History Stories

The shattered bones of women, teens and young children recently discovered at an ancient archaeological site known as the “German Stonehenge” may offer evidence of ritual human sacrifice in Bronze Age Europe.

The victims’ last moments appear to have been violent ones, as evidenced by detached limbs, shattered ribs and severe skull trauma, according to a newly published study by archaeologists André Spatzier and François Bertemes in the journal Antiquity. Entitled “The ring sanctuary of Pömmelte, Germany: a monumental, multi-layered metaphor of the late third millennium BC,” the article spotlights recent discoveries in the circular enclosure of Pömmelte, believed to be the first Central European monumental complex of largely sacred importance to be excavated and studied in detail. (Located southwest of Berlin, it was first discovered in 1991, spotted from a plane.) Because of its layout and the astrological orientation of its entrances, Pömmelte has been widely compared to Britain’s Stonehenge, earning the nickname “Woodhenge” for its locust-tree log construction.

Ringheiligtum Poemmelte

An overview of Ringheiligtum Pömmelte, also known as ‘Germany’s Stonehenge.’ (Credit: Peter Gercke/AFP/Getty Images)

Used for some 300 years during the transition from the Final Neolithic to the Early Bronze Age, Pömmelte consisted of seven concentric henge-like rings comprised of several ditches, pits and banks. The damaged, dismembered bodies were found in positions suggesting that they had been thrown into shafts,  co-mingled with ritual objects such as pottery fragments, drinking vessels, animal bone fragments and stone axes. “As these objects had been used as ritual paraphernalia,” the authors write, “taboo demanded their destruction and permanent disposal as ‘sacred waste.’ ”

The authors don’t totally rule out the possibility that these deaths occurred due to an attack or raid from an outside group. But because no men were included among the dead, and the bodies were buried with ritual objects, the authors see these as “deviant burials” that were “meaningful to the ritual activities related to the shafts.”

Elsewhere in the complex, excavations revealed 13 simple graves of men ages 17 to 30 that stood in clear contrast with the shaft burials. Buried with their unmolested bodies facing east, possibly reflecting “the association of death and sunrise, symbolizing belief in reincarnation or an afterlife,” the authors wrote, the men likely enjoyed high social status.

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