All  
A reconstruction of Germany's Pömmelte.

Evidence of Human Sacrifice and Death Rituals Found at the German Woodhenge

Print

The 4,300 year old woodhenge of Pömmelte in Germany is finally beginning to give up its secrets - and some of the information we’re learning is quite grisly. The battered skeletons of women and children suggest that prehistoric rituals at the henge site included acts of human sacrifice.

According to Science, the archaeological team unearthed the remains of 10 women, teenagers, and children in one section of the site. All of the skeletons appeared to have been haphazardly thrown into burial pits and four of them showed evidence of having received fractured skulls and broken ribs soon before their death.

An analysis of the findings are presented in a paper in the journal Antiquity by André Spatzier, an archaeologist at the State Office for the Preservation of Historic Monuments at Baden-Württemberg, and co-researcher François Bertemes, an archaeologist at Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg in Germany. The researchers suggest that the women, teenagers, and children were likely victims of human sacrifice, or perhaps killed during a raid. The appearance of ritually broken objects alongside their remains further supports the idea of sacrifice and the lack of male skeletons in those pits contradicts the possibility of a raid.

Concentric circles of posts and ditches at Pömmelte, Germany, are part of a reconstruction of a prehistoric ritual site. (Jens Wolf/picture alliance/dpa)

Concentric circles of posts and ditches at Pömmelte, Germany, are part of a reconstruction of a prehistoric ritual site. ( Jens Wolf/picture alliance/dpa )

Yet excavations did reveal the skeletal remains of men at another part of the site. Those graves were simple, and no artifacts were included. However, Spatzier and Bertemes write that the men who were buried near the woodhenge were probably elite members of their society. They were between 17-30 years old and “were buried in concordance with Bell Beaker and Únětice mortuary customs for men, although adapted to the circular layout.” Another interesting detail about these graves is the suggestion of a belief in something awaiting the deceased after death, “The general orientation of these burials to face east and their location in the enclosure's eastern half reflect the association of death and sunrise, symbolising belief in reincarnation or an afterlife.”

A reconstruction of Germany's Pömmelte. (FrankBothe/CC BY SA 4.0)

A reconstruction of Germany's Pömmelte. (FrankBothe/ CC BY SA 4.0 )

Artifacts were also unearthed at the woodhenge. Butchered animal bones, stone mills (querns), axes, and ceramic drinking vessels were all found. The researchers provided this interpretation of the layout of the skeletons and artifacts:

“The distribution of certain types of finds and features facilitate more tangible interpretations. Stone axes and querns derive exclusively from deliberate depositions, and therefore testify to intentional associations of space and meaning: querns were found in the enclosure's north-eastern sectors, and stone axes in the south-western half. Querns are symbols of femaleness, fertility, life and death, transformation and subsistence. Axes are associated with maleness, as they represent status insignia linked to high-ranked male warriors in the Corded Ware and Únětice Cultures. Thus, the contrasting distributions of querns and axes at Pömmelte may symbolise opposite yet complementary gendered spheres related to fertility and reproduction. Interestingly, quern fragments derive exclusively from non-depositional contexts in the same area as the intentionally deposited querns. This demonstrates that material culture patterning of structured deposits in Pömmelte most probably results from ritualised practices, rather than from ‘everyday’ activities.”

Model of the spatial organization of the Pömmelte enclosure. (André Spatzier)

Model of the spatial organization of the Pömmelte enclosure. ( André Spatzier )

The Pömmelte site was in use for at least 300 years, from the Late Neolithic to the Early Bronze age, so it is not surprising that the recent analysis of excavations which took place there between 2005-2008 show that it likely served purposes beyond rituals associated with death.

Similar to Stonehenge and other European henges from the time, it seems that the movement of celestial bodies had an impact on the construction of the site. Pömmelte’s four entrances correspond with the days that lay halfway between the equinoxes and the solstices, “an important time for agrarian communities,” Spatzier said . It does not seem likely that anyone actually lived at Pömmelte though.

The woodhenge of Pömmelte has four entrances that correspond with the days laying halfway between the equinoxes and the solstices. (CC0)

The woodhenge of Pömmelte has four entrances that correspond with the days laying halfway between the equinoxes and the solstices. ( CC0)

Top Image: A reconstruction of Germany's Pömmelte.  Source: Diwan/ CC BY SA 4.0

By Alicia McDermott

Next article