Pömmelte, the German Stonehenge

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TWH – The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines a “henge” as “a circular Bronze Age structure (as of wood) with a surrounding bank and ditch found in England.” That definition is no longer accurate. Recent archeological work has found henges in central Germany.

One German henge, Pömmelte, has intriguing similarities with the more well-known Stonehenge. The entrances to the Pömmelte henge align with the sunrise on the cross-quarter days, an alignment may intrigue modern Pagans.

Reconstruction of the Pömmelte henge – Image credit: Georgfotoart, CC BY-SA 4.0

The henge at Pömmelte

In 2005, archaeologists began to excavate the Pömmelte henge. Radiocarbon dating resulted in the earliest possible date of 2300 B.C.E, and by 2050 B.C.E., locals had abandoned the henge.

An article, “The Ring Sanctuary of Pömmelte, Germany: A Monumental, Multi-Layered Metaphor of the Late Third Millennium BC,” reported on the Pömmelte Henge.

At the time of its abandonment, people burned the wooden parts of the henge. Those abandoning the site deposited its ashes in its postholes and its ditches. They also flattened all the embankments.

The Pömmelte henge consisted of a series of seven concentric circles. An outer post ring separated the henge from its environment, which had a diameter of 115 m (377.3 ft). The next two ditches formed concentric circles, with one ditch being just a fragment of a circle. The other ditch was a complete circle with segments missing.

A circular ring ditch came next. Archaeologists found 29 shaft-like pits in this ring ditch. Flat grave burials flanked the east side of that ring ditch. A tightly packed palisade formed the next inner concentric circle.

Two concentric circles of posts ringed the center. The innermost post ring had a diameter of 47 m (154.2 ft).

The article suggested that people can think of this henge in its final form as composed of four ritual zones, with concentric circles marking the borders of each zone. The effect of the design would be “the increasing regulation of access, the focusing of attention, the induction of meaning (e.g. mental or emotional), the formation of identity and symbolic—probably sacred—meaning, and, with proximity to the centre of the monument, the decreasing publicness of the (performative) activities and the number of persons involved therein.”

The authors of the article defined ritual as performance, and the henge functioning as a participatory theater. Audience members would’ve theoretically moved through the different zones, with each zone having a distinct ritual purpose. People could move from one zone to another through openings in the concentric circles.

Entryway through the palisade- Image credit: Torsten Maue, CC BY-SA 2.0

Zone 1 ran from the outer post ring of wooden planks to the inner segmented ditch that ringed the henge. The public would have had easy access to this zone. A wide range of activities could have occurred here.

Zone 2 ranged from the wooden palisade to the inner circle of posts. Deeper into the henge, this zone, had somewhat restricted access. People would have had to pass from Zone 1 to Zone 2. This zone would have been an arena for public performance.

Zone 3 ranged from the inner circle of posts to the deepest parts of the henge. It would have provided a stage-like atmosphere for public ritual performance.

Zone 4 ranged from the segmented ring ditch to the wooden palisade. In this zone, non-public ritual activities would have occurred. Excavators found offerings buried in shaft pits in this zone.

The shaft pits in the ring ditch

Zone 4 contained the shaft pits. Within some of those pits, excavators found drinking vessels and cow bones. Other pits contained skeletons of women and children. Their bones indicated a violent death.

Excavators only found stone axes in the southwestern area of Zone 4. Querns, a primitive way to grind grain, were only found in the northeastern area of Zone 4. Some areas may have been reserved for particular offerings.

The nearby village

Archaeologist Franziska Knoll described the site as “the largest Early Bronze Age settlement we know of in Central Europe … We’ve found sixty-five houses so far. This must have been a really significant place.”

For 300 years, Pömmelte had a village, as a nearby neighbor. The longhouses of that village faced west to east. People entered through a door on the southern side. Those houses varied in length from 15.2 m (50 ft.) to 30.5 (100 ft) long. Knoll does not believe that only one family lived in each house.

According to Knoll, Pömmelte has some of Germany’s best black earth soil. That soil would have resulted in a harvest that could support a large Bronze Age village. People grew emmer or hulled wheat and raised cows, sheep, and goats. They also collected mussels from the Elbe River.

Archaeologists have mapped 65 houses. Radiocarbon dating showed a sequential pattern. Only a dozen houses may have stood at any one time. Knoll estimates that each house held 20 to 30 people. In early Bronze Age Northern Europe, that would have been a large settlement.

Excavators found some pits with wooden floors, dirt steppes, and ceramic vessels. Knoll said these pits “might have served as a kind of prehistoric fridge, cooling its contents.” At one point, the pits became trash deposits, were covered, and then abandoned.

Similarities with Stonehenge

For the last 15 years, archaeologists have discovered similarities between Pömmelte and Stonehenge. Knoll described both structures as siblings.

The design and scale of Pömmelte and Stonehenge have much in common. Joshua Pollard noted that a family resemblance existed between these monuments. He has argued that people from both sites had regular contact with one another, sharing the same culture.

Pömmelte – Image credit: Torsten Maue –  CC BY-SA 2.0

A major difference exists between Pömmelte and Stonehenge. The main gateway at Stonehenge was aligned with sunrise on the summer solstice. Pömmelte’s main entrance was aligned with the sunrise on what modern Pagans call cross-quarter days and aligned to the astronomical halfway point between solstices and equinoxes.

“We call it the German Stonehenge because the beginnings are the same. It’s got the same diameter, just a different orientation,” Knoll said. “They’re built by the same people.” Older than Pömmelte, Stonehenge may even have been the blueprint for the German site. “It’s not coincidental,” says Knoll. “It’s coming from the same culture, the same view of the world.”

Intriguingly, people had broken or damaged many of the offerings before depositing them in shaft pits. This practice appears comparable to the ancient Celtic practice of breaking artifacts before sacrificing them. Not enough evidence exists to definitively link these practices, but the similarities are tantalizing.