from the Bell Beaker culture.
Excavating an Army of Dead Astronomer Priests and Some Gruesome Graves
British researchers are helping their German counterparts by contributing decades of accumulated experience in interdisciplinary landscape archaeology, and already it has been noted that the astronomical observatories at both Stonehenge in England and Pömmelte in Germany were “built near rivers.” This, according to Dr. Knoll, highlights the importance of waterways in prehistoric times, which were social arteries used to transport foods, tools, animals, and people through the ancient geographies.
During the 20th century, archaeologists in England discovered 60 cremation burials at Stonehenge, and according to an entry on Ancient History Encyclopedia , it is estimated that somewhere in the region of two hundred more remain unexcavated around the famous stone monument. The latest cremations radiocarbon dated to c. 2300 BC, which reveal the practice of cremation was still practiced at Stonehenge long after the first bluestones and sarsens had been erected at the stone circle.
Burial found near the Pömmelte site. ( Landesamt für Denkmalpflege und Archäologie Sachsen-Anhalt / Matthias Zirm)
Pömmelte also dates to c. 2300 BC, however, contrasting greatly with Stonehenge, large areas of Pömmelte are already uncovered, which Dr. Knoll says allows for “completely different archaeological insights.” And furthermore, according to the archaeologist, while many graves have been discovered near and around Stonehenge, they will be overshadowed by the quantity of those expected to be excavated in Pömmelte.
Finally, another difference between the sites is the evidence of more gruesome deaths at Pömmelte. A 2018 study published in the journal Antiquity describes the discovery of “deviant burials” of women and children who had sustained skull traumas and rib fractures shortly before death. And while the study authors questioned whether “these individuals were ritually killed or if their death resulted from intergroup conflict, such as raiding,” they also noted “the victims of gender-specific violence, along with the corpses of the other individuals, were meaningful to the ritual activities” at Pömmelte.
Top image: The German Stonehenge at sunset in Pömmelte. Source: Mattis Kaminer / Adobe stock
By Ashley Cowie
Updated June 15, 2021.